Once upon a time in a forlorn land,
A man on a mission was left at fate's hand
In his eyes you could see the whites turn red
Surrounded by evil, abandoned for dead . . .

- "Destined for Glory" by Hammerfall

A Hero's Return

The crunch of metal soles on the dusty clay sands of Veldin resounded with the sweet sounds of victory as the spacecraft descended to the surface. As the dust cleared, a hatch began to open, the mechanical pistons and pumps resounding in a symphony of excitement as the contents of the craft came into view for all to see. The first figure to be seen was that of a puny, blocky robot.

"Feeling better after that 'detour' to Aquatos, Ratchet?"

"That was EXCELLENT!" Ratchet responded as he appeared at the threshold, leaning against it. "I don't know what was better, the food, the show, or the ... well, let's just say Hydro Girl knows how to throw a party!"

"I'm glad to see you're recovering so rapidly from Gleeman Vox's DreadZone, Ratchet."

"Hey, you forget who you're talking to, I'm . . . the hell is going on here?"

Ratchet glanced out at his landing field, to notice a strange processional approaching the craft. It was hardly the first time Ratchet came home to a large welcome, least of all on his home planet, but something about this group seemed too orderly. Too organized. Too . . . formal.

There seemed to be an even mix of men and women among the lot, all Lombaxes, all dressed to the nines. Each gentleman had on a black tuxedo with an ice blue shirt, and each woman an ice blue dress with a black shrug covering both shoulders and their right arms, each of them wearing the exact same type of strappy sandal with an inch-high heel. On everyone's lapel or shrug, there appeared to be a design embroidered on, again in the same ice blue.

" . . . Clank, did we just crash a prom or something?"

"I checked the coordinates half an hour ago. This location should have been empty." Clank shrugged, looking out upon the crowd. "I suspect they're here for us."

Ratchet walked down the rampway of the craft, approaching the male closest to the vehicle. "Hey, pal, what's with the fancy clothes? I'd have been happy enough with these girls wearing nothing!"

The women bristled, the nearest one looking especially perturbed. The fellow Ratchet had addressed suddenly looked tense. "Hey, Ratchet, if you want answers, don't come looking to me, okay? We're here for you."

"I guessed that. I want to know why."

The man shrugged. "I don't think it's my question to answer."

"Who's in charge here? I want to know which one of you guys is-!"

The perturbed woman, having enough of this, grabbed hold of Ratchet by an ear. Almost on instinct, Ratchet pulled out a wrench, swinging for her. This would have been enough to send any mere Lombax flying into the dirt, but the woman dodged it, yanking Ratchet down to throw him off, before diving under him to flip the Lombax onto his back. She stood up, only covered with incidental dust, staring down at a shocked Ratchet.

The female fiddled with a golden bracelet on her sleeve-covered arm, checking it for damages. She started mumbling to herself. "Figures. Three thousand years of egalitarianism and he still goes for the nearest set of tools he sees . . ."

Ratchet narrowed his eyes, staring up at her, still flat on his back. " . . . I'm guessing it's you then."

"You will refer to me as Aria, Ratchet." The woman spoke with scorn and crossed arms. "I am the leader of this escorting party, and we are charged with bringing you to Elysium. As you can imagine, we would prefer to do so with minimal casualties to yourself."

"You could have just said that."

"You could have addressed us all rather than assuming that boy was in charge of the lot of us as well, but assumptions are fragile, misshappen things most of the time, aren't they? We'll be glad to take you there without further incident . . . assuming you don't make any more."

"Excuse me, Madam Aria." Clank came on down the rampway, with Al at the top of the ramp, looking out. "I'm afraid I must ask about this 'Elysium' you want to take Ratchet to."

Almost immediately, Aria's stature shot up an extra inch, her ears perking up. "I can explain on the way." Aria smiled at Clank. "All you need to understand for now is that this 'warrior' here has been summoned there by the Protectorate, and we have orders to accompany him to there directly from this landing site."

Ratchet shook his head has he rose to his feet. "Hang on, the 'Protectorate'? As in 'the one who saves your ass on a regular basis'? As in 'the hero who keeps every two-bit thug from blowing up or otherwise decimating this planet'?"

"Exactly." Aria raised an eyebrow at Ratchet, who was now wearing a sardonic grin on his face.

"Then there's a small flaw in your statement. I've saved this place at least twice so far. That makes me the Protectorate. I can't very well summon myself without knowing about it." Ratchet pointed to himself, still looking smug.

"You're right. You can't summon yourself."

"Then you're mistaken in your 'orders'." Ratchet continued.

Aria shook her head. "You've been summoned. That much is fact."

Ratchet raised an eyebrow. "But . . . I'm the Protectorate."

Aria frowned. "Not anymore. Now I've had enough of playing 'Planetary Politics 101' with you. We are authorized to escort you directly from here to Elysium, by force if necessary, and if you wish to question the orders we were given by the new Protectorate . . . you can say them to her face."

The crowd began to walk off, as Aria watched Big Al and Clank walk to the surface. "You're welcome to accompany us as well, of course. We have hovercrafts this way." She pointed off in a direction, which Ratchet began walking towards, with an unmistakable look of confusion on his face.