Sargasso. 2100 hours.
Miles shivered. Transferring the Ishkhan from Kreeli comet to the carrier had cost him six good men and now the black-plated monstrosity lay with its head in his employers lap like the galaxies ugliest puppy. The shadowy figure gently stroked it, dwarfed by its sheer bulk.
"Poor baby" she crooned, as a very nervous Blarg dressed its wounds.
"Did those nasty Lombaxes hurt you? Don't worry, you'll get your chance soon enough"
Miles tensed as her shadow-shrouded head swung towards him. There was the jingle of unseen jewelry.
"Another failure, Miles"
He hung his head.
"Perhaps I should have taken your advice and sent some raiders with it"
He bit back an "I told you so" You don't juggle matches in a fireworks factory.
"We really have underestimated them. They are dangerous foes"
The Ishkhan hissed, and the Blarg tending its injuries froze.
The Ishkhan relaxed, No-one could figure out how she had such control over a beast like an Ishkhan (though there were rumors, dark rumors, mentioned in hushed whispers in the night). But if it stopped the creature tearing them apart, they weren't going to question it.
"I think, Miles, we need to change tactics. No more wasting precious time trying to kill them from a distance. Its time to finish this"
Miles brightened. This sounded more like it!
"I got some good snipers. They kin hit a fly on the wing from fifty meters. Those Lombaxes'd be sitting ducks!"
She shook her head.
"Close but no cigar, Miles. I have a different idea. This is what you must do…"
"But, I do not understand!"
Clank shook his head in confusion.
"If such a creature only exists in the Lombax dimension, how can it possibly exist here?"
Jasmine shrugged. She was stretched out on the back seat, polishing her blades. Ratchet was relieved to see her back to her usual, chirpy self.
"You're asking the wrong Lombax, little metal dude. I'm as stumped as you are"
Ratchet carefully steered Aphelion around an asteroid.
"I don't care how it got here, I just want to know how you stop it. Jasmine, you grew up with those things, how do you fight them?"
"Fifty Praetorian Guards and a crap-load of fire power" she said promptly. "And even then the survival rate for the Guard is pretty low. The trick is to take 'em out when they're still young"
"That's a bit unsporting, isn't it?"
She gave him a gray look.
"Ever tried fighting off a swarm of twenty little monstrosity's jonesing for your warm blood? They hatch out looking to kill"
"Tell me about it. I- hang on"
Ratchet winced as Jasmines irritating ring tone sounded.
"Answer that quickly, would ya?"
She did, looking into the Generals gray-furred face.
"Hiya, General! OK, I have good news, and I have bad news. Good news is, we found another crystal"
The General gave an appraising nod.
"Well done, Corporal! You're making good time"
"The bad news is, there's an Ishkhan in this universe"
There was silence. Even the sound of voices and machinery in the background ceased.
Finally, the General spoke.
"If that's a joke, Cain, its in incredibly poor taste"
"Shes not joking, sir" said Ratchet. "I saw it myself. Big ugly snaky thing that stank like a land fill"
"Impossible! There's no way one could have reached there!"
Ratchet felt a stab of pity for the General, who seemed to have aged ten years in the last few seconds. He cleared his throat.
"I have kind of a theory, sir"
The General turned his baleful glare on Ratchet.
"Well, just after we left Fastoon, we were attacked by a raider fleet. Only, it wasn't just a random attack. They were under orders. Some lady with a chip on her shoulder ordered it. We think she also ordered the attack on Jasindu not long after we arrived. The whole thing was too well timed, if you ask me. I don't know how she got the Ishkhan here, but I suspect she's behind it somehow"
The General shook his head.
"Ishkhans can't be controlled, son. Too stupid to tame, too tough to stop. That's a deadly combination. Its a good plan, but there is no way in the universe that woman you mentioned could control it. You'd have an easier time stopping a star from going supernova. Although she does sound like a threat. Keep sharp. You've come too far to fail now"
"Don't worry, General. I got this under control"
He gave her a stern look.
"That's your problem, Cain. You're too damn cocky"
The screen went blank.
"Cheerful, isn't he?" she grinned. "So, how far away are we from our next stop?"
Ratchet checked the star map.
"Not far now. You might want to keep your weapon handy"
"I don't know. Pyreem hasn't been explored. No-one knows anything about it"
"So why do you look nervous?"
"Because no-one who's gone there has ever come back"
Aphelion soared over Pyreem's surface. Solid green stretched from horizon to horizon, the entire planet carpeted in deep green jungle.
Ratchet shook his head in exasperation.
"Nowhere to land. The jungles too thick. Aphelion?"
"Prepare for a HALO jump"
Jasmines ears perked up.
"HALO jump. High altitude, low opening. You've never done one before?"
"Heard about 'em somewhere. What exactly does it involve?"
Ratchet and Clank shared an evil grin.
"Well, Jasmine" said Ratchet. "It goes something like this…" he hit the eject button.
She shrieked as the seat sprang up, firing her out Aphelions open roof.
"Ratchet, you -!"
The word she screamed wasn't familiar to Ratchet, but he was pretty sure it was a nasty one. He looked around for Clank and, just as he went into free fall, grabbed him and locked him into his harness.
Joy welled up inside him as gravity took hold. This was life. Not being chased by a creature hell would kick out, not standing around like a fifth wheel while time shook itself apart. Just him, the familiar weight of Clank on his back, the wind rushing past him and the trees growing larger below him. He heard Jasmine curse and activate her wings. He laughed, worries blown away with the wind.
The ground was closer now. He braced himself. Him and Clank had done this so often it was second nature. Spinning helicopter blades sprang from Clank's torso, slowing Ratchets fall. He spotted a gap in the canopy and shifted his weight, dropping through it with unerring accuracy. Twigs and branches lashed at him, but he ignored them, focusing on getting hit landing right. It was practically instinct now.
Bend knees, relax body…
The dusted himself off. Not his neatest landing, but it could have been worse. There was a crash and a stream of cursing from the tree tops. Ratchet looked up. Jasmine was tangled upside down in the branches. She folded her arms and glared at him.
"Need a hand?" he said, chuckling. She scowled and began disentangling herself. Watching Jasmine climb down was an instant cure for melancholy. It was a procession of snaps, crashes, yelps and thuds, punctuated by the occasional "Drat!" or "Bugger!" By the time she reached the ground (or, more accurately, plummeted the last eight feet) Ratchets ribs hurt from trying to hold in the laughter. Even Clank was having difficulty keeping a straight face.
Jasmine got to her feet and glared at him.
"And that, Jasmine, is a HALO jump!"
Jasmine laid her ears back, then punched him in the stomach and stormed off into the jungle.
"I think we can agree that was worth it?"
This jungle was a long way away from Jasindu. Unlike the latter, which was quite pretty when no-one was trying to kill you, this jungle was hot, sticky and dense with vines and moss. And thorns. Any yodeling, leopard skin clad hero trying to swing through this lot would come out looking like he'd been through a cheese grater. Within seconds Ratchet and Jasmine were covered in cuts and grazes. All around them was the whine of insects and whistles of birds. Clank shook condensation off his head. Any more of this, he thought, and I'll rust.
As they pushed deeper, the jungle got thicker, and many times Jasmine had to slash her way through with her blades. She seemed to have forgiven Ratchet for the HALO jump. Possibly. She did keep trying to stick leeches on him but he couldn't detect anything other then boredom and an evil sense of humour. Occasionally she would scan the area for for any trace of the crystal they were looking for, coming up empty handed each time.
He sighed and wiped sweat off his forehead. It could take them hours to search this damn-
He stopped so suddenly Jasmine cannoned into him.
"What is it?" she said.
"Shhh! We're being followed!"
She hefted her blades, glancing around for any tell-tale movements in the bushes. There was silence. She raised an eyebrow.
"I know its there" he said. "Its right…behind…this…bush. A-hah!"
He tore the bush aside to reveal…a squirrel. It gave him a wounded look and scurried away.
"It was right there! I swear!"
"Um, Ratchet?" that was Clank.
"I think the heats getting to you, man. You're imagining things"
"I heard it moving! We're being followed, I know it!"
"OK, lets get out of here. The humidity's gone to your head"
"I'm telling you, I-yes Clank, what is it?"
Clank stopped tapping Ratchets shoulder and pointed. They were surrounded. At least ten strange creatures surrounded them. They were small, only reaching Ratchets shoulder. Their heads were distinctly rat-like, with long pointy muzzles and prominent incisors. Shaggy brown fur covered all their body except for a long, hairless tail. They were clearly primitive, clad only in loincloths and fur paint.Ratchet didn't notice this, however. He was more focused on the long, evil looking spears they carried.
The larger one of the group approached.
"Chaka? Re-chik mata mata rikki-tiki?"
Ratchet tried a smile. It didn't seem to go down well.
"Uh, hi. We, uh, we don't want any trouble. We're just passing through!"
One of the other Pyreemites lifted its spear, only to have the leader push it down. It had a shrewd, calculating look on its face.
"Chik-ma. Lokka lokka cheena!" it said, and the others nodded.
It turned to Ratchet and bowed, speaking at length in that odd, chittering language.
Jasmine nudged him.
"Dude, whats he saying?"
Ratchet prided himself on his skill with language. If you were a hero, you had to be good at it, since what was a greeting in one language could be a killing insult in another. He could hold a decent conversation in 12 languages and just about get by in another 10. But this one was giving him difficulty. He had never heard it before. At least the leader was using sign language, which made it a bit easier.
"I'm not sure. Something about…lunch?"
Jasmines stomach growled.
"Great! I'm starving!"
Clank spoke up from his spot on Ratchets back.
"Do you think they will have oil? My joints are somewhat creaky"
"I doubt it"
Ratchet frowned. Something didn't feel right…
"I don't like this, Jasmine" he said as they set off after the Pyreemites.
'You worry too much, dude! We've got some friendly locals offering us a meal and you're moaning about it? Show some gratitude, man!"
He nodded gloomily and trudged along after them. Years of fighting together had left Clank very sensitive to Ratchets moods, and right now…Clank glanced nervously at the Pyreemites walking beside them. Right now, Ratchet was very concerned. They disappeared into the jungle. For a moment, the place they had been was silent. Then…
"I think they're onto us"
"Hardly surprising. He is very well trained in this kind of thing"
"What do we do now? You know the Pyreemites reputation!"
"Watch and wait. Lets see how they get out of this"
There was a rustle. Then the empty patch of jungle became somehow emptier still.
The trek through the jungle passed without incident. Jasmine chatted happily with their…Ratchet had to stop himself from thinking of them as captors. They seemed friendly enough. That was the problem. They were too friendly. They were nodding and grinning at what Jasmine said, despite the fact they most likely couldn't understand a word of it. They even laughed at her practical jokes, finding the joy buzzer quite amusing (with the exception of the one who got zapped).
The jungle thinned gradually, finally opening out into a misty valley, Stone huts were gathered around the foot of a huge stepped pyramid built out of gray stone. More Pyreemites peered out of huts as they passes, leering knowingly. Ratchet crept his hand slowly towards his weapons manifestor. The sense of wrongness was intensifying. And Jasmine was bowling along cheerfully, completely oblivious. It occurred to Ratchet that, in her own way, Jasmine was quite naive. She had fought monsters and the elements, but she had yet to develop instincts for danger, couldn't spot the signs that the person you were dealing with wanted you dead. He hoped she would learn quickly.
They arrived at the foot of the pyramid. A huge, rather unpleasant statue of a Pyreemite loomed over them. At its foot were a number of stone pedestals, large enough to lie on. Ratchet swore he saw a number of dark stains, before they were lead up the pyramid steps. Built into the top was a large room. It looked comfortable, the only thing out of place the strange stone fresco's around the wall. There was a table with a large bowl of fruit. Jasmine quickly gravitated to it. The Pyreemites bowed and left them, and Ratchet heaved a sigh of relief.
"You hungry, Ratchet?" asked Jasmine, holding out a piece of fruit.
She shrugged and dug in. Clank hopped off Ratchets back and joined him in examining the walls.
"These are…strange carvings, Ratchet"
Ratchet nodded, moving along the walls. Before stopping in front of one of the larger ones. There was a quiet "Oh dear" from Clank
"Hey, Jasmine?" Ratchet said, his voice flat and calm.
She looked up, mouth full.
"What does this carving look like to you?"
"Couple of guys getting a thorough medical checkup?"
"Why don't you have a closer look?"
She wandered over and gave it a closer inspection. A few seconds later she clamped her hand over her muzzle and ran off. From the corner of the room Ratchet could hear the sound of retching.
"It seems we misunderstood their offer" he said, voice still calm. "They weren't offering us lunch. We are lunch. All this must have been to put us at our ease. Friendly locals, huh?"
She grabbed her wrench.
"Lets get out of here!"
Ratchet needed no second invitation, locking Clank into his harness and scooping up his wrench in one smooth movement. They ran towards the door…and nearly impaled themselves on a wall of spears. The door was blocked by Pyreemites, grinning evilly. They looked very hungry. Jasmine looked at Ratchet. he was glaring daggers at her.
"Don't blame me for this"
"I blame you"
It was later. Much had happened. Ratchet turned his head with some difficulty. He was tied spread-eagled on one of the stone pedestals in the shadow of the statue. From his limited range of vision he could see Jasmine tied to an identical one. He looked the other way. Clank was bound as well, looking tinier than usual on the huge stone slab. Their weapons were piled at the foot of the statue, tantalizingly close.
"Got any bright ideas, Jasmine?" he said.
She began tugging at the ropes holding her down,
"Hang on, I think-yes I think when they did these ropes up-yes definitely, they-?"
"What? They what?"
"Yep, definitely. I'm absolutely sure about it. They did these ropes up very tightly. Not an inch of give anywhere"
"Thank you" he said bitterly.
Ratchet shuddered. He could see the Pyreemites gathered around a large stone cauldron. He didn't need telling what it was for.
"If its any consolation, Ratchet, that soup smells great!"
"That's less helpful than you think"
"How are you holding up there, Clank?" said Ratchet.
"Alright. Regrettably my hands are tied in such a way my lasers cannot reach the ropes. Though I do not understand why they tied me up as well. I am hardly edible!"
"I don't know, you're pretty rich in iron!" Jasmine chuckled.
"To repeat what Ratchet said a while ago, that is not helpful"
"I really am sorry for this, guys. I should have realised what they were up to"
"Everyone makes mistakes" said Clank.
"Yeah, but most mistakes aren't so goddamn stupid-whats that?"
Ratchet ears perked up.
"In that statue!"
Ratchet looked up. In the statue above he could see a red glitter.
"Its the crystal! The one we're here for!"
"How ironic. So close, and yet, so far"
"Bugger" she said, with feeling.
Funny, thought Ratchet. When I'm so close to death, everything's so much clearer… He could see the gleam of light on the Pyreemites blades, feel every rough blemish on the stone he lay on. He could even hear a distant crashing in the forest. Some large animal, probably. The Pyreemite leader approached them, sharpening his knife, a grin on his rat-like face. Ratchet began struggling desperately. He'd be damned if he was going out without a fight.
The leader's ugly head appeared in Ratchets vision, blocking out the light. The distant crashing in the forest grew louder as Ratchet tugged on the ropes as hard as he could, ears flattened against his skull.
The leader raised his knife…and a shot from the jungle sent it spinning from his hand.
A green blur burst from the jungle, firing wildly. Ratchet gasped. It was Captain Qwark.
"Get back you overgrown sewer rats!"
"Qwark? What are you doing here?"
Qwark banged two Pyreemites heads together, stunning them.
"Saving your butt, what does it look like? I felt bad leaving you to that monster, so I'm making it up to you!"
He charged a group, scattering them like bowling pins.
"That's real sweet, but do you think you could, I don't know, untie us?" said Jasmine.
"Oh yeah. Sorry"
He tugged on her ropes, muscles bulging as they snapped like dry grass. She sprang up, grabbed her wrench, unsheathed it and slashed through the others bonds. Ratchet sat up, massaging his wrists.
"We kick butt, right?"
"We kick butt!"
They charged into the fray. It quickly proved itself to be one of his more difficult fights. The Pyreemites fought dirty, biting, clawing and slashing with spears. It seemed for every one knocked out by his wrench, two more popped up. Clank struck at a Pyreemites ankle. As it screeched and toppled he stunned it with a quick burst of Clank-fu.
"We cannot fight them all, Ratchet! They will overwhelm us!"
Ratchet looked over in Jasmines direction. She was fighting her way towards the statue, leaving a trail of unconscious Pyreemites behind her. Those still conscious looked distinctly unhappy about it.
"Just a bit longer! We need that crystal!"
Qwark sent a group of opponents sprawling with the first thing he could grab (another Pyreemite).
"We can't hold out much longer, Ratchet! There's too many of them! We're gonna die!"
Above them, Jasmine clambered onto the statues head. It was even more unpleasant up close. She tried not to look to closely at the finer details, and focused instead on hacking the crystal from its moorings. It was hard work, made all the harder by the rat-like natives climbing up and attacking her. She looked down. The others were flagging. She would have to hurry. She turned to her task. A quick tug, and the crystal came off in her hand. She grinned and turned to leave…and a growl stopped her in her tracks. She turned. The Pyreemite leader had climbed on top of the statue and was brandishing a spear. It was primitive, but still sharp enough to be a worry.
"Greeta! Clacka bareeneto!"
"I have no idea what you just said, buster, but you're going down!"
She swung her wrench blades, only to gasp in horrified surprise as it ran towards her instead of away, ducking under her blades and slashing with its spear. Only Jasmines armour saved her from being shish-kebabbed.
She winced as the blow jarred her ribs. The leader took aim for another blow, light glinting off his obsidian blade. Jasmine grinned. The leader blinked. This wasn't what was supposed to happen…
Jasmines tail wrapped around his leg, pulling at it sharply.
He staggered and lost his balance, arms pin-wheeling as he started to topple off the statue. Jasmines shout of triumph turned into a scream of horror as the Pyreemite leaders flailing hand latched onto her ankle, pulling her off with him. She grabbed desperately at a projection on the statue, and found herself dangling one handed thirty feet off the ground, with the leaders not inconsiderable weight on her ankle.
Silence bloomed below them as the combatants below became aware of the drama being played out above their heads. The projection was crumbling beneath their weight. She didn't have long…
The Pyreemite started trying to climb up Jasmine, only to freeze as the statue made a warning creak. It began babbling desperately. She didn't understand the words, but the meaning was clear. Despite the grim situation she was in, she scowled. Typical bully. All big and tough but when things got real…
"OK rat boy, listen up!"
The leader focused on her. It didn't know what she was saying, but the tone spoke for her.
"Here's whats gonna happen!" She pointed down with her free hand. "You're gonna get your little friends to help us down or…" she shook her legs, sending him swaying dangerously.
He gibbered and began shouting to his followers below. There was a scurry of activity as the Pyreemites began climbing up, forming a living pyramid. She shuddered as their rat-like hands latched hold of her, lowering them down to the ground. The others ran up to her, looking rather the worst for wear. Ratchet and Qwark were bleeding from numerous cuts and Clank was rather dented.
"That was close!" said Ratchet. "For a while I was sure you were gonna-Look out!"
Jasmine had missed the cunning look on the Pyreemite leaders face, and turned just in time to avoid being stabbed in the neck by a spear. She grabbed it just behind the spearhead, and it stopped as suddenly as if it had been thrust into concrete. Jasmine gave the leader a vicious snarl. She had pulled a muscle dangling from the statue and was not in the mood. The Pyreemite leader looked into her eyes and saw sudden death if he made one more aggressive move. He motioned desperately at his followers. They lowered their weapons and stepped back.
"Right…" growled Jasmine. She pointed at her friends, then the jungle, then pointed at the Pyreemite leader and made some very interesting gestures. The meaning was clear. Let us go, or else…
"Come on, guys" said Jasmine. "I don't trust those overgrown rats as far as I can throw 'em. Lets get out of here while we can"
They took off, Jasmine pausing to make one last threatening gesture before disappearing into the jungle.
They kept moving in silence, straining to put distance between themselves and the cannibalistic Pyreemites. Finally they stopped in a clearing. Moss and vines had grown over the top of the trees, making a cool green cave. After the damp heat of the jungle it was quite restful.
Ratchet slumped down on a fallen log.
"You think they'll come after us?"
"Doubt it. I had 'em pretty rattled" she tossed the crystal from hand to hand and grinned smugly.
"Three down, four to go. Keep this up and the Lombaxes'll be home by next week!"
"Oh, is that what this is about?"
Jasmine cursed. She'd forgotten Qwark was there.
"I mean, I'd be more than happy to help…"
Jasmine and Ratchet exchanged helpless glances. Looked like they were stuck with him…
"We'd be glad to have you along" said Jasmine. "You did kinda save our lives back there. We owe you"
"Great! So how about you and me-"
"Not if you were the last male in the universe"
Jasmine looked over at Ratchet.
"I think I'm ready to head out. Wheres Aphelion?"
"She's in orbit around that way" he waved a hand vaguely north. "I just gotta send the signal and she'll be right-"
A noise echoed around the little clearing. It was a small, quiet noise, but one that never failed to send a chill through Ratchets heart. It was the sound of a gun being cocked. He looked up. Three Blargs had appeared from nowhere, carefully sighting down their rifles. There was another click behind him, and he knew with a sinking heart that more had shown up. Within seconds they were entirely surrounded.
"Jasmine?" he said, carefully raising his arms above his head. If he tried to fight this lot you could use him to strain pasta before he made one move…
"My old drill sergeant used to say, its pointless to undertake a direct attack on an enemy well armed with projectile weapons"
Ratchet had met numerous army types. He shot her a disbelieving glance.
"OK, what he really said was, never get in an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine. Gentlemen, we surrender"