As the ship came in for a landing on Planet Umbris, the group got their first look at the planet. The dirty red-brown sky matched the barren stone of the land, and the water of the oceans was turgid and sluggish. No sign of natural life touched any part of the planet, marking it as a dead world that had only been partially terraformed to the level the lone occupant deemed necessary for the planet's purpose. Every bit of visible land had some form of training ground covering every inch of it, with the largest land mass containing an obstacle course plainly meant to test every possible physical aspect of anyone foolish enough to attempt it.
"So that's what he meant about proving ourselves," Ratchet murmured thoughtfully as the ship landed.
"I don't like this place," Vendra muttered uncertainly as she shivered in revulsion. "It...it was never alive to begin with..."
"At least we don't need to worry too much about doing damage, then," Neftin pointed out helpfully as the ship came to a halt, the cockpit opening to let them out.
"Quark invited us here to prove we could save the galaxy, not demolish it," Clank indicated pointedly as they exited the ship, his metallic feet being the last to touch the ground. "Perhaps it would be a better showing if we kept collateral damage to a minimum?"
"Welcome to my challenge course!" Qwark declared through a megaphone from his place in a chopper flying above the landing pad. "Now is your chance to prove yourself strong and brave..." He paused before taking another glance at the group, then continued, the previous sentiment seemingly left incomplete. "Conquer it, and I will know you are ready to join the fight against evil!"
"We're going to get paid though, right?" Ratchet called out, though not loud enough to be heard clearly by Qwark with how close he was to the propellers. Clank, however, gave Ratchet a judgemental look. "What?" Ratchet pointed out defensively. "We're mercenaries. Besides, Qwark got paid for his hero work. Why shouldn't he pay us for our help?"
"What was that?" Qwark called out. "I can't hear you!"
Neftin raised his arm and projected the Taunter, briefly reconfiguring it to match his voice. "We're going to get paid, right?" he bellowed, the Taunter ensuring that it was impossible for Qwark to not hear as it sent an infra-sound signal ahead of the bellow exactly tuned to the noise of the propellers.
Qwark blinked in surprise, frowned momentarily as he scratched his chin in thought, then resumed his happy expression. "We'll talk about that at the end of the course!" he declared through the megaphone before turning the chopper to head towards the other side of the land mass.
Ratchet groaned, rubbing his head. "If we actually do decide to be professional mercenaries...always insist on payment in advance," he stated firmly to his siblings.
"A not unheard of stance to take," Clank allowed. "Still, you might need to demonstrate that you are actually capable of the jobs you expect to be hired to do...such as, saving the galaxy?"
"Wait, are you saying this first time we're getting paid in exposure?" Neftin demanded crossly.
"If Captain Qwark is rewarded for this endeavor after recruiting us, I see no fault in demanding a portion of said reward from him in recompense," Clank pointed out blandly. "And your Grandfather has the lawyers to force it should he balk. I doubt Wendell Lumos would tolerate anyone trying to bilk his grandchildren for any reason."
"True enough," Vendra allowed as she looked out over the planet, once more shivering as she saw how dead the world was. "Let's see if there's anything worthwhile in the vendor. If this is an obstacle course, there's only one path through so there's no reason for me to take an overhead view...and I really don't like the air here."
"Looks like a Mine Glove," Ratchet spoke up after perusing the vendor's inventory. "Like the bomb glove, but the mines sit there until a hostile walks over them."
"I'll take it," Neftin allowed as he interfaced with the vendor to download the weapon schematics into his cybernetics. "Might be useful, and I've got the best throwing arm."
"In that case, let's go," Vendra stated firmly, floating over to the Versa Swing targets over the gap before the start of the course. The others soon followed, Clank hitching a ride across with Ratchet.
A mine launching turret briefly barred the way before Neftin managed to hurl one of the mines from his Mine Glove straight down its launcher, causing it to detonate from within. "What happened to keeping the collateral damage down?" Clank asked pointedly.
"It's a turret," Neftin pointed out. "The only way past those is around or through, and there isn't an around path. We're expected to go through."
Clank thought about that for a time, then sighed. "Fair enough."
A few floating mines patrolled the path further forward past another turret, though they went down from a single shot of Nether Energy from Vendra bouncing between them before the group even got close enough to trigger them. A machine gun turret made the next path somewhat dangerous to traverse, but Neftin quickly discovered that the bullets it fired pinged harmlessly off the cybernetic armor on his arm, so he simply held it in the path of the bullets before walking forward until he reached the turret. A quick smack caused it to withdraw temporarily into the ground, and he held it down until the others caught up to him.
The group continued along the winding path with ease, the only other new obstacle for a while being narrow bridges that Neftin was forced to sidle along due to his bulk. A few locked gates were opened by sets of three pressure switches that technically needed to be activated within a certain amount of time to synchronize the signals, but with four of them that was a moot point. Collapsing bridge platforms proved completely inconsequential as Ratchet leapt across the bridges as a matter of course, Vendra floated across them, Clank was too light to trigger them, and Neftin had taken to crossing by grabbing the sides of the bridges and swinging through monkey style as that cleared the distance better than trying to sidle through.
Before long, the group reached a winding path through barbed wire with two machine gun turrets sweeping through with their fire. The path between the fences was too narrow for Neftin to keep his arm down to block the weapons fire at all times without getting caught on the barbed wire himself, and he simply wasn't maneuverable enough to dodge the bullets despite the predictable sweep pattern. "Now what?" he asked uncertainly.
"The path is wide enough for you to walk through," Clank pointed out logically. "If someone got to the other side to knock out the turrets and keep them from firing-"
"Good idea!" Ratchet interrupted as he picked Clank up and set him in Neftin's hand. "Just remember your heli-pack."
As Neftin pulled his arm back, Clank's eyes went flat. "Me and my big auditory hinge-" he began before being flung over the fences. His heli-pack popped out as he reached the right distance. Once he landed between the turrets, he triggered his transformation and used his Nether Claws to knock out the turrets, making sure to keep them down as the others raced through the barbed wire maze. "This feels like cheating," he observed judgmentally as they reached him.
"How so?" Vendra asked in confusion. "Obstacle courses like this are meant to test how you would handle various real world situations...and this is how we'd handle them: by finding the things our opponents didn't think of and exploiting them mercilessly."
"So...less 'cheating' and more 'creative rule following'?" Clank asked uncertainly.
"Exactly!" Ratchet confirmed happily as they moved on.
Further such obstacles were dealt with in similar manners, with the group splitting up whenever there were threats or objectives in multiple directions to tackle them all at once, and with the more mobile of the group - Ratchet, Vendra, Clank, or some combination thereof - prioritizing neutralizing threats where possible. After passing by a statue of Qwark - that Vendra had to mightily resist the urge to deface - the group encountered a new obstacle. Several large pools of water were connected by tunnels and ladders, and vicious fish large enough to eat Vendra or Ratchet in one bite swam through the pools, glaring pugnaciously up at the group.
"Definitely not swimming," Ratchet muttered as he glared back at the large green fish.
"Yeah, wet fur is not a good smell for you," Neftin joked, laughing as Ratchet smacked his arm with his tail.
"Looks like this will come in useful after all," Vendra observed as she pulled out the Hydrodisplacer, using it at a nearby interface to drain the pool almost completely, leaving the fish helplessly flopping about in a shallow bit of water.
"I forgot you got that," Ratchet observed thoughtfully as the group leapt down into the now ankle high water. The fish flopped towards them in an attempt to attack, but it wasn't able to move fast enough and the group easily avoided it as they continued onward.
The second to last outdoor pool didn't have a way back out the other side without refilling it, but there were two fish inside that would surely attack viciously if they did. Neftin resolved this situation by throwing Ratchet, Vendra, and Clank across to the other side before using a running leap - and a well timed rocket punch while gripping the near edge of the pool - to launch himself to the other side to join them. The last outdoor pool led into the interior of a large structure, and normally would need to be refilled to get out the other side. However, that wall was narrow enough that Neftin was able to brace his palms flat against the sides and use his cybernetics to lift himself up as though on vertical treadmills, the others riding with him. Beyond, a few Versa Swing targets led them to one last indoor pool which remained empty, with a ledge normally too high to jump to for the exit. However, Neftin was tall enough to grab the ledge without jumping, letting the others clamber over him before hauling himself up.
Following a narrow, winding path beyond, the group finally reached where Qwark awaited them, standing at the edge of a large, circular platform. "Well well..." he murmured in awe. "You all continue to surprise me." With a calm jump, he leapt backwards onto a floating platform, gesturing to the one he'd just leapt off. "Step into the Ring of Heroes, and receive the reward that your efforts deserve."
As Clank started to step forward, all three of the others immediately grabbed hold of them. "Wow," Ratchet stated calmly. "That doesn't sound 'deceptively villainous' at all!" he stated, sarcasm heavy in his voice.
"It doesn't?" Qwark asked in pleased surprise. "That's a relief. I had creative differences with my last speech writer, so I wasn't sure if that sounded right."
All three Progs blinked in surprise. "Wait..." Neftin began awkwardly. "Are you telling us you don't see how that could easily sound like a villain luring heroes into a trap, making an excruciating death sound like a reward by calling it 'what they deserve'?"
"Wait, is that what it means?" Qwark gasped out in shock. "I am so sorry! I was just trying to be dramatic like everyone I meet in my business is since this is the Ring of Heroes. It's a sacred tradition, after all, and deserves appropriate gravity."
"Gravitas," Clank corrected idly.
"That too," Qwark agreed.
"So...what does it do, exactly?" Vendra demanded, glancing at the Ring. It seemed recently renovated to be expanded, the central platform in the middle of the ring large enough for their entire group to stand on.
"It reads the qualities of your hearts," Qwark explained bombastically, "and declares unto you your capacity for heroism."
"But...we don't want to be heroes," Ratchet pointed out flatly. "Like we keep saying, we're mercenaries."
"I understand that," Qwark replied readily. "Oh, how well I understand. But surely you see that being heroic mercenaries will get you more jobs than simply being mercenaries...or at least, more jobs that you would be inclined to take? If nothing else...think how proud it would make your grandfather that the Ring declared you Heroes."
The three siblings hesitated, the idea of being able to make Wendell proud just by stepping onto the platform and letting it read them...
"But Neftin and Vendra's biology and spiritual structure is not native to this plane of existence," Clank pointed out thoughtfully. "Are you certain it will read them correctly?"
Qwark blinked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I admit, I'm not," he allowed apologetically. "But it's just a passive read. It won't do anything to hurt any of you, and it reads for what's there, not for what isn't. The worst it'll get from you two is an error message."
"And the remote behind your back?" Vendra asked suspiciously.
"What, this?" Qwark asked innocently, pulling out the remote with a single button. "It turns it on." Seeing their suspicious looks, he smiled disarmingly. "I know this seems odd, but you are asking me to trust you with secret information that could decide the fate of the galaxy. Is it really so much to ask that you trust me? Just for a ritual that's near and dear to my heart?"
The group exchanged glances for a time, and eventually the siblings exchanged helpless shrugs. Vendra floated into the circle first alongside Clank, letting her feet touch the metal as she folded her wings. Ratchet followed suit, walking into the center. Neftin came last, his heavy steps shaking the platform somewhat.
As soon as all four were in the center, the platform broke from the bridge and tumbled into the fiery abyss below, the four standing on it thrown off balance by the tilt of the platform and unable to stop themselves from falling.
Qwark glanced from the broken bridge to the remote in his hand - and the button he hadn't pressed - before scratching idly at his head. "Oops?" he finally stated uncertainly.