Sargasso. 0845 hours.
Wind rustled the trees. In the sticky warmth of the swamp, insects chirped and whined. And slogging through it all…
"This is foul."
The lead Cragmite was not happy. He was shorter than the others, so mud at waist height for them was chest height for him, and he was finding it hard going.Ratchet wasn't having a good time either. Drake and Jasmine could fly above the mire, but he didn't have that luxury. He didn't complain, however. Considering where they were going, this was nothing…
Gradually the swamp thinned and the trees grew in closer. Before long they stood on solid ground.
"Thank god." grumbled the squad leader, a captain by the name of Breznan. "I hate swamps. Lombax, how far are we?"
"I have a name, you know. And we're about a kilometre away, give or take."
"Stay quiet, then. There could be patrols around."
At his signal, the Cragmites fanned out and began to move forward, weapons primed. For the first few hundred metres, there was silence, then…
"Movement!" one of the female Cragmites whispered.
Captain Breznan levelled his gun on the spot she was indicating. Sure enough, a distant rustle was heard.
"Sergeant Halifax, intercept." he ordered. She nodded and vanished into the shrubs. There was a tense silence. Ratchet and Jasmine raised their wrenches, the Cragmites cocked their guns. From his perch in a tree, Drake strained his senses, trying to identify the danger. There was no sound. Even the birds were quiet.
"Hey, get off me! I'm just passing through, I'm no threat! Please don't kill me, I'll do anything! Anything!"
"Lower your weapons. I know who this is…"
Sure enough, Sergeant Halifax emerged dragging Captain Qwark along with her. He looked considerably the worse for wear, covered in scratches and bruises, but considering he'd just been captured by a Cragmite, that was hardly surprising.
"What are you doing here?" Jasmine said, scowling. "Last I saw you, you were running away trying to save your own skin!"
"Oh, that. Just…dropping back, considering other options, seeing which way the wind was blowing, that kinda thing. Probably should have picked a ship with more fuel though. I've been stuck here for days trying to find civilisation."
"You do realise you're less than half a kilometre away from Kaos's stronghold, right?"
An expression of pure terror flashed across his face, to be replaced by his usual expression of idiotic confidence.
"Sure! Knew that all along. Had an attack all planned out…"
One of the Cragmites tapped Jasmine on the shoulder.
"You know this nim-rod?" he rasped.
"Unfortunately. Look, Qwark, we're in the middle of a rescue mission right now, we can't have you in the-oh no, not the puppy dog eyes…"
She sighed and gritted her teeth.
"Fine. But we're in charge. Got it?"
"Excuse me, but who's the intergalactic hero here?"
He fried under their glares.
You're in charge. Sure thing."
He noticed Drake for the first time. The slim Zenithi had hopped down for a closer look at the famous "hero".
"Hey. I didn't know you had a pet!" He scooped the startled Drake up in a hug.
"Oh, he's adorable! What's the little guys name?"
"Put me down, you overgrown Lummox!"
Qwark dropped him like a hot brick. Drake shook his feathers and sniffed huffily.
"That is the second time I've been called a pet, and by god it shall be the last! My name is Drake, you imbecile, and for your information I could out think you three times over. Then again, so can yeast…"
There was a chorus of muffled sniggers from the squad, and Jasmine suppressed a smirk.
"Good one, Drake."
They crept forwards. Ahead of them, the bush stopped suddenly, opening out into a clearing, and the loading bay of the stronghold. A shiver ran through all present as they felt the sheer malignant evil flowing from it. Jasmine peered through a gap in the shrubs, taking in the scene. She bit her lip. It was lightly guarded, sure enough, but the guards that were there…There were a few hypnotised Blargs. They would be easy. But the rest were Lombaxes, and ones she knew at that. There was Big Michael, built like a brick outhouse and about as smart. "Pen-pusher" Justin, former book keeper for the Mafia and rumoured to know a trick with a three ringed loose leaf binder that could raise your voice three octaves. And…She growled softly. Honey.
"We're in trouble." she said quietly. Ratchet nodded.
"Yeah, that big guy looks tough."
"Not him, he's a push over. Couldn't think his way out of a paper bag. And that skinny guys not very strong. Bit of a coward, really. It's Honey you want to look out for."
He took a closer look at the petite female sitting demurely on a tree stump. She was, there was no other word for it, adorable. Unlike the others, who had retained their prison gear, she had managed to find a school girl, sailor suit style dress, the navy blue contrasting nicely with her pure golden fur. With her child like facial features and sweet smile, she looked as dangerous as Drake. Then she looked up, and Ratchet caught his breath. Her eyes were a clear, bottle green, relatively normal. Except for the pupils. One pupil was a normal size, the other, a pin head sized dot. She was small and slender, but Ratchet could see she would be a hard fight. Madness, true madness, could drive a fist through a plank, and the light of insanity shone from those mismatched eyes. He suddenly noticed how the other Lombaxes were maintaining a careful distance from her, tails between their legs. They're terrified… He realised.
"I take it you've tangled with her before?" He whispered.
"More than that. I grew up with her."
All eyes turned in her direction.
"We were in the same orphanage. Everybody felt sorry for her 'cause she lost her parents at a young age. In retrospect, they probably shoulda looked into that a bit more. The orphanage was a happy place. Until she came along.."
The heat and humidity of Sargasso faded, and Jasmine was nine, bundled up against the cold that bit hard, even indoors. She had turned a corner, to find Honey had tied one of the younger children to a wagon, preparing to send him down the stairs. She had intervened, and Honey had attacked, screeching like a demon and biting Jasmine's ear all the way through. Jasmine's screams, and the wails of the bound toddler had attracted Tobias, the owner of the orphanage, who seperated the girls, listened to their stories, and then promptly sent Honey to her room, ignoring her protests of "I was only playing!" The toddler had been rescued and comforted by a hug, and Jasmine had been taken to Tobias's office.
"Honestly, Jasmine." he had said, pulling out the first aid kit. "That's the third fight you've been in this week! This isn't like you."
She winced as he dabbed disinfectant on the bite.
"It's Honey, Uncle Toby! She's so mean all the time!"
He carefully wrapped a bandage around her ear, a distant expression on his bearded, grey furred face.
"Yes, she is, isn't she?"
"Why does she have to be so horrible all the time?"
He had been silent, then knelt in front of her with a serious expression.
"Can you keep a secret, Jasmine? I don't want the other children knowing this. I'm jolly old Uncle Tobias, I'm not not meant to think these things."
"I think there's something wrong with her."
"You mean like she's sick?"
"Sick in the head." he said slowly, clearly unhappy about saying it.
"What do you mean?" Jasmine had said, confused.
"You know the little voice in your head that tells you the difference between right and wrong?"
"Well, that's called your conscience, and it's a very important part of you. Without a conscience, people would do what they like with no thought for the consequences. Everyone has one. Except Honey. Honey does what she wants with no care for anyone else. That's a dangerous thing, especially when she grows up. If nothing is done, she could kill someone, yet nothing I do gets through to her."
He thought for a moment.
"Jasmine, I have a special, big-girl job for you."
She sat up straighter and tried to look important, in actual fact just looking rather constipated.
"I want you to look out for the younger ones. They can't protect themselves from her, and I can't be everywhere at once. Keep an eye on Honey and keep the little ones safe. You wish to be a Praetorian Guardsman like your mother? They make a vow to protect the innocent. Consider this early practice."
She gave a clumsy salute.
"You can count on me, Uncle Toby! I won't let you down!"
He had hugged her, smiling.
"I thought you'd say that, Jasmine-"
"Jasmine? Jasmine? Hel-looo? You there?"
She blinked, snapping out of her recollections.
"Looks like you got mugged down memory lane. You were saying you grew up together?"
"Yeah, she stayed at the orphanage-until she was sixteen, then she finally did what Uncle Tobias had been scared she would do for years." She took a deep breath. It had been ages ago, but the guilt still burnt as brightly as if it had first happened. "She killed a kid. After…it…happened, she ran off. No one heard of her for years. We all thought an Ishkhan had eaten her. And good riddance, too. Then the police contacted the Praetorian Guard. Usually, the Guard deals with threats to the Lombax race as a whole, Ishkhans and so forth. But sometimes, if they really need it, the cops ask us for help. They needed it Honey was back. Ten people killed in the space of a fortnight. She was a tricky one. They knew who was doing it, but catching her was a different matter. She's very good at what she does. Because I knew her best, that case was assigned to me. I managed to track her down to an abandoned warehouse and apprehend her." She absently brushed a scar on her bicep, a perfect set of bite marks. "She put up a hell of a fight, but I got her in the end She's probably got a hell of a grudge against me, though. This won't be easy."
Qwark spoke up.
"I have a plan…"
Ratchet rolled his eyes.
"Oh, good grief…"
"Those boys look pretty susceptible to a pretty face. I will disguise myself as the lovely nurse Shannon, and distract them long enough for you to sneak past!"
Jasmine shook her head.
"A: that's suicide, and B: even if we were going to do that plan, which we are not, I would be the one in disguise as I am actually female."
"But I have plenty of practice. I used to be in and out of dresses all the time!"
He looked around at the ring of stunned faces and sighed.
"Drama classes? You know, acting?"
There was a collective sigh of relief. Sergeant Halifax nudged Ratchet.
"Please tell me he was joking about the Nurse Shannon thing." she muttered.
"He's done it before."
There was a pause. Then-
"I didn't need that mental picture."
Pushing that rather disturbing image from his mind, Drake threw his head back, high strange notes ringing from his throat, carrying with them a message. There was a rustle from the bushes, and a Zenithi darted out, deposited a small bag at Drake's feet, and disappeared. He nudged the bag carefully.
"Sleeping dust. It should get the guards out of our way quickly."
Captain Breznan nodded approvingly.
"Good plan. Short, sweet and to the point. I like it!"
Drake gripped the bag in his jaws and disappeared. The squad turned their attention to the loading bay. There was silence, then without warning, a dense yellow fog rose up. There were a few shouts of surprise, abruptly cut off as the cloud obscured everything. For a moment, it was all they could see, then a breeze blew it away. All of the guards lay comatose, coated in fine yellow powder. Drake shook it off his feathers and nodded to them.
They ran out of the bushes, feeling very exposed, expecting at any minute a hail of bullets. They reached the loading bay doors with no trouble, however. Ratchet tested the door. It opened easily enough.
"Right, from here, we split up. We don't know where Clank and Zoe are, so we'll cover more ground that way. Me, Drake and Jasmine will head to the east wing, the rest of you split up into even groups and cover the rest of the strong hold. This feels like a trap, so stay alert and try and keep hidden if possible. Any questions?"
One of the other female Cragmites raised a claw.
"What do we do with this dumbass?" She motioned towards Qwark.
"Good question. He can go with you."
"Anything else? No? Good. Lets go."
The trio took off down the dark corridor, hands on weapons. They stopped for breath at a junction.
"This is nuts." Jasmine muttered. "This place is like a friggin' maze. Clank could be anywhere! We'll never find him at this rate."
"I've got it!"
They looked over at Drake, who jabbed his tail at an air vent in the ceiling.
"If you can remove the cover, I can use the air vents to scout around. There's a chance I can either find him, or over hear his location."
Ratchet fired his constructo-pistol, and the grill covering the vent flew off, a twisted hunk of metal.
"Good luck." he said.
Drake nodded, and was gone.
"I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…n."
"Yay! You win again! You're good at this game, mister Clank."
Clank smiled. The two girls had really started to grow on him during his imprisonment. Zoe was bright and vivacious, a real character. And Shona didn't speak much, but when she did, she had clearly been turning it over in her head for some time. A very smart girl indeed. He wished he could see what species she was, but the security features had some kind of jamming system, rendering some of his operations, including his bioscanner useless. All he could make out in the gloom was the occasional movement and gleam of light off an eye.
"OK, now it's your turn!" said Zoe.
"Alright. Hmm, let's see…I-"
A thumping in the ceiling brought him to a halt. It seemed to be coming from the ventilation shaft.
"What is that?" whispered the voice of Shona.
"Rats?" suggested Clank.
"I'm scared of rats…"
The rustling grew louder, stopping over a grill. There was a pause, then a thud. The grill rattled. Another thud nearly loosened it completely. Zoe whimpered softly. One final thud sent it clattering to the floor…and a sleek green shape slipped out. Clank gasped in surprise as Drake scrabbled for purchase, bird-like feet gripping the lip of the opening as he dangled upside down, wings flapping. He twisted his neck, took in the scene below and vanished, reappearing in front of Clanks cage.
"There you are! You had us worried there for a moment!"
"Drake! I am very glad to see you! Is Ratchet here?"
"Somewhere. I've been scouting the ventilation ducts trying to find you. I'll get Ratchet. Now you've been found, we can get you out of here. I'll need to find Ratchet."
"Can you not simply teleport us out of here?"
"No. The cage is too small. I would teleport inside you as well. Top appear inside a solid object is a messy way to die. It would traumatise the little ones here." He nodded to the two girls, now watching him with interest. Zoe spoke up.
"You look like my old pet lizard."
"Zoe! That is very rude!"
Drake merely chuckled.
"No matter, Clank. Such is the way of children. Sit tight. I won't be long."
"Mr Clank, who was that?" asked Zoe.
"A friend. Help is at hand, little ones. We will be out of here shortly."
Zoe did a little dance.
"I'll get to see my daddy again!" she giggled.
"Shhh!" Shona hissed. "Listen…"
There was the distant sound of gun fire, drawing ever nearer, the thud of a wrench on flesh, and the distinctive sound of hover boots. A few seconds later, the door blew in. Ratchet holstered his negotiator.
"Heya, pal." he said, as calmly as though he'd just come back from the store. "Jasmine won't be long. She's covering my back. Drake said there were kids here. That true?"
"That's gonna make things more complicated. First things first, though…"
His wrench sheared through the cage locks, and they swung open. Before he knew what hit him, Ratchet was barrelled over by a ballistic baby Cragmite.
"Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" Wow, you're Ratchet, huh? I always wanted to meet you. Daddy says you're a hero, what's it like? Is it dangerous? Do you-?"
"Whoa, hold on there!" Ratchet carefully peeled her off. "We gotta get you out of her. Drake said two. Where's the other one?"
Shona had not left her cage. The room was still dark, and all Ratchet could see was her huge round eyes, cloudy with terror.
"It's OK." He said softly, reaching out slowly towards the open cage. "I'm a friend. I'm not going to-Arrgh!"
Reacting with the speed of terror, the girl in the cage had lashed out. Whatever she was, she had claws.
Ratchet clamped a hand over his forearm, trying to slow the bleeding.
"Jeez! I won't hurt you, kid! I'm trying to rescue you!"
Jasmine shot into the room.
"I heard screaming.What happened?"
"The girl in the cage is pointy and scared. Bad combination."
Jasmine knelt down and smiled.
"Come on, sweety. We're the good guys. I'm Jasmine, and this is Ratchet. What's your name?"
The whisper was so quiet she nearly missed it.
"Nice to meet you, Shona. Come on out. It's OK."
Shona slowly crept out, and Ratchet gasped.
She was a Lombax. He could dimly make out soft blonde fur and a worn and faded hospital gown. And she was changed. Claws flashed on the end of her fingers as her hands flexed nervously.
"Sorry for scratching you, Mr Ratchet." she whispered. Fangs glittered in the light from Clank's eyes as she did so.
"Ratchet, I know this girl!" Jasmine said.
"Not personally, but I know where she came from. There was a kidnapping at an orphanage a few years back. A little girl got stolen. No-one could find her, they assumed an Ishkhan got her."
"Looks like Kaos did a number on her." Ratchet said sadly.
Jasmine looked over at the row of computers in the lab.
"Clank, you any good at hacking?"
"This girl was modified for a reason. I want to find out why. It stands to reason the plans should be on the computer."
Clank nodded and fired up the computer, filling the room with flickering blue light from the screen.
"Hmp, they call this security?." he said. "This is hardly a challenge!"
A number of files appeared on screen. Jasmine selected one at random.
"Holy crap! This girl was a test subject! Kaos was planning on genetically modifying all the guards in her service!"
Drake appeared in the room.
"The Cragmites have the forces distracted. We don't have much time. What's taking so long?"
They quickly brought him up to date, and he shook his head.
"Such evil… Delete those files. We need genetically modified foes like we need a hole in the head!"
A few button presses, and the information was lost forever. Drake nodded in satisfaction.
"Good. I'll take the children. They don't weigh much, I should be able to teleport both of them outside the stronghold. There are other Zenithi out there, they can watch them until you've made it out."
"Good. We'll stay here. We need to get that squad out of there safely. No-one is dying on my watch."
"Fair enough. Good luck. I may be some time, Shona looks like she may take some convincing to come with me."
Ratchet clicked Clank into his harness and shot out the door, Jasmine hot on his heels, hoverwings whirring.
"Drake was right." she said as the ran down seemingly endless corridors. "This was meant to be a trap. That's why security was beefed up."
"So why aren't we bullet riddled corpses by now?"
"The Cragmites! The Lombaxes saw them and scattered, and most of the Blarg are complete zombies. They were no problem. We have the upper hand!"
"No, you don't."
They ground to a halt. Standing in the corridor, smiling serenely, Honey blocked their way. The sleeping dust had worn off. A pair of knives glittered in her hands.
"I'm not scared of Cragmites. They aren't so tough. I ran into one just now." They noticed the blood on the blades. "I don't know if it's dead or not. I hit it pretty hard but it vanished." She pouted.
Her crazed eyes flicked in Jasmines direction, and her angelic smile distorted into a vicious snarl.
"I remember you. Uncle Toby's pet! He always liked you best!
"That's because you used to hurt the other children! They were scared of you! You were a violent thug!"
Honey gave a wolfish grin.
"Everyone needs a hobby, Jazzy."
"Enough talking! Stand aside or face the consequences!"
"That sounds like a challenge." said Honey.
She attacked. Ratchet barely saw her move as she charged right at them, giggling like a schoolgirl and slashing out with her blades. Ratchet winced as one of her knives cut a nick in his tail, somersaulting backwards to avoid getting the other one in his gut. Clank whispered in his ear and he nodded, feeling him detach from the harness a moment later. The tiny robot hit the floor, rolled, and fumbled in his chest compartment, hoping it was still there. Ah…
Honey looked up. Clank was brandishing a small blaster, scowling threateningly at her.
"One move and I will shoot!"
She laughed derisively.
"With that pea shooter? Hah! That little weapon doesn't scare me!"
"Yes. This is a little weapon. A little weapon like this would not scare a woman like you, as it is such a little weapon. It would need a bigger weapon that this to scare you."
Honey froze as the tip of Ratchet's Negotiator touched the back of her neck.
"Now, the weapon behind you," Clank continued. "That is a big weapon."
"You wouldn't dare fire that inside!" She hissed. "That's a siege weapon! It'll go right through the wall!"
"Eventually." Ratchet said, coolly.
Jasmine made to move around towards the exit, than froze. Ratchet was oblivious to Honey's hand creeping up slowly, a knife glinting in the over head lights. She made to call out a warning, only to have Drake beat her to it. The Zenithi appeared over Honey's shoulder and lashed out with his teeth in one swift movement, sinking his fangs into the base of her ear. Jasmine expected her to scream in pain, so Honey collapsing in a crumpled heap was quite a surprise.
"I hit a pressure point." Drake explained. "She should be out of it for a while. The girls are safe. I left them with scout group A. We need to get out of here. Kaos will no doubt know her trap is failed. She won't be impressed."
"What about the Cragmites?" said Ratchet. "We can't leave them here!"
"Scout group B is rounding them up. Let's go!"
Patches stepped into the dark chamber of Kaos, the beads in her dreadlocks clicking with each step.
"It isn't going well, Ma'am. The trap has failed."
"They say-" Patches swallowed, hardly daring to believe it herself, and praying it was just rumour. "They say that Cragmites are aiding them."
"Cragmites, hmm?" said Kaos. "I did warn their Emperor what would happen if he meddled. Do you have a knife on you, by any chance?"
Patches nodded, drawing a knife from her belt. Kaos took it, a cold smile on her face.
"Thank you. Go and see if you can head them off. Block exits and so forth."
"What will you be doing?"
"Me? I'm going to cut the little Cragmites throat. Remember this for future reference, Patches. I don't bluff."
She stepped out, padding down the corridor, tossing the knife in the air and catching it idly. She was a little annoyed that she was losing such a valuable hostage, but she had warned her father quite clearly. It was his fault if he refused to listen…
Absorbed in her thoughts, she was hardly paying attention to where she was going. And nearly walked straight into Jasmine.
For a moment, there was no movement, everyone frozen in shock
Kaos unfroze first as she caught sight of-
"Drake!" She hissed, raising the knife. "You dare invade my space? I should have killed you years ago!"
The knife was flung expertly, but Drake was no longer there. He reappeared further down the corridor.
"Go! Whatever you do, don't look in her eyes!"They burst into action, Jasmine hurling down a smoke bomb as they fled. Thick grey smoke filled the corridor, obscuring Kaos completely. Her shouts echoed down the corridor after them.
"Guards! Guards! They're here! Down this way! Kill them!"
There was a burst of purple in Ratchets vision and Sergeant Halifax was running next to him. She grabbed his arm in a clawed hand.
"The entrances are blocked. It's suicide that way! Hold your breath!"
He saw another Cragmite grab hold of Jasmine, then his vision went black as the Cragmite warped. It was worlds away from the Zenithis warm rush of air. There was darkness, cold and pressure. He was trapped, his whole body caught in a vice. Instinctively, he gasped for breath, and his eyes widened as no air reached his lungs. He jerked spasmodically, straining for breath. Frost was forming on his fur-then there was light, and warmth, and air. The foetid air of Sargasso had never tasted so sweet as he gulped it down, grateful for each breath. There was a gasp behind him as Jasmine reappeared, ice already steaming off her fur in the warm climate. Zoe and Shona were watching curiously, a crowd of Zenithi surrounding them protectively, and Qwark was sitting against a tree with a blanket around him, a scattering of frost still shining on his leotard. He sneezed miserably. Shona caught his eye and gave him a shy wave. Clank detached himself from his harness.
"That was interesting. Are you alright, Ratchet?"
"Yeah…fine…just…just give me a bit…"
"I told you to hold your breath." Sergeant Halifax said casually. He noticed she was nursing a nasty cut on her arm.
"I take it…you met…Honey?" he said between gasps.
"Huh. So that was her name. Crazier than an outhouse rat, that one. Take it from me. Once you lot get your breath back, we'll set up the teleport pad back to the ship. I'm pretty certain you ain't keen on warping again."
Ratchet and Jasmine shook their heads, and she chuckled.
Drake appeared in a shimmer of air.
"We got out just in time. The place is swarming with guards. Kaos is in a right temper. Any casualties with your lot, Sergeant?"
"Couple injuries. Coulda been worse. Ready to leave, you guys? Good. Captain, we're ready!" She scuttled off.
Jasmine nudged ratchet and Clank.
"Notice how Kaos reacted to Drake?"
"Looks like we need to have a talk with him soon-" Ratchet whispered.
Captain Breznan marched over.
"We're moving out!"
"-But not now."
Cragmite warship. 0920 hours.
Jasmine stepped off the teleport pad, Zoe squirming in her arms, practically vibrating with glee. Behind her, Ratchet had acquired a shadow, Shona clinging to his legs and taking in the scene with huge scared eyes. She had begun to practically hero worship Ratchet after he had broken off the cage lock. She had attacked out of confusion and panic. Now she tailed him, scared to let him out of her sight.
"Daddy!" Zoe launched herself out of Jasmine's arms, hit the floor with all six legs and bounced up right into Emperor Markus's arms.
"Zoe! My little Zoe! You're alright! I was so worried, little one, you scared me…"
He looked up at the Lombaxes, tears of joy streaking down his cheeks.
"I…I cannot thank you enough. This means more to me than you can know. If there is anything, anything you need, it is yours."
"I think we're fine, thank you." said Drake. "The only thing we need, you can't give us. We're short on time. And if we're going to try and stay hidden from Kaos, a band of Cragmite warriors isn't exactly subtle. Er…no offence, of course."
Emperor Markus thought for a while, still holding his daughter as if to let go would be to lose her again.
"Actually, I think there is something I can do." He said, finally. "My war ship is fully armed, and now I have my daughter back, there is nothing to stop me unleashing holy hell on her forces. We can thin the ranks of her fleets. My soldiers are well trained in guerilla tactics.We may even be able to stop her invading other fleets. Only…" His face saddened. "It would be dangerous." He looked down at Zoe, then at Drake. Gently, he lowered Zoe to the floor.
"Run and play with your little friend over there, I need to have a word with Drake."
Drake obediently fluttered onto the Emperor's shoulder as he walked a little distance away.
"Your planet, it has never been discovered, correct?"
"Do you…do you think-"
"-Zoe would be safe there?" Drake finished. "I am a father myself. I understand how you must feel. To send your child away when you only just got her back must be painful, but you are doing the right thing. If you plan on attacking Kaos's fleet, Zoe must be kept safe. A war is no place for a child. She is welcome with us."
He walked back to the others.
"We are going to be doing some very dangerous things soon, sweet heart. If we're going to stop Kaos, we have to. And I don't want to see you get hurt out there. So, until it's safe…Until it's safe Drake has offered for his friends to take care of you on his planet. It shouldn't be for long."
For a moment, Zoe was quiet.
"Can Shona come?" she asked.
"Of course!" said Drake. "We wouldn't dream of leaving her behind!"
"Whee! It'll be just like a sleep over!" Zoe squeaked, hugging the bemused Shona.
"Well, she took that better than I expected." Markus said. "Take good care of her."
"I will. Ladies and Lombaxes, some Zenithi will be arriving shortly to take us to Elysium. There should be about 5 per person. If you relax, the transition will be easier. We must move fast. We lost more time than I was comfortable with on Sargasso. It's starting to get interesting…"
"You buffoons! You dull witted, yellow bellied nincompoops!"
Kaos was in a towering rage. As leaders, Miles, Steel and Patches had the unenviable role of reporting to her, and now they cowered back under the sheer force of her rage.
"I practically handed those Lombaxes to you on a plate and you still failed me! And for what? Cragmites? A Cragmite is only as strong as their king, and from what I've seen he's wetter than a snow omelette! The Cragmites are weak! They've lost their bite!"
Miles tried to sooth her.
"Ma'am, it was hardly their fault." He motioned towards the two Lombaxes, who glowered at him. "You can hardly blame 'em for being a little nervous about Cragmites, it's practically instinctive."
"You are correct. Their fear was understandable. But that isn't the only thing I'm upset about, Miles." she growled. "Those-" The word she used was so foul they practically fainted. "-Lombaxes deleted vitally important information from our computer! Countless hours of research gone! They even destroyed the back up files! I had huge plans, plans that now cannot go ahead due to you being unable to mobilise your troops correctly!" As she spoke, she had been edging Miles towards the window. They were several stories up.
"I have given you chance after chance because I felt you had potential. I see now I was wrong. Miles?"
With one swift move, she kicked him in the chest, sending him crashing through the window. There was a fading scream, and a distant thud.
"You may consider yourself second in command. Don't give me reason to regret that. You are dismissed."
They left, grateful they were still alive. Puffed up by his new found power, Steel went downstairs to lord it over the others, but Patches stayed where she was, leaning against the wall, half hidden in shadow. She was angry. Patches had ambition and plans, and being passed over niggled at her like a flea bite.
"So what did she say?" Honey had appeared with startling silence at her elbow.
"That block head Steel is her new right hand man." she said, starting to walk off.
"Oh, that's a shame. I know how much you wanted it." Patches had taken Honey under her wing when the young Lombax had first arrived in prison, and so had acquired the coveted status of "person Honey did not want to kill." She smiled indulgently and ruffled her young protege's golden brown hair.
"No matter. I know Steel.He's not the sort to be second in command for long. He'll try to take over. We don't have to do anything. All we have to do is wait, and he'll destroy himself for us!"
Their laughter echoed through the halls of the stronghold.
Elysium. 0930 hours.
"Good to be back, huh?"
"Oh yes, Ratchet. I must confess, apart from the temple, I am staring to quite like this place!"
The girls had liked it too. Shona especially. Having spent more than half her life in a cage, the glory of Elysium had overwhelmed her. Zoe was happy as well, busy making friends with the young Zenithi. The shrieks and giggles of a boisterous game of tag echoed through the clearing.
"You gave Qwark the wrong directions, right?" said Jasmine, flicking through Rare and unique crystals of Polaris.
"Yep. Good thing he believed the "you're too heavy" excuse. He should wind up at Big Bob's Burger Barn."
"Nice one. We can't have him getting in the way. We're too close."
Clank shifted closer, lowering his voice.
"We are going to ask him now, right?"
Jasmine closed the book with a snap.
"Damn right. He's keeping something from us. Here he comes now."
Drake flew over.
"Deleting that information has shifted the Balance. If I'm not mistaken-" He checked the Brr-Tanya. "We have another half a day of time available. We should take advantage of this and start looking for the next crystal."
"Not yet, Drake." said Jasmine.
"You're going to answer some questions for us."
Drake looked hunted.
"Questions? What questions?"
"Like how Kaos knows you." said Clank. "You said you didn't even know where to start looking for her, yet she recognised you instantly. If there is something you are not telling us-"
"It's nothing, all right?" Drake said defensively. "None of your business!"
Jasmine glared at him.
"Knowledge is power, Drake. If you know something about Kaos, we need to know it too. It could be the difference between life and death! This is urgent. What are you not telling us?"
He knew he was beaten, nevertheless still attempting to procrastinate.
"You would hardly believe me…"
Ratchet gave a mirthless laugh.
"I've seen a clock responsible for the space time continuum and am fighting the ultimate incarnation of evil alongside a race of winged lizards. Nothing you say can surprise me!"
Drakes next words proved him wrong.
"She's my daughter…"