After the bright light of Quantos, it took some time for Ratchet's eyes to get used to the gloom. Once the starbursts cleared from his vision, however, he could see the devastation inflicted on the once grand entrance hall. From the look of things, the outpost appeared to have been ransacked by a not very efficient burgler. Decaying pieces of paper and equipment were scattered everywhere, hidden under a thick, undisturbed layer of dust. The air smelled of mould, decay and neglect.
Jasmine looked down at a shattered computer. Behind her, Drake snuffled around in the dust. A nasty suspicion was forming in his mind…
"Wow, Tachyon really did a number here." said Jasmine. "Look at this place. It's trashed!"
Something about the tone in Drakes voice made them turn.
"What is it?" said Clank.
"I…don't think Tachyon did this…"
"Looks like it to me. Death, despair, carnage on a scale incomprehensible to the civilised mind…that's Tachyon, alright." said Ratchet, scowling at Drake. He was still unimpressed about Drake sheltering the Cragmite. Drake ignored the glare.
"It's just…The Lombaxes fled about twenty five years ago, right?"
"By my estimations…this place has been abandoned for fifty years."
There was silence as the implications of this sank in.
"O…K…" said Jasmine. "That's…very disturbing…Any idea what happened here?"
Drake shook his head.
"With all this rot here, I can't get a bead on any attackers. There is some form of…animal smell, but that doesn't mean much. This place is damn near open to the elements. It may just be some odd species of rat."
Jasmine gazed around the hall. Lombaxes had always been famed for their curiosity, and hers was burning. She didn't just want to find out what had happened, she needed to find out. She had an urge to break off the mission and explore, but Guards learned to control the curiosity impulse early on. With an effort, she put it aside. She wiped some dust off a section of wall, revealing a map.
"OK, we are here…" She pointed to a spot on the map marked in more incomprehensible runes. "And we should probably start looking here." Her finger moved to a spot further out, near the centre of the building. "It's the IRHQ. That's the Information Reception Head Quarters, to you civilians. All information is collected and stored there. The outpost can't function without it. If the crystal locations anywhere, its there."
They moved out. For a while, the entrance hall was silent, then, in a dark corner, a soft hiss and the sound of movement…
"Man, how can you find anything here?" asked Ratchet. The place was a maze of dark corridors and shattered doors. He was thoroughly lost, yet Jasmine strode along as if she'd been here before, torch beam splitting the darkness.
"All Guard buildings are built to the same plan. It makes it easier for those visiting from other outposts to get around.
"Hmm. Makes sense."
In the pit of his soul, Ratchet was glad she knew where she was going. It meant they could get out of here quicker. This place was creepy. With the worn and broken equipment and general air of decay, this place felt like the set of a horror film, unsettling in its abandonment. Occasionally bits creaked and groaned.
He spun around, wrench raised, as a faint slithering noise came to his ears.
"What is it?" whispered Jasmine, wrench blades half unsheathed.
"Heard a noise."
She looked around, Guard honed senses straining themselves to the limit.
"I don't hear anything."
"It must have gone." said Ratchet, arming his blaster. Best be careful…
As they moved away, they missed the shadow in the corner, which shifted slightly, flicking a two forked tail…
"Here we are! The IRHQ!"
Ratchet was surprised. For a place that was so important, it was a very small, unassuming door. If Jasmine hadn't said anything, he would have thought it was a janitors closet. Inside was quite different. A table occupied the centre of the room, worn with use. Broken chairs were scattered over the floor. Around the walls, banks of computers still, remarkably, glowed, cutting through the dark.
"They hook them up to a small antimatter generator in case of power cuts. It should keep going for a century or more. Damn useful. Shame we don't have one. There's nothing to manufacture antimatter with there."
Ratchet nodded, listening with half an ear. His keen eyes had spotted something worrying. On one wall, faded, but still slightly visible, was a smeared, bloody handprint…
Behind him, Jasmine was tapping on keys.
"The computers are locked, but I should be able to hack in. Its going to be easier without that damn autocorrect they installed last year back home. God, that's annoying."
"Why do you have it, then?" asked Clank, who was helping.
"Cuz Ginger makes spelling mistakes when she programmes.Usually they're small, but last year she was programming the automatic toilets and misplaced an E for an I. We don't…We don't talk about that day…"
Absorbed in the task of hacking, neither Jasmine nor Clank noticed Ratchet pick up a piece of shattered chair, noting the deep claw marks. Drake noticed, however, as a Zenithi who is unaware of his surroundings does not live long.
"What is it?"
Ratchet turned the wood this way and that, a worried expression on his face.
"I'm…not sure yet…"
"What are your suspicions?"
"I think something terrible happened here. It wasn't just abandoned. Something killed them."
"I'm beginning to feel that too."
Jasmine did a little dance.
"I hacked the main terminal! I can unlock the others now!"
"Fantastic!" said Drake, nasty suspicions forgotten briefly. "Lets get looking, shall we?"
Jasmines resistance crumbled in the face of her overwhelming curiosity.
"Correction: You start looking for its location. I want to find out what happened here."
Drake shrugged. Lombaxes...He thought. Go figure…
Green wings blurring, he fluttered up onto a computer and started searching.
For Jasmine, the world faded. All that mattered was the information flowing across the screen, her Lombax curiosity driving her on.
"I think this was an old research station." she said. "There's a lot of information on experiments and studies on the computer, and we did pass a lot of lab equipment on the way here, now I think about it. This is the last folder saved. Experiment 665…:
She clicked on it, bringing up a screen full of Lombax runes.
"Looks like they were after a rabies vaccine."
"What's rabies?" asked Ratchet. Jasmine shuddered.
"Ever seen a zombie film? A rabies epidemic is like that, only difference is the 'zombies' are living people driven crazy with pain and thirst. They're deadly, hard to stop, and in the early stages, fast. Though they do slow down eventually when the paralysis sets in. There's a unit in the Guard solely trained to stop infestations. You can cure it, but you can't vaccinate against it. Problem is, the Lombax dimension has nothing we can make the antiviral out of. Rabies is a death sentence now. The Rabies Squad is now just glorified animal control. By the looks of it, the folks here were testing the use of nano-technology as a vaccine. There's a few video diaries. I'll start about a week before the last one, so I get a proper understanding."
The screen flickered for a moment, then showed a young, tabby coloured female.
"Video diary of Rakenda Theems, head virologist of the Centre for Advanced Lombax Research. My team and I are investigating the possible use of nano-tech as a rabies vaccine. As a test, we have obtained a sandwolf, henceforth to be referred to as "Experiment 665" This is the only other species known to contract rabies, so it should provide some useful information. Experiment 665 was injected with the modified nano-tech this morning, and will be infected with rabies tomorrow-"
"OK, lets see five days before last." said Jasmine.
"..I think we're onto something!" The scientist was visibly excited, grinning from ear to perky ear. "Experiment 665 's blood tests indicate a distinct drop in the rabies virus! There is an odd increase in nanites, but we're still working the bugs out-"
Jasmine flicked to two days prior to the final diary. This time, Rakenda looked worried.
"…noticing a number of strange mutations in Experiment 665, and a high increase in aggressive behaviour. I'm going to transfer it to a stronger cage today. Just in case…"
Unnoticed by an absorbed Jasmine, Ratchet stepped back to avoid a spider swinging into his face, and felt something give under his foot. Questing fingers found a rat. More accurately, half a rat. It was still sticky. Slow, terrible dread began to fill him, rooting him to the spot. He tried to tell Jasmine, but the terror filling him had dried out his throat letting out nothing more than a squeak. Then the final diary began to play, and his deepest fears were confirmed. The lab around the scientist was dark and broken, walls smeared with blood. She was trembling, and bleeding from a cut on her cheek.
"Oh…oh god…We've…we've made a terrible mistake! Every…everyone is dead. It…it even got the Lieutenant! God help me, it got the Lieutenant! Just tore him apart like a sheet of paper…We should never have used nanites! I should have realised they were too unstable! Now I'm…I'm sealed in with it. They shut the doors so…so it couldn't get out…" There was a bang and a thud off screen. She looked up. The expression on her face was not one they were likely to forget in a hurry.
"Oh god! It's in the ventilation-!"
The screen cut to static. In the horrible silence that followed, Ratchet finally managed to catch Jasmines eye, holding up his grisly find. As a sick, terrified expression passed over her face, two things happened. Drake leaped happily in the air with a cry of "I found it!"
And Experiment 665 attacked.
Jasmine moved fast, grabbing Drake and clutching him to her chest as the grey blur came within an inch of decapitating him. Back lit by the glow of the monitors, it presented a sickly sight. It was hairless and an all over grey, resembling more a six legged monkey than a sandwolf. It was thin, ribs jutting from its sides. Sharp, brutal talons glittered as the double ended tail lashed angrily. Four red eyes practically glowed on its not even remotely wolf like face. Compared to this creature, sand wolves were cuddly puppies.
It focused on Jasmine and hissed, a forked tongue flickering momentarily. Ratchet reacted with the speed of thought, shooting a fist sized hole in its chest with his blaster. He grinned in triumph, only to have the smile side off his face as the creature failed to slump to the floor, instead watching with apparent interest as the nanites in its bloodstream healed it over, leaving no trace.
Experiment 665 launched itself at them. Or at least, where they had been. Knowing for certain that those claws would gut them like a fish, they had bolted out of the door.
"Drake, where is it?" Jasmine cried.
The photographic memory of the Zenithi rose to the occasion.
"There's a sample of Quantite in lab 2c!"
"That's not far from here! Follow me!"
She activated her wings, launching herself into the air. Still in her arms, Drake craned his head over her shoulder. The creature was nowhere to be seen, but this was not reassuring. The cold intelligence of a predator had burnt in those eyes. It had plans…
Ratchet began to see signs of an attempted struggle. Broken and cracked skeletons underfoot nearly tripped him, and dried bloodstains were more in evidence.
Jasmine pointed. Ratchet could see the lab just up ahead at the end of the corridor. His heart lifted.Nearly there…
"Ratchet! Look out!"
Had Clank been a second later with his warning, Ratchet would have been killed. The Experiment had used the ventilation shaft to follow them out of sight, and had slashed through the metal just before they reached the door. It struck him between the shoulder blades with surprising weight for something the size of a small child. From his harness, Clank did his best to fend off his friends attacker, but it pinned his arms down and ignored any electric shocks and laser burns as it sought to rip Ratchet apart. Ratchet could smell its rank breath as its teeth clashed together an inch from his ear. Drake teleported out of Jasmines arms, allowing her to strike out with her wrench. Drake nipped in between the flailing talons and inflicted a spirited attack as well. A blow to the chin from Jasmine finally sent it spinning through the air, hissing angrily as it landed in a crouch, ready to spring. Jasmine unclipped her scanner and tossed it to Ratchet.
"Find it! I'll hold it off!"
Ratchet kicked in the door and charged inside. He bit back a swearword. This lab had obviously been used to study geology. Rocks and crystals of all descriptions were stored in dozens of glass fronted cabinets. He didn't know where to start looking. Behind him, Jasmine blocked the door, slashing with her blades. It was futile, the cuts healing so fast they almost trapped her blades. It was wearing Jasmine down, but she held on. Failure was unthinkable.
"Hurry!" she screamed.
Raising the scanner above his head, he swept the beam across the room, rewarded a few moments later by a beep. He quickly narrowed it down to a small cabinet, with a bright purple gem in pride of place. His wrench stoved it in, and he passed the gem to Clank.
"Here, you look after it!"
Clank took the gem and placed it in his storage compartment.
"Jasmine, we are ready to leave!" he called out.
She nodded grimly, and put everything she had into one final attack. Experiment 665 was knocked back by the sheer force of her fury, allowing them enough time to run. Jasmines head whirled with tactics. Fighting it was out of the question. The thing could probably shrug off a RYNO, for heavens sake! So what now…?
"Jasmine, any ideas?" Ratchet yelled.
"I like it!"
Perched on Jasmines shoulder, Drake looked back at the creature after them. It moved fast, already closing the gap between them.
"Drake, what about you?" Jasmine panted. "Any plans?"
"None, I'm afraid. If it was an ordinary creature there might be something I can do, but I can't think of anything that would work against nano tech!"
Clank blinked. An idea had formed in his circuits, one so brilliant he wondered why he hadn't thought of it before.
"Fire!" he said.
"Fire is the answer! Everyone knows nano tech is rendered useless by fire!"
"Of course! Clank, that's brilliant! Jaz, got any matches?"
She shook her head.
"Sorry, Ratchet. I have more flares, though."
They stopped and turned, Jasmines hand flying to her storage compartment. The beast was barely a few metres away, hissing in triumph. It gathered itself, sprang…and met a tossed, lit flare halfway.
An ear-splitting shriek echoed through the wrecked corridor as the bright white flames spread over the creature, enveloping it quickly as the nanotech in its cells caught fire. Jasmine shut her eyes to block out the grisly sight. She could hear Ratchet being sick behind her, and Drakes little groan. Finally, the screams died out, and she risked a peek.
A charred skeleton lay there, still smoking.
"Well, that was hardly a pretty sight." said Drake.
"You're telling me." Ratchet muttered. He was pale under his fur.
"Worth it though." said Jasmine, grinning. "We only have to find one more crystal!"
Her and Ratchet shared a high five, feeling infinitely more cheerful.
"Lets roll." Jasmine said, sheathing her blades.
They stepped out of the building into the warm Quantos sunlight.
"Man, it's good to get out of there."
"Amen. That place was depressing."
"Yeah. It's kinda sad, really. They were just trying to help others."
"It probably would have happened anyway. That's Lombax curiosity for ya." said Jasmine, locking the door. "We'll do anything just to see what it would do. Let me put it like this: If you made a button that would wipe out life as we know it and put up a sign saying "Do not touch!" in 15 languages, the last thing the universe would hear before it folds up like a paper napkin would be a Lombax saying "I wonder why not?" It's in our nature." She frowned. "We're kinda stupid that way."
There was a joyful cry, and Mia leaped from the bushes.
Jasmine couldn't resist.
"No way, really? Gosh, I didn't notice!"
Drake nudged her.
"No need for that." He fluttered over to his daughter and hugged her. "We're fine, dear heart. There were some dicey moments, but the mission was a success!"
"Wonderful! Will you be heading back now?"
"I'll go with the others back to Aphelion, but I plan on teleporting the rest of the way." He glared at Ratchet when he said that. "I don't plan on encountering that warp drive again."
"I'll come with you. I haven't seen you in weeks. The last mission took longer than we thought it would."
He looked up. Jasmine's ears were low, purple eyes dull and sad.
"Do we have to go through…there…again?" She pointed to the spirit woods. "I don't think I could handle that again…"
Drake thought for a moment, than began snuffling around.
"I wonder…There might be one here, the question is whether it still works…Ah!"
He began scratching away at some plants.
"Back when Fongoids were advanced, they had teleport pads scattered all over the planet. Most of them were forgotten, however. The vast majority are too run down to work safely. This one is no exception, by the looks of it. Exceedingly rickety."
Clank joined him, carefully scanning it.
"I do not detect any major defects. It simply needs to be re-activated."
"Where's it's sister pad?" asked ratchet.
"The village, most likely. The locals have probably forgotten its there. Clank, some assistance?"
They set to work, Drakes knowledge of Fongoid technology and Clanks powerful intellect working in tandem. Finally, there was a soft humming and a blue glow shone from the pads centre.
"Excellent." Drake said. "I'll travel with you. Conserving my energy would be a wise thing to do, considering our task is not yet complete."
They stepped on the pad, Drakes daughter joining them. The humming increased in intensity, there was a bright flash, and they reappeared.
In the midst of chaos.
She had found them. Her forces ravaged the tiny, cliff top village. Panicked Fongoids ran around like headless chickens as Lombaxes and Blargs dealt out death.
Ratchet and Jasmine exchanged glances and nodded. Time to kick butt and take names…
They leaped into the fray, taking the attackers by surprise. Behind them, Drake shoved Mia into a bush, ignoring her indignant cry. He let out a high, urgent call. The more vital the message, the simpler the call code, and this one was just one long note, nearly high enough to break glass and drive dogs into a frenzy. A few more different notes added further details, and the Zenithi joined the battle. Zenithi would be the first to admit it: They were weak. Light, hollow bones required little pressure to crush and snap. Small, bird like talons, though sharp, possessed only enough strength to perch and grasp insects. The only real weapons they had were a mouth full of sharp teeth and a nasty bite. And brains. The Zenithi fought smart, not hard. A Lombax, raising it's wrench to club a helpless villager, would feel a sharp pain in its ankle, or teeth sink into its tail, and would look down to see no one there. Naturally, this would leave them open for a wrench blow from Ratchet or a flurry of punches from Jasmine.
Aided by the Zenithi, the battle began to turn. Some of the smarter Lombaxes and the few Blargs Kaos had felt were intelligent enough not to hypnotise began to sneak away from the painful justice being inflicted on them. The stupid, hypnotised or terminally brave remained, however, fighting savagely. Ratchet gritted his teeth. It wasn't fighting them that was the problem. Few had any grasp of proper fighting, and presented no problem for his battle hardened skills. The problem was the locals. A hero at heart, Ratchet was finding it hard to both fight the invaders and rescue the Fongoids. Jasmine solved this problem by alternating between airlifting them to safety and kicking some righteous arse. Clank stepped in front of a child and zapped the Blarg menacing her. It dropped like a stone, allowing him to stun it neatly. He turned, intending to head back to where Ratchet was engaging in toe to toe combat with a seven foot female Lombax, and froze, hardly daring to believe his optic sensors. Unlike most robots, he possessed a soul, courtesy of his Zoni creation, and with it came feelings. Like terror. Right now, he regretted this heartily.
Ratchet kicked his opponants legs out from under her and concussed her with his wrench.
"Kinda busy here, Clank!"
"Ratchet! She is here!"
"Oh, spot on, Clank. Well done for noticing."
The whole battleground froze as those soft deadly tones were heard. She wasn't loud, but some inflection in her words meant they could be heard through a hurricane. Jasmine dropped the feebly struggling Blarg she had been holding and turned, noting the wickedly gleeful expressions on the raiders faces. It said, "You're in for it now…"
Kaos stood on the edge of the cliff, blood red cloak flapping in the wind, its hood pulled down low to protect her light sensitive eyes. In the sudden hush, the roaring of the waterfall that tumbled over the cliff seemed unnaturally loud. A young female Fongoid wriggled in her grip. Ratchet vaguely recognised her as part of the chieftains family. A daughter. He had last seen her by her fathers side as he had argued against entering the spirit wood. There was a despairing cry from her father, who had joined in the battle rather than desert his village. The girl desperately attempted to lunge forward, but the entity had given Kaos an otherworldy strength, and the poor girl may as well have tried to tow a building. At the white Lombaxes side, Steel leaned on his wrench, leering.
"If anyone moves," said Kaos. "I will throw her over this cliff. Don't think I'm bluffing. I never bluff. She won't be the first person I've killed, not by a long shot."
Drake slipped between Ratchet's legs and faced his adopted child.
"Selene, please! Be reasonable!" he begged.
"Selene is dead!" Kaos hissed, black eyes glaring at him with an intense hatred. Drake met her gaze, his sad eyes never leaving her angry ones.
"Selene…I beg you…I know you're in there somewhere. That deep within you there is a spark of good. I know my little girl is listening. Please, for the sake of what we once shared…be merciful." A tear slipped down his muzzle.
Kaos burst into mocking laughter.
"Mercy?" she sneered while the chieftains daughter struggled in her arms. "You ask me for mercy? You really are a soppy fool, aren't you? I an KAOS! Darkness and despair. There is nothing good left. And I like it that way."
With the stealth she was so good at, Jasmine carefully slipped out of sight, unnoticed as all attention was focused on the confrontation on the cliff. She had a plan. It was risky, but it might just work.
"Are you gonna take that kinda disrespect from some fancy talkin' lizard?"
He was tempting fate talking so casually to Kaos, but she decided to leave it for now.
"You are correct, Steel. It seems a lesson in manners is in order. I warned you, I don't bluff!"
The girl screamed as Kaos lifted her over her head and turned to face the cliff. Kaos grinned as she heard the screams and moans from the Fongoids, and a scuffle as some of her goons held Ratchet and Clank back. She tensed, ready to throw…
And suddenly her hands were empty, and she was staggering back, landing heavily on her rear. She looked up with a snarl.
Jasmines hoverwings flashed in the sun as she deposited the girl with her father and swerved back to take another shot at Kaos.Anger had filled her heart at Kaos's callous execution attempt, and now making her regret it was the only thing on her mind. In her rage, however, she had forgotten one thing. The cliff.
Kaos didn't. She swiftly calculated Jasmines trajectory, made her decision, leaped up, tugged a blaster from Steels belt, took aim, and fired, all in one swift movement.
A cold fist seized Ratchets heart as he saw the blast moving with lightning accuracy, and he prayed with every fibre of his body it would miss.
Jasmine jerked as the bolt struck home, sending energy crackling across her chest. Her battered armour warped, buckled, split.
Ratchet's cry was so loud it hurt his throat, but there was no denying it. Jasmine hovered momentarily, hand over her wound, choking for breath. Then her purple eyes dulled and rolled up in her head, her hoverwings stilled, and she fell with a sigh.
Drake moved swiftly, bolting off the edge of the cliff so fast his legs were still moving as he launched himself into space and dived. He folded his wings close to his body to increase his speed. If he could catch her, there was hope…
He had nearly reached her, she was barely a few feet away. A quick grab, a teleport and she would be safe. Then the waterfall caught her, and whisked her away, tumbling end over end into the roaring mists of white.
Drake pulled himself up from his dive, a ringing cry of grief ripping from his throat. He hovered, spray from the falls mingling with his tears as he stared in disbelief, then, with another cry, turned and flew back up.
On the cliff top, Ratchet's heart hammered as he stared over the cliff into the fog. He ignored Kaos and her army, caring only for Jasmine. Kaos strutted over to the cliff edge, smiling smugly, and her ears perked up as she heard Drakes dry. She turned and gave Ratchet a mocking bow.
"Until next time."
The transporter that had brought the Ishkhan to this dimension was suddenly in her hand, and she twisted the dial. A silver flash, and she was gone. Her army took this as their cue, and slunk away, leaving the village empty except for the few Fongoids who had stayed to fight.
There was a green blur as Drake flew up, landing with his back to Ratchet.
"Drake? Is she OK?"
Drake turned, and Ratchet knew. His face said everything.
"I'm sorry, Ratchet. I couldn't catch her."
Through the ringing in his ears, Ratchet was dimly aware of someone screaming, a long cry of shock, of grief, the cry of someone who's heart was tearing in two. It took him a moment to realise it was him. He could feel Clanks hand on his shoulder, could vaguely sense comforting words, but he couldn't hear them. He had no strength, no words, just her name echoing in his head over and over again, and a hole the shape of her inside his heart. She was gone, and now nothing made sense anymore. He curled up, still screaming his sorrow. There was pain, actual, physical pain in his heart, his very soul.
For Clank, there was grief too. He had considered Jasmine unprofessional and rash at first, but as time went on he had come to like her, and even respect her. She had made Ratchet happy. He had hoped that would continue. Now, no chance. Sadness flowed through his circuits as he did his best to comfort his desolate friend, who was shaking with grief. The Fongoids hung back, watching sadly. They didn't speak the language, but some things transcend words.
Drake caught the eyes of the other Zenithi and nodded. They began to sing. It was a song without words, pure emotion given sonic form. It spoke of loss, of sorrow and of grief. It wound through the village, pierced every heart that heard it, and somehow, for Ratchet, took some of his pain, lending him enough strength to go on.
The Lombax got to his feet, head bowed. Around him, the song wound down, and Drake was by his side. Behind him, Mia wept softly. She had a very tender hearted nature.
"We will meet you on Elysium." Drake said softly. "We will…we will decide what to do there."
They disappeared, and Ratchet began to trudge slowly towards his ship, and towards a future that held nothing but emptiness now.