Preatorian Guard outpost. 0700 hours.
Ginger hurled her wrench at the ground in a temper.
She had arrived at the room the jump-gate was stored in intending to do some last-minute adjustments, only to find part of it dented and broken. The cameras were shattered, and the Lombax guarding it was comatose on the floor. There was the clatter of boots behind her as General Cross charged in.
"Ginger, what's…Oh." He took in the damage.
"Well, at least this one's pretty minor." he said, with a sickly grin.
"We don't have time for this s#$!" she roared, slamming her fist down on a table. "We don't have the resources, either! If this keeps up, I won't be able to fix it!"
The General gave Ginger a concerned look. The workers on Project Exodus were all a little antsy in light of the time limit recently imposed, but Ginger had made a complete 180 degree change in terms of personality. Gone was the gentle, quiet, cheerful engineer. The Ginger he was seeing lately was short tempered and snappy, lashing out at anyone who didn't comply with her orders fast enough. As chief engineer of the project, she had been given a lot of power, and she had no hesitation in using it. Even "Iron Liz" cringed from her these days. He didn't blame her. Behind Ginger's thick glasses, her green eyes burned with an inner fire. She was a Lombax on a mission, barely sleeping, barely eating. He didn't know how she managed to survive with her punishing routine, but survive she did, doing the work of ten Lombaxes with barely a whimper of exhaustion. Ginger's whole family had been wiped out by Ishkhans, she had no love for this place. This was the only hope they had, and she was clinging to it.
Still growling softly, she knelt down by the prone guard.
General Cross didn't even need to check.
"Nerve pinch. He'll probably be coming too any minute-"
The Lombax staggered to his feet, still dizzy from the the nerve pinch. He was a Captain, considered one of the more skilled in the Guard. It was rather worrying to think he had been taken down so easily.
"Anybody get the license number on that truck?"
"Are you alright, Captain?" inquired the General, catching the guards arm to prevent him falling.
"Y-yeah, fine. Dunno what happened. I heard a noise, turned around and next thing I know I'm waking up here." He noticed the damage and groaned, ears flat against his skull.
"Don't blame yourself, lad." said the General, kindly. "Your assailant was obviously very highly skilled. Why don't you go have a sit down and a nice cup of rockroot tea. That should have you back on your feet in no time."
The Captain blanched. Rock root tea was almost proverbial for its nastiness. Nonetheless, he still felt weak, so he saluted and staggered out, bumping into the door frame as he left. The General gave the damage a closer inspection.
"Hmm. That looks repairable."
"What I want to know is, who keeps doing this? No matter how much we increase security, they still keep getting through. This is the third time this has happened. At least they didn't hurt this guard too badly. They must have been in a hurry. What's the word on the last person we put on guard duty?"
"She's not expected to live."
Ginger lowered her ears sadly.
"There's only one theory that makes sense, but it's one you won't like. I suspect the saboteur is someone inside the Praetorian Guard."
Ginger looked physically ill. While not being as physically strong as the others, living in the Engineering department like a snail in its shell, she was a Guard to her core. The thought of honour betrayed sickened her.
"B-but that's impossible!"
"Just because it's never happened before doesn't mean it can't, I'm afraid. I'll arrange for an increase in security, you repair the damage."
And may God help us, He thought, as he left the room. Deep in his heart, he was afraid. This was the last hope they had. Time was running out. He had seen the reports, knew how low the birth rate was these days. There was no denying it. The Lombaxes were staring extinction in the face. Scientists had estimated total extinction in less than three generations. And someone wanted that. he shivered. If there was a traitor in the Guard, things looked bleak. But who would want extinction? What would they have to gain?
Dammit, Cain! Hurry up!
We're dying in here…
Meanwhile, on Elysium.
Golden, early morning sunlight illuminated the clearing, alive with the song and chatter of Zenithi. Ratchet leaned back against a tree and sighed with relief. Drake had insisted they take a short break. "You've made great progress." he had said. "But now, I think its time you three take a rest. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We still have time." They had gladly accepted.
Ratchet chuckled to himself as he watched Clank attempt to ward off the attentions of a horde of assorted young ones. Besides Zenithi chicks, there were fuzzy, chubby Feloisa kittens and even a few baby Yakunzu birds, looking like soft, fluffy cotton balls with feet and beaks. Robots were unknown on Elysium, so the "living metal man" was an object of great interest. In the distance he could hear the sound of Zoe and Shona laughing uproariously as they splashed around in the river trying to catch frogs. The young Lombax was recovering quickly from her ordeal, her tattered hospital gown replaced by a sturdy pair of over-alls "acquired" by the Zenithi. She was quicker to laugh now, and was starting to show signs of the Lombax cubs endless curiosity. The retractable claws given to her were proving to be useful in tree climbing, and her unearthly reflexes made her more agile in the treetops than even the Feloisa. Her and Zoe had formed a strong friendship, hardly ever apart. Ratchet smiled at the sight. He was getting rather attached to the young girl. He was glad to see her happy.
There was another plaintive cry from Clank.
"For the last time, leave me alone! I am trying to recharge!"
A Yakunzu chick pecked his ear curiously, and he gently waved it away. The tiny ball of fluff took the hint, and scurried over to play with Zoe and Shona. He found himself idly wondering where Jasmine was. She never seemed far away from his thoughts these days. Odd, that…
He made up his mind, getting to his feet and heading off to look for her, casually wandering through the myriad clearings of Elysium. He didn't rush. There was always something interesting going on that appealed to his Lombax curiosity. His sharp senses picked up the faint trace of Jasmine's scent, and he adjusted his course. Ratchet heard her before he saw her, the sound of fists on leather and soft grunts filtering through the bushes. When he stepped through, he narrowly avoided a fist to the face.
"Oh! Sorry, man. You should be more careful."
He quickly moved out of the way. Jasmine was boxing, lashing out bare-fisted at a straw stuffed dummy hanging from a tree. She had removed her breastplate for freedom of movement, and her dog tags glittered against a white tank top. She paused, brushing hair away from her eyes.
"So, what's up?"
"Just wandering. You call this taking a break? we're supposed to be relaxing!"
"I am! I happen to find pummelling things very relaxing."
He shook his head, grinning ruefully.
"You're strange, Jazz."
"Hey, define normal."
She turned back to the dummy, raining a blistering hail of punches onto its leather hide.
"Wow, you're pretty good at that." said Ratchet admiringly.
"Thanks. I always was more comfortable with hand to hand combat. You want a go?" She moved away from the dummy, giving him an encouraging smile.
"Uh, sure, I guess."
He stepped up, raised his fist…
"Stop, stop, stop. You're gonna break your thumb like that. Here, let me show you…"
She gently took his hands, adjusting the finger positions, and trying to ignore the sudden butterflies in her stomach. She had never been this close to him before. She could smell his warm, faint scent, feel his heart beating. Jasmine looked up at his face. Was it her imagination, or was he blushing slightly? She let go quickly, clearing her throat.
"Ahem..Well, there you go. Try it now."
Trying to ignore the blood rushing to his head, Ratchet took aim and let fly with a powerful right hook. Under the force of the blow, the dummy flew up, almost going horizontal. He turned to Jasmine, grinning with pride and momentarily forgetting the dummy that was now starting to swing back…
Jasmine chuckled and helped him up.
"First thing we learn in the Praetorian Guard: constant vigilance. OK, the first thing we learn is where the bathrooms are and how to get to our barracks, but you know what I mean."
"Guess I'm more comfortable with weapons, really."
"I'll say! You need lessons. Badly. You may be the best I've ever seen with weaponry-"
Ratchet preened smugly.
She grabbed his arm-
-latched onto a shoulder-
"-hand to hand-"
Ratchet found himself upside down in a bush, slightly hazy as to how he'd got there. It had happened so fast. He righted himself and grinned.
"You're gonna regret that that one…"
He launched himself at her, taking her by surprise. He had planned nothing more than a firm noogie, maybe a wet willy if he was feeling vindictive. So he was very surprised when they fell through the bushes onto thin air, rolling down a hidden slope. It was gentle and padded with moss, but they still had the air knocked out of them, coming to a breathless halt at the bottom. It took a little while for them to recover, until Jasmine suddenly realised. She was on top of Ratchet. The two were practically nose to nose, staring at each other in shock.
"Ratchet, Drake sent me to find-Oh, I am so sorry…" The sentence ended in syrup. They looked up. Clank was leaning on a tree stump, grinning in a way neither of them liked.
"I do hope I am not interrupting something."
They scrambled upright, stammering apologies and trying to avoid each others eye.
"As I was saying, Drake requests the pleasure of your company over in the main clearing."
Jasmine nodded, glad for something that would change the subject.
"Cool. Just let me get my armour and I'll meet you there."
She ran off, leaving Ratchet to walk back with Clank following alongside him, grinning knowingly.
"It was an accident!" Ratchet said hotly.
"We fell over!"
"I never said you did not…"
"Just…be quiet, OK?"
"I am not the one who keeps talking…"
Ratchet opened his mouth for a retort, than wisely shut it again, remaining in fuming silence the rest of the way. He felt…odd, tense and prickly, like he was out in a thunderstorm. His heart was beating painfully fast, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get the memory of her touch out of his head. It had sent sparks up and down his body, like she'd shocked him. What was happening? He'd never felt this way before…
Drake carefully folded up the bark paper he'd been writing on, making certain to keep his ink stained claws out of the way. Lacking opposable thumbs, Zenithi wrote by the simple means of dipping their talons in ink, efficient, but messy. He was sitting in his nesting hole, practically buried in soft nesting material. It often came as a surprise for others to learn that the luxurious woven, living tree houses were, in actual fact, for the Feloisa. The Zenithi favoured the more frugal approach, living in holes in tree trunks, lined with feathers and fluffy seed heads. In deference to his status, Drake's ancestral nesting hole was larger than most, with a storage hole for those things too precious to risk carrying around with him.
Drake had started keeping a journal of the mission so far. Writing calmed him, helped him focus his thoughts. But it wasn't working this time. The possible consequences of failure weighed heavy on his mind. He shrugged, and took the journal in his teeth, placing it within the hole as he readied himself to go and meet the others, plans and ideas already forming in his head. Until his head brushed against something that gave a faint rustle. For a moment, Drake was stiff as a board, then, slowly, he drew it out. It was a faded much folded piece of bark paper, ancient and beginning to crumble. Painted on it in once bright colours was a drawing, a child's crude sketch of a green Zenithi and a white Lombax, with black eyes, the latter holding the formers wing. Scrawled across the top, in untidy Lombax runes with half the letters the wrong way around was the legend:
"Me AnD DaDdy."
A tear ran down his sleek muzzle as he stared at the picture, one of the few reminders of a happier time, bringing back memories so sharp they stung. He gave a shuddering sigh and put it back, next to a scarlet feather and a few fragments of pale eggshell. Drake slipped out of the nest holes gloom into the golden light of Elysium. There was still darkness, though, darkness inside his head, an aching, gaping blackness. He tried to bury it, plastering a fake smile on his snout as he flew gracefully over to where Ratchet and Clank were waiting for him, the Lombax looking strangely pre-occupied.
"Hello, you two!" he said, with forced brightness. "Where's Jasmine?"
"She won't be long, she had to get her armour." said Ratchet. "What's up?"
"We found the crystal. It's a rare type of gem on Quantos. There are few known specimens. However, we were successful in pin-pointing the area one might be found. All we have to do is-oh dear."
Ratchet followed the direction of Drake's concerned gaze. On her way over to the others, Jasmine had bumped into none other than Angela Cross, who had been on an errand. The two now circled each other slowly, eyes locked and hackles raised. Ratchet could hear a steady, low yowling, like two cats ready to attack.
"You might want to break that up." advised Drake. "When Lombax females fight, things can get serious. I don't want them-too late."
A few very interesting moments followed as Ratchet managed to separate the two, during which he narrowly avoided getting bitten. Finally, however, he managed to pull them apart, and Angela stomped off with her nose in a sling and minus a few patches of fur.
"What is up with you two?" said ratchet.
"She annoys me."
"Sheesh, I'd hate to see what you do to someone you really don't like!"
Jasmine smoothed her ruffled fur, trying to look unconcerned. There was something about Angela that set her off every time. Was she somehow seeing the woman as a rival? Jasmine wondered, as they walked back over to Drake. She mentally chided herself. Don't be absurd! He's just a friend! Isn't he…?
"Watch where you're going!"
Lost in thought, Jasmine had nearly stepped on Drakes tail. She snapped back to reality.
Drake gave her an odd look.
"We're ready to move out."
Jasmine nodded grimly and shouldered her wrench.
Quantos. 0800 hours.
Ratchet carefully piloted Aphelion over the jungles of Quantos, looking for a good landing spot. Behind him in the back seat, Jasmine and Drake were looking distinctly the worse for wear. Quantos was quite some distance from Elysium, so Ratchet had used warp drive. Drake shut his eyes and sank his head down onto the seat, trying to keep his breakfast from coming back up. He regretted wholeheartedly his decision to ride with the others. It may save precious energy and have a lovely view, but it just wasn't worth it!
Ratchet brought Aphelion down near a cliff side village. As they stepped (or in Jasmine and drakes case, fell) out of Aphelion, they were quickly surrounded by curious Fongoids. Once she got her nausea under control, Jasmine was fascinated. The Fongoids had never featured in the lessons she had been given about other races and species. They were small and childlike, reaching out curiously to touch her wrench and armour, clearly having never seen anything like it. Drake kept back. As far as the Fongoids were concerned, he was the strangers pet, but he wanted to take no chances. Ratchet began questioning the Fongoids in their odd, yapping language, and their attention quickly turned to him. Jasmine didn't know what he was saying, but they didn't seem to like it, the smiles slipping off their faces as he gestured in the direction they needed to take. Occasionally Clank would join in in flawless Fongoid, but they still looked unhappy. And a little scared.
Jasmine joined him as the argument went on, Ratchet and Clank looking increasingly annoyed.
"What's he saying?" she whispered, trying not to move her lips too much.
"He's asking for a guide." said Drake softly in a whisper barely on the cusp of hearing. "Our scouts have a tendency not to come back from the place we need to go. Having someone who knows the area will come in handy. Looks like they're having trouble."
Ratchet, Clank and the Fongoid chief seemed to be having an argument, the Lombax gesticulating angrily. The chieftain folded his arms and scowled, indicating quite clearly that his word was final. Finally, the two heroes gave up in disgust and stomped back to the others, both looking highly irritated.
"They are scared!" Clank burst out. "They refuse to help us, no matter what we said!"
"What was the problem?" inquired Jasmine.
"Well, I'm not too sure of the local dialect." said Ratchet "but I'm pretty sure it was something to do with 'spirit woods' or something like that, anyway."
"I don't care what they say. If the crystals in this area, we have to go in there!" said Jasmine.
"Then you go to death, lady."
They turned. An old Fongoid had crept up on them, leaning on a stick for support.
"Spirit woods dangerous. No one who go there ever come out. place is cursed! Death is there! death!" he exclaimed dramatically, waving his stick.
Clank nodded and responded in perfect Fongoid.
"Thank you for your concern, but my friends and I know what we are doing. we just need to know what path to take to get there."
The old Fongoid sighed and shook his head, pointing a finger anyway.
"Spirit woods that way. Enjoy walk there. It will be last sunshine you ever see!"
He hobbled away, muttering to himself. The four exchanged worried glances. What were they getting themselves into?
As they moved off in the direction the old man had indicated, the gazes of the locals followed them. Clank had never seen such sad faces. He wondered what they knew…
The village fell behind them quickly. The walk was a pleasant one to start off with, the only problem being the vines stretching between the trees prevented Jasmine from using her hover wings. But she didn't mind. It really was a lovely day, warm sunlight gilding colourful flowers, and brightly coloured birds singing from the was no doubt about it, Jasmine thought. Quantos was quite pretty. Except now it wasn't. Gradually, the landscape changed. The ground grew spongier, the trees became sicker and greyer, twisted, leafless branches clawing at the sky. A cold fog shrouded everything, turning the light grey. Unconsciously, the travellers bunched together. This was not a happy place.
Finally, the path they had been following split into three separate paths, leading deep into the weird woods.
"Damn." muttered jasmine. "Which way now?"
"We stand a better chance of finding the correct path if we split up." said Clank. Ratchet nodded.
"Good idea. You and Drake take the centre path. Jasmine, you take the right path. I'll go left. Everyone got communicators?"
"Good. Sing out if you find something."
They separated. Ratchet's path twisted and turned at a dizzying rate, the ground wobbly and swamplike. An eerie silence pressed on his eardrums, broken occasionally by the mournful cries of some unidentified animal in the trees. He sensed eyes on him and shivered, picking up his pace. The quicker he found what he was looking for, the better.
He turned a corner.
And there was light. For a moment, he was dazzled, hand held up in front of his eyes to block the glow. as his eyes adjusted, he noticed the lights shifting hue, and squinted into the glare. On the path in front of him was living light, a glowing wisp of rainbow smoke, changing colour gently. Smoky tendrils fluttered and faded, moving lazily in the faint breeze. It was entrancing, almost hypnotising. Captivated, Ratchet stretched out a hand, and it began to move away. Ratchet felt a tinge of panic. He didn't want to lose this beautiful creature!
"Hey, come back!"
The closer he got to it, the further away it moved, sending him on a merry dance through the trees. And off the path. Ratchet didn't notice. He was thoroughly under the creatures spell, not bothering with anything else other that getting close to the warm, rainbow light. The ground got boggier. he didn't care. Trees lashed him. he didn't notice. Finally, the glowing, plasma like being came to a halt, tentacles of light shifting slowly. If Ratchet had been in a normal frame of mind, he would have noticed it had come to a halt over a patch of swampy quicksand. If he stepped in it, he would never be seen again. The creature had completely taken him, however, and he stepped forward, like one in a dream, eyes blank, arms outstretched…
"Out of it, you wretched creature!"
Something rushed out of the trees, waving its hands and yelling. The creature panicked, tendrils bunching up close to itself. Spell broken, Ratchet blinked in shock and staggered, falling hard on his rear. The creature fled, taking its light with it. The woods were plunged back into semi-twilight as the mist blocked the sun. It was colder, too, but Ratchet didn't notice, staring in shock at the one who had saved his life.
The elder Lombax was leaning against a tree, smiling in amusement at Ratchet's expression.
"What?" he joked. "I grow a third ear or something?"
"This-this is some kind of trick! it can't be real!" For a moment, fear shot through him. Was Kaos here? was she taunting him?
Alister shook his head.
"Not a trick. this is real."
"I invite you to think carefully about the term "spirit woods' I'm no more alive than most of the trees hereabouts."
Now Ratchet looked closer, he could see Alister was right. he seemed solid enough, but a faint, soft nimbus surrounded him. He seemed…happy. His eyes lacked the hollow, empty look they had had when he was alive. They were warm and bright, practically glowing.
"How is this possible?" asked Ratchet, still hardly daring to believe it.
"Near as I can tell, this place appears to be the site of a weakness between the worlds of the living and the dead. Here, I have some crude semblance of life. It has its dangers, as you've just found out." He jerked a thumb in the direction the escaping creature had taken. "We call them Will-O-Wisps. They're soul eaters. They lure you over to swampy areas, than absorb your soul when you drown. They go after the weaker spirits here too, but a show of strength usually shifts them. They're complete cowards."
Ratchet relaxed. It was no lie, no nightmare dredged up from the back of his mind by Kaos. This was real.
"It's good to see you again, Alister."
The elder smiled.
"Good to see you too, lad. Can't help but notice you've lost the path."
Ratchet looked around. Alister was right. He was completely lost, surrounded by land that seemed indistinguishable from swamp. One false move, and he'd be sucked under…
Ratchet set off after the glowing figure of his old mentor, still hardly able to believe it. A thought came to him, and he immediately felt guilty for not thinking of it sooner.
They reached the path, and Alister stopped.
"Of course, Ratchet. Matter of fact, he's right-"
Ratchet yelped and levitated. Alister sighed.
"-behind you. Seriously, Kaden? Your own son?"
"Hey, what's the point of being dead if you can't have a little fun once in a while?"
Slowly, Ratchet turned, heart thudding. His father was standing on the path, an evil grin on his face. It faded to an expression of shocked awe as Kaden beheld the son he had never had a chance to know.
"You weren't kidding, Al. He does look just like me. Except for his eyes. He has his mothers eyes…"
There were other differences. Kaden's fur was darker, more of an orange hue than a golden one. He was taller, and had more stripes, but otherwise, they were practically identical.
"Hey, Dad." Ratchet croaked, his throat dry. "How's…how's it going?"
Even as the words left his mouth, he knew they were winning entrants in the "Really stupid things to say" contest, but his whole mind seemed to have seized up. It was all his frozen thoughts could come up with.
"Pretty good, kiddo. Besides the small problem of being dead."
Ratchet gave a sickly smile, unable to think of anything else. Kaden saw this, and understood.
"I hear you've done well for yourself. Alister tells me you're a hero. Thousands owe their lives to you. I can't say how proud I am. I just don't have the words."
Ratchet nodded, still mute.
Another voice rang out from the woods.
A female Lombax stepped out of the trees. Like Kaden and Alister, she had the pearly corona that marked her as a ghost. She was tall, slender and gangly, moving gracefully over fallen trees and submerged rocks, She was a tortoiseshell, black and reddy-brown blotches covering her, except for a creamy white throat and underbelly. Green, hauntingly familiar eyes glowed with an expression he had last seen on Jasmine, the look of someone who considered a whoopie cushion the last word in comedy. She looked rather tomboyish, with short hair and wearing a faded pair of jeans and a brightly coloured tee shirt.
"I scared the Will-O-Wisp over to the outskirts. It shouldn't bother us."
"Thanks, Mala. Last thing we want is an uninvited guest."
She caught sight of Kaden and rushed into his arms, smiling and rubbing his nose with hers, eyes glowing with love.
Looking at them, Ratchet's still shocked mind made the connection between the two's obvious bond, and her green eyes, so much like his own.
She turned and gasped, hands flying up to her mouth.
"Oh Kaden! Is this him?"
Kaden nodded, smiling. Mala drifted closer and took her sons hands. There was something there, he could feel it, but it was as solid and tangible as a puff of air, soft and light, barely there.
"You've grown so much. Last time I saw you, you could fit in one of your fathers hands." A tear glistened in her eye. "I've missed you, little one."
Ratchet tried to gulp back sobs, eyes burning. He'd dreamed of moments like this, and now here it was, and he didn't know what to say…
It was Alister who broke the silence and stopped Ratchet from bawling like a cub.
"I do hate to interrupt, but what brings you here? This place is hardly a tourist attraction."
Ratchet blinked and wiped his eyes.
"Um, it's a long story, and kinda crazy, if you think about it…"
Kaden took a seat on a fallen log.
"I don't mind. I've heard crazier stories, believe me. This guy used to come back from missions with the nuttiest yarns."
He looked meaningfully at Alister, who bristled.
"Hey, every word of those was true!"
"Riiiight…" He turned back to Ratchet.
"Let's hear it, son."
It took some telling.
There was silence after he'd finished as the implications sank in. Alister spoke up first.
"Don't Zenithi look like someone stuck a bird and a lizard in a hadron collider?"
"Yeah, kinda. Why?"
"I think I've seen them before. They don't hang around here, they're usually on their way to the…beyond, but I see glimpses of them."
"You'll find out someday." He said, softly.
"I think I know the place you're looking for." said Mala.
"It's just outside the spirit woods. We can't go there, but we can lead the way."
"Why can't you go there?"
"Because we only have existence here." said Alister. "If we leave the woods, we fade. You wouldn't even be able to hear us. We'll be happy to take you as far as we can go, however."
"So why are you guys here?" asked Ratchet, as they set off through the dreary woods. "Why'd you stay here instead of…moving on?"
"Not ready yet, I guess." said Kaden. "Besides, we're Guardsmen! You get teens wandering in here on dares sometimes. If we didn't scare them away, the Will-O-Wisps would get them. That's the code of a Guardsman, to protect the innocent."
"Well, technically I was just a computer engineer." said Mala. "But I still went through basic, so that counts."
"So you both were in the Guard?" asked Ratchet. His parents nodded.
"It's how we met." said Kaden. Alister sniggered.
"Yeah, your eyes met over the test tubes."
Kaden rolled his eyes.
"Here we go again. For the last time, just because I worked in R and D does not make me a nerd!"
"Romantic dinners by Bunsen burner light…"
Mala rolled her eyes.
"Those two are always like that. They have the kind of friendship that's expressed by noogies, wedgies and name calling. It's quite entertaining to watch."
Alister currently had Kaden in a neck lock, inflicting a spirited noogie.
"He's not the Alister I remember." Ratchet said. "He's…happier…"
"This is how he was when we were younger, before you were born. He used to be quite the joker."
"Rachel. She was his girlfriend before the mess with Tachyon. Polaris was a dangerous place after the Great War. Brigands, bandits, pirates, and so on and so forth. You were lucky to hit forty! Rachel…wasn't so lucky. Part of Alister died with her. He was never the same after that. It was why he gave Tachyon the plans. Tachyon promised him no one would ever have to die like she did. He bought it hook line and sinker. We don't blame him. he was grieving."
"Is she here?"
"No. She'd moved on. He wants to wait for the Lombaxes to come back before he goes after her. He wants to see his mistake fixed before he leaves."
Kaden finally wriggled loose and gave Alister a playful punch on the arm.
"Are you guys done?" said Ratchet, sighing.
"We're just getting warmed up!"
There were chuckles, which gradually faded into deep silence, filled with complex overtones and unspoken thoughts. There were so many things Ratchet wanted, needed to say, but they tangled in his throat. Occasionally, he would nearly ask, then disguise it as a cough or throat clearing. Kaden also looked as though he had to say something, but he, too, was having trouble. Mala noticed this, and nudged Alister on his spectral ribs, indicating with a concise nod that they should leave them alone.
"Ah, we're going to…scout the perimeter." she said. "You guys keep going. We'll catch up."
They vanished into the trees. Kaden and ratchet walked on in silence, until…
"So, you and that Jasmine girl, huh? What's happening there?"
The question was so unexpected it drove Ratchet's already overloaded brain into disarray.
"Anything happening between you two?"
"Hey, I'm a father. I have to ask these sorts of things."
"Yes! Maybe. I don't know! I don't understand! I've never felt this way before! I feel like I've got live wires under my skin! Sometimes I just think of her as a friend and sometimes…God, I'm so confused!"
Kaden gave him a knowing smile.
"It'll all make sense one day. Trust me on this."
"I hope so…So you're…OK here?"
"It has its perks. I get to spook the pants off people and save them at the same time. Do you have any idea how awesome that is?"
"I bet you and Jasmine would have gotten on great!"
"Bit of a pranker, is she?"
"Yeah, you should have seen the stuff me and Alister got up to when we were your age. Oh, the stories I could tell you…The praetorian Guard changed all that for the most part, but we still had our fun. We used to prank call this really annoying guy in our outpost all the time, and he'd always fall for it! Good times…"
He chuckled, then looked thoughtful.
"You said her last name was Cain?"
"I think I knew her mother. Tyra Cain. She was a Lieutenant. Damn good one. Yeah, that would make sense, I recall she was on pregnancy leave when Tachyon attacked. Nice to know she survived."
"She died when Jasmine was young."
Kaden bowed his head.
"That's a shame. She was a good woman. Still, it's nice to know her daughters following in her footsteps."
Ratchet noticed something. His fathers light was fading, dimming even as he watched.
"We're approaching the outskirts. I'll have to leave you soon."
He could see daylight cutting through the mist, beams of gold coating the grey trees, lending beauty to the stunted growth. As Ratchet stepped out of the fog, he noticed flat stones beneath his feet. A closer look revealed cobbles, nearly invisible under a thick layer of grass. There was a building in the distance, clearly abandoned. The windows were broken, wood warped by time and weather, and vines nearly obscured it.
He turned back to face the spirit woods. Alister and Mala had returned from 'scouting the perimeters' and now his lost family hung back, trying to stay inside the fog. They were barely there, pale and misty now.
He reached out for them beseechingly.
"Please stay a bit longer. There's so much I still need to know."
"Sorry, baby." said Mala. "This is as far as we can go."
"But…I miss you."
"We miss you too, but we have no choice." said Kaden. "Just remember this. I'm proud of you. You've accomplished so much in such a short time. I will always be proud."
Ratchet nodded, unable to speak again. A question rose in his mind, unbidden, one that had haunted him since his final encounter with Tachyon.
"What was my real name? The one you gave me?"
"Ryan. After your grandfather. But, you know…I think Ratchet suits you better. Its more 'you'."
"Ryan…" Ratchet said quietly. His father was right. Ratchet really did fit him better…
They were starting to fade back into the mist. Alister paused.
"Ratchet, a word of advice."
"This may sound cruel, but I have only your best interests at heart…I don't think you should come back here. If you learned one thing from me, it's this: To focus solely on what has passed is unhealthy, and can even destroy you." They were fading faster now, or was the mist getting thicker?
"We've lived our life." Alister continued. "Yours is just beginning. You need to live for yourself, not for others." Ratchet had to strain to hear him. His old mentors voice was little more than a whisper on the breeze. Besides him, Ratchets parents, now little more than faint shapes, smiled at their son, eyes alight with love.
"We are dead. You are alive. So live."
"Wait! Don't go!"
There was a breeze, soft and warm. They wavered, shifted, then with a gentle stir of air, were just fog.
For a moment, Ratchet stood, head bowed, tears drying on his fur. For one small, bright moment, he had had family. And now they were gone. He didn't even feel the persistent nudge on his leg, until it became a bite. he looked down. A small Zenithi was looking up at him, a concerned expression on its face. It was female, and a delicate coral rose colour. For some reason, she looked familiar…
"Are you alright, sir?" Her voice was soft and low, with the Zenithi mode of speech he had come to recognise, that of an english professor with a dictionary up his rear.
"I'm fine. I'm just…thinking."
"You are the one known as Ratchet, correct?"
"Oh, excellent! It's an honour to finally meet you! Father speaks quite highly of you."
He got no further. There was a cry, and Drake burst out of the fog, Clank close behind him.
The two entwined necks, the Zenithi version of a hug, and Ratchet realised why she had looked familiar. She was the spitting image of her father, apart from the colour.
"What are you doing here? I thought you were on a mission?"
"The mission is complete, Father. Oh, I was so worried when I heard you were here! You know few of us come back from here!"
Unnoticed in the joy of the reunion, Clank sidled closer to his friend.
"Are you well, Ratchet? You seem upset."
"It's nothing, Clank."
"You saw something in the woods, am I correct? Or someone?"
"How did you…?"
"We met Drakes father. He was rather unimpressed at being the honoury grandfather of Kaos, but he understood Drakes reasons. Who did you see?"
"Alister. And…my parents…I don't want to talk about it. Hey, look! There's Jasmine!"
The young corporal had stepped out of the woods. She was pale and quiet, eyes downcast.
"Hey, Jaz. You OK?"
She looked up. Tears glittered in her eyes, but she was smiling.
"Fine, thanks. Who's pinky over there?"
This remark earned her a glare from Mia, who'd been fluttering over to say hello.
"She's Drakes daughter." muttered Ratchet.
"Oh…no offence meant."
"None taken." said Mia. "So, where are you headed?"
Ratchet pointed to the abandoned building.
"There's as good a place to start looking as any."
"You're damn right there,Ratchet! That's an old Praetorian Guard outpost!" cried Jasmine. "Look!"
She knelt down and prised a fallen sign out of the ground. It was covered in Lombax runes, which Jasmine translated for him.
"Caution. Unauthorised access forbidden. Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again."
"Yikes. What happened to a friendly warning?"
"That is the warning. Won't matter, anyway. This place is a ghost town."
Mia stepped forward to joint them, only to have her father put out a wing to stop her.
"No, Mia. You stay here. If this goes wrong, someone must continue the guardianship. You know you have no other siblings to take your place if you die. As it is, I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of you going on missions anyway. I will not risk my only child."
Mia sighed. It was clear they had had this conversation many times.
"Yes, father. I will stand guard."
Jasmine ran her hand over the door. It was still intact and sturdy, despite years of neglect. Locked, too.
"Are you certain we need to go here?" asked Clank. "It looks dangerous."
"Please, Clank, I'm a Praetorian Guard. My life's flashed before my eyes so many times I sleep through the boring bits now. I thrive on danger."
Her questing fingers found what she was looking for, hidden in the grain of the wood. A cunningly disguised scanner. She unclipped her badge and held it up, waiting with baited breath.
"Lets hope this works…"
There was a moments silence, then…
"Life form detected. Beginning primary scan…Life form identified. Lombax. Beginning secondary detected. Status: Corporal. Welcome, Corporal."
The door slid open, exposing blackness beyond.
"Well, here goes nothing." said Ratchet.
They stepped inside.