Rynak gently steered his ship over the swampy planet, suppressing a shudder as he did so. The Blargian captain had made numerous trips to this out-of-the-way area, yet it never failed to unnerve him. The swamp thinned, shifting to flat land dotted with stubby bushes. A building rose up. Dark and Gothic, it looked like the set from a cheap horror movie, except for the atmosphere. Evil seemed to radiate from every stone and brick, casting a pall over the landscape. Rynak would be the first to say he was no saint. His face had been on wanted posters across the universe, but even he got the willies here. He stepped off his ship and approached the door. There was only one word to describe that door. Grim.You had to try to get a door that creepy. It had an ugly gargoyle over the archway, a slam like the footstep of a giant, and above all, made it quite clear this was not the type of door that went "ding-dong" when you pushed the bell. Rynak waved his ID card at a scanner set in the wall. The door opened with a creak that sounded like a death rattle and he stepped inside. In stark contrast to the stony outside, the interior of the building was rather modern, all smooth glass and shiny metal. He walked down a long corridor lined with doors.Odd noises came from behind some of them, noises that made him quicken his pace, until he reached the elevator at the end of the corridor.
He steeled himself as the elevator climbed higher, and finally stopped. He stepped out, the door slamming shut behind him as he did so. Darkness enfolded him. For some unknown reason, the occupant of this room kept it in a permanent state of darkness. It was highly unnerving.
"Ah, Rynak. Good to see you again. You are well?"
He gulped, grateful that his employer could not see his face in the ever present darkness of the room. The voice sounded normal on the surface, a warm, female voice speaking in cultured tones. But below that, there was a…wrongness. The voice was smooth as an oil-slick, sweet as poison, a voice that could make you do anything, whether you wanted to or not…
"I am well, Mistress" he said, carefully averting his eyes. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a shape detach itself from the gloom, moving to the shaded windows. He could dimly see a tall, female figure.
"That is good. Tell me, Rynak, why have you come to see me? Surely it's not to waste my time? I get very…upset when people waste my time"
He shuddered. Her words seemed innocent, but had developed the same harmonics of the word "pal" from the thug in the alleyway offering free surgery with a broken bottle in exchange for not being given bolts.
"I can promise ya, Mistress, this is important. You know that planet you had my fleet keep an eye on?"
"Fastoon. What about it?"
"Well, 'round about early afternoon our scanners picked up an anomalous energy signature over the city. An hour or so later we saw a ship leaving"
"Did you scan it?"
"You bet. Scans detected two adult lombaxes, one male. one female, and one robot"
"Were you able to identify them?"
"Mostly. The dude and the robot we think are Ratchet and Clank. They disappeared a few weeks ago"
He found himself the focus of riveted attention.
"Ratchet and Clank?" The voice was now a hiss. "You are certain?"
"Interesting… and the female?"
There was a thoughtful silence. Then…
"They will be…a nuisance"
"You may leave, Rynak"
He gratefully slipped out of the room. As the lift slid down he radioed his second in command.
"Call the fleet" he said, with a grin. "I gotta job for 'em"
"This is the Exodus Project"
Clank turned the device over in his hands.
"But, this is just a holo-projector"
There was a burst of laughter from the back seat.
"Holo-projector? You kidding me? That thing there is so complex it makes the dimensionator look like a rock!"
Ratchet glanced over his shoulder at his passenger. She was stretched out on the back seat, idly spinning her helmet on one finger. He had to admit, she was the most relaxed person he had ever met. She could lounge on a razor blade. He carefully adjusted Aphelions course.
"So, what do you need to do?"
Jasmine leaned over and pushed a button on the side of the device. A compartment flipped open, revealing a tangle of wires. He could see several gaps in between them.
"I need to find the right crystals. Once their in place I activated the device and whoosh!" She spread her hands dramatically. "Home time"
Ratchet thought for a bit.
"So, its kinda like an intergalactic scavenger hunt"
"You got it"
She gave him an appraising look. At first glance, she hadn't been very impressed with him. He was short and slim, with what she thought of as "Basic lombax" fur, an undistinguished yellow with brown stripes, and unremarkable green eyes. He was clad in a pair of faded, dusty jeans and a harness criss-crossing over his chest, which she later found out was to hold Clank when he had to move over long distances. Had circumstances been different, she would have been unable to pick him out in a crowd. If it hadn't been for his stance. Everything about him, from the way that he moved to the casual way he handled his wrench, said "Been there, done that, bring it on"
Nice muscles, too…
"so" Ratchets voice cut through her thoughts. "Wheres our first stop?"
She rummaged in the storage compartment in her breastplate, pulling out a tightly rolled piece of paper, which expanded as it exited the shrinking field.
"Its on this somewhere-"
"Just a sec, I gotta take this" said Ratchet, hitting the Accept button.
A voice echoed around the ship, beautiful and deadly.
Jasmine froze. Instincts honed by Praetorian Guard training were screaming at her, telling to to run and…no, just run. Get anywhere that voice wasn't. It sounded normal, which somehow made the evil in it worse. The look on Ratchets face told her he felt it too.
Clank was the first to react. He turned to the communications screen on Aphelions dashboard.
"Who may I ask is speaking?" he said politely. The screen showed darkness, but there was a hint of movement, a dark shadow shifting just out of sight.
"My name is unimportant"
Fighting the tide of terror rising up within her, Jasmine tried a wisecrack.
"That's a strange name"
There was an angry hiss.
"Don't toy with me, you will live to regret it"
Ratchet snarled at the screen. Normally he tried not to do something so…feral, but her very presence was jangling his nerves.
"What do you want?"
Despite the darkness of the screen, he got a distinct feeling the woman behind the voice was smiling.
"Why don't you look out the window and see?"
They looked. A few seconds later, they regretted it. Surrounding them were hundreds of ships. They ranged from little one person jets to space cruisers, sleek to shabby. But they all had one thing in common. They all had guns, and they were all pointing at Ratchets ship.
Despite his terror, Ratchet smiled. Typical Clank, master of the understatement!
The terrible voice continued.
"I like Blargs. So wonderfully untrustworthy. This bandit fleet is under my control. I only have to give the word and they will, what is the term? oh yes. 'take you to the cleaners'"
"Why?" Ratchet said through chattering teeth. He'd fought space battles before but this was different.
"I have something important to do and I can't have heroes"
She said it with the same inflections as 'scum' "getting in the way"
Clank became aware of silence from the seat behind him. He turned. Cold fury seemed to pour from Jasmine. Ears back, fists clenched, she hissed furiously at the screen.
Ratchet desperately turned the ship this way and that, looking for an opening, finding none. The voice said, in smug tones, "Gentlemen, fire" before the screen went blank.
Chaos erupted. Every ship began to fire at once. Only Ratchets lightning fast reflexes saved them, but Jasmine could see it was a losing battle.
Jasmine would remember this for the rest of her life, often at the small hours of the night. The energy flashes, the shaking of the ship. And the silence. Sound does not travel in space, so the whole battle was conducted in eerie quiet. She leant over.
"Ratchet, what do we do now?"
She scowled. There was only one thing for it…
The tone went right to his muscles without stopping at his brain. He was out of his seat before he realised what happened. She gripped Aphelions steering column.
"Hold on to your lunch, boys and girls"
The world blurred. G-force pressed Ratchet back into his seat and sent Clank tumbling head over heels into the back. Energy bolts flashed past, missing by inches. Jasmine was rocketing towards the wall of ships.
"What the hell are you doing?" Behind him he heard another "Oh dear" from Clank.
"The Praetorian Shuffle! Very complex space move!" she said, grinning.
"You'll kill us all!"
"I've never done this before"
Ratchet slumped in his seat.
"Well. I've had a good run"
Jasmine dodged a torpedo, looking for her chance. Gotcha
"Ratchet, Clank, hang on"
She was heading for a minuscule gap between two large cruisers.
"Oh no,you're not going to-"
Ratchet covered his face with his hands, whimpering softly. Almost against his will he risked a look. The wall of ships was getting closer, and a quick glance in Aphelion's rear view mirror showed more on their tail. Jasmine narrowed her eyes in concentration.
"Steady, steady, nearly there…"
The ships were directly in front of them now, and getting closer each second. Ratchet braced himself for a fiery death… it didn't come. At the last second Jasmine had turned the ship on its side, flying it through a tiny gap. The ships on their back, however, did not have a Guards sense of timing. The glow from the fireball lit up the interior of Aphelion momentarily. The few ships remaining of the fleet swiftly turned tail and fled off into space.
"That was pretty cool, huh Ratchet? Ratchet?"
She waved a hand in front of his locked gaze.
"What was that?"
"Didn't quite hear you"
"Mad! You're completely mad!"
"Got me there! Hey, you wanna do that again?"
At this point, Ratchet fainted.
Sometime later, back on Sargasso.
"I am curious, Rynak"
"Ma'am?" The prone Blarg looked up from the floor. In the pit of his black heart he knew he was in deep trouble. He shivered, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Wind from an open window ruffled his hair. Odd, usually she preferred her room stuffy…
"How is it that a bandit captain who assured me that his fleet was unstoppable, was defeated by two lombax and a tiny robot?"
Her voice was calm, almost gentle, but he could hear the iron behind them.
"We were out-flown, Mistress! I-I never seen anything like it!"
"Hmmm" The indistinct shape moved closer.
"It would seem I have underestimated them. We will have to try a different way. There are other ways to crack a nut then by dropping a mountain on it. Your soldiers will come in handy"
He looked up, hope rising.
"Of course, you will not be leading them"
"You failed me, Rynak. I paid you good bolts for your services and you did not deliver. You know what happens next"
There was a gentle chuckle.
"Now Rynak, you know I don't do that. Look into my eyes"
Against his will, he looked up and wind ruffled his feathers. He looked down. Ground skimmed past, far below him. He cawed with joy, pulled in his wings, dived…
One of the Blargs on patrol looked up as Rynak tumbled out of the high window, hitting the ground with bone-shattering force.
"Well, that's it for him, then. I'll tell his second in command he's in charge"
"That's the fourth poor sod this week! Remind me why we work for her again?"
"Million bolts a day's worth any risk"
"Fair call. I'd better scrape the poor guy up"
Far above them the rooms occupant stared down at Rynak's broken body and sneered. Idiotic fool, what did he expect? Hmmm, they will be a problem. Perhaps it is time for…? She fingered the key around her neck. No, not yet. Best not to waste it. She looked out at the Sargasso sunset. Enjoy your victory. It will be your last