The penthouse suite was dark and silent. It was here that, on the uppermost floor of the relatively modern Solana housing complex in New Fastoon, one of the nine council members dwelled. There was extremely tight security and force fields at every door. These were not designed to keep threats out, as very few threats would even make the attempt against this occupant. Instead they were solely focused on keeping track of the recalcitrant resident. Council members served by force, drafted from among the highest ranks of generals, adventurers and administrators. Ever since General Neutrino was finally brought in over fifty years earlier, extra precautions had been instituted by the Lombax Defense Ministry to make certain that no member of the ruling council could escape undetected again.
The security team certainly had their hands full with this one. The old lombax adventurer was still very fit for his advanced seventy-four years of age, and he had a reputation for outperforming even some of the youngest deputies in the fitness course. The seventy-four was really just an estimate, of course; no one really knew when he was born, so it was merely an agreed upon number. The agile lombax had tried, and succeeded on a few occasions, in eluding surveillance and his security detail. But with the death of his wife Talwyn the previous year, a lot of the fight had gone out of the councilor. Even so, the security detail was still on full alert; it would not be the first time that their charge had painstakingly faked prolonged disinterest only to suddenly turn up missing... They made sure that every recruit knew that they should neither underestimate nor trust the silver fur on this one!
Ratchet was currently on the terrace overlooking New Fastoon, tuning his latest acquisition: an antique hoverbike similar to the ones that he and Reg Solstice used to race. This bike required a lot of attention, but that just made it more interesting for the old lombax; taking it and fixing it up better than new was a hobby he enjoyed almost as much as racing it. It also got him out of the dull council chamber and into the open air. Adjusting the thrusters with his ever present omniwrench, he suddenly stopped and let out a low chuckle.
"Hey, Clank, check this out. They put a tracer in the bike again." Ratchet pulled out a tiny, self contained crystal component, no more than one centicubit in length.
Clank looked up from the operations manual he had been reading. The years had treated the robot very well, of course. He did not age the way organic life forms did. But he had grown in a lot of other ways, and had learned a thing or two over the years. Clank chuckled, "Really... You would think they would leave you alone for a little while at least. After all, your council term expires in three days. By law, they are required to give you a parole of at least one year before they can draft you again."
"Yeah," Ratchet agreed, walking over to a potted thorntree and pushing the tracer deep into the soil at its roots. "I think they're worried they won't be able to track me. I almost got away from 'em last time; they had to cheat and use the dimensionator to find me. Clank, I swear, I intend to give 'em a good run for their bolts before they draft me again. Petrov had the right idea; once they've got you by the tail, you can't get away."
"Now Ratchet," Clank chided, "This is really not that bad of an existence. The lombax people respect you and your abilities. You are very highly valued. That is why they keep coming to find you. You have been on the council for five terms now..."
A warning tone issued from the doorway. Ratchet looked up to the door and the field faded. Standing on the threshold was a lombax approximately thirty years old. He towered over the older councilor (Ratchet was very short for the species) and held a display panel in his gloved hand. Ratchet grinned, "Hi Al. What brings you here?"
Prime Minister Albert Neutrino was Petrov's grandson. Physically, he was nearly the same height as his grandfather, but lacked the athletic build and powerful presence. But he had inherited the most important features of his grandfather - his somewhat warped sense of humor and his gift for mayhem that made Al a natural for the role of Prime Minister. Al also had the same changeable blue eyes that Ratchet remembered in Petrov. Their color and depth seemed to vary based on the lombax's mood at the time. Right now, they were a clear sunny blue.
"Uncle Ratchet," he began. Ratchet had been officially adopted by Petrov very soon after his first trip to the Leonid galaxy. He remembered that day when Clank's warning of 'Uh, Ratchet...' almost caused the lombax to bash the general's brains out with his wrench. Petrov had tried to sneak up behind him, and, well, it had been a close call... Ever since then, he had always had a home among the Neutrinos, the Solstices and the Tesseract families, and had gotten to know them all pretty well. "I have a message for you from the council." Al waved his hand, and a series of force fields surrounded the terrace. Ratchet looked a little surprised. They were sensory distorting, but they also appeared rather secure. "Are they having you run errands now? That is just sooooo wrong. I will have to talk with them about that..." Ratchet took the display pad and began to read. His ears and tail drooped. "This can't be right..." He read it again. His ears and tail drooped even more. Ratchet looked up at Al, a strange expression on his face. "Why?"
Clank was extremely concerned and pulled the display panel from his friend's loose grip. It read:
"Congratulations! You have been selected as the recipient of the Lombax Defense Ministry's 'Lifetime Achievement Award'. This prestigious honor is bestowed in recognition of your great contributions to the lombax nation and to the Leonid, Polaris, Bogon and Solana galaxies. The presentation ceremony and recording session will be held this evening in the council chambers of New Fastoon. A formal dinner will follow. Please invite anyone you wish to witness this event. Attendance is, of course, mandatory under section eight three one paragraph 'd'."
"This is indeed a great honor," Clank began. Ratchet said nothing, but Al almost gushed. "Hell, yeah! Not only do they want to honor you, they also want to use the BetaTex to record you for future generations..." Al saw the look in Ratchet's face and his fallen ears. Having grown up with Uncle Reg telling stories about Ratchet's past based on what he remembered from the playback, Al thought he understood the problem. "Don't worry, Uncle. The recording process has changed a lot. They haven't used that kind of equipment for decades. Nowadays, you just sit in a chair, look at some lights and you're done." Ratchet forced a grin. "Yeah... That sounds lots better. Thanks, Al."
Al looked over to Clank. "Uncle Clank, the council is interested in you too. We all grew up on the stories of how you two worked as a team. They would like to record you as well, if you are willing that is..."
Clank's eyes brightened. "I would be honored."
"I'll see you tonight then!" Al started for the door. Ratchet looked up at him and asked "Wait. Before you go, when did this happen? I certainly didn't vote on this." Al smiled. "They had a special session. I guess they wanted to keep it a surprise; you weren't invited. It was a unanimous vote of eight to zero with one missing. It was also ratified by the Prime Minister..." Al wore a slightly smug grin and bowed slightly. "See you tonight!" The younger lombax walked out the open door.
Clank looked at Ratchet's face very carefully, and saw the conflicting emotions there. "Ratchet, what is wrong?" Ratchet sat down on the edge of the thorntree planter and glanced up briefly at the red spikes growing along the vines. He did not answer immediately, and when he did, it was in a very soft, sad voice with his eyes turned downward to the stonework floor of the terrace. "Clank, they only give you a 'lifetime achievement award' when they think you've fired your last combustor round." Clank's optical sensors widened in surprise. "Ratchet, that makes no sense. You have nearly two decades remaining in your expected life span. I find it difficult to believe that the council had any such intention. Are you certain that you are interpreting their actions correctly?" Ratchet just looked into Clank's sensors, and said, "I don't know..." His voice trailed off, and when he spoke again, there was a note of both sadness and disappointment there. "Maybe they won't even try to catch me this time..." Ratchet was silent for a while, and then said, "Well, we'd better get ready. We don't have much time. I'm sure they planned it that way..."
Ratchet fussed with the black bow tie of his tuxedo. No matter how much he adjusted it, it still felt too tight, as though someone had a cord around his neck trying to strangle him. Loosening it yet again, he looked critically at himself in the display pad. While his stripes still had some yellow, orange and brown, there was also a lot of white, silver and grey mixed in. It was almost as though he had been standing on Hoven getting snowed on. Ratchet let out a deep sigh. Still, he had to admit that the monochrome accents in his fur were really sharp against the black and white of his tux! And, yes, they were still accents, no matter what the actual ratio might be...
He heard a female voice behind him, "Are you ready, Uncle Ratchet?" Ratchet turned, and a smile filled his face for the first time since Al gave him the news. Amanda Tesseract, Mandy to her friends, stood in a lovely maroon formal gown. Doc's great-granddaughter, the young lombax had a scientific talent that rivaled if not surpassed her ancestor. She also did not have the fur problems that had bothered Doc T most of his life. "You look beautiful, Mandy. Is Chuck here with you?" Chuck Solstice would probably be around here somewhere. Thinking back to Doc's words over fifty years ago, Ratchet was pleased to see that the three families had grown so closely together down through the years. Chuck and Mandy were, well, engaged to be engaged. Ratchet had experienced Talwyn's subtle maneuvering long enough to recognize when it was being played out on someone else. Mandy already had Chuck completely under her command; Chuck just didn't know it yet. Ratchet smiled at the thought. It was merely a matter of time.
Mandy nodded. "He'll be at the central table with Al and me. By the way, if it makes you feel any better, Uncle Ratchet," Mandy continued, "I'll be operating both BetaTex systems personally. Both you and Uncle Clank can rest easy. And once that's over, we'll have a nice dinner on the council's bolts and get to annoy Spiff." Spiff... Even after all this time, he was still on the council. But Ratchet had to admit a grudging respect for the administrative lombax. Not that they were really friends, but Ratchet could not deny his ability, and so few lombaxes had that kind of talent for legal detail. "Shall we?" Ratchet asked with a slightly lecherous grin, offering his arm to the pretty young lombax. Mandy smiled and put her hand on Ratchet's arm. "Certainly. Uncle Clank?"
Clank was 'dressed' in his tuxedo as well; his 'Secret Agent Clank' gear that he made famous on all of the holovids. In fact, you could still watch those episodes even today in late night syndication. Granted, they were chopped up a little to make more space for the advertising... "I am ready, Mandy. Thank you," Clank said, reaching up to hold her other arm.
The three of them walked together out onto the stage, amid a spattering of applause. There were a number of tables set out below the stage, and a large number of deputies from the Lombax Defense Ministry were present near the front. Ratchet could recognize their uniforms, but with the dim lighting of the dining area, he could not really see the people sitting in the tables beyond the rows of foot lights. Set apart on the stage was a table for the dignitaries: there were three seats reserved for himself, Clank and Mandy; Chuck and Al (laughing over some shared joke as always) and, representing the council and presenting the award, Spiff (looking a lot older but still seeming out of place among the laughter of Chuck and Al). The only other items on the stage were two identical BetaTex systems.
Ratchet had expected all of the wires and straps from the nightmare chairs of the old days. But he was pleasantly surprised. In the center of the stage were two comfortable looking padded recliners with a strange eyepiece suspended over the headrest. That, and there were two large cubes of crystal, approximately twenty centicubits on a side, floating side by side approximately a centicubit above what looked to be a pair of teleporter pads.
Mandy guided Ratchet and Clank to the chairs. "Just relax, Uncle Ratchet. This won't hurt a bit..." She activated a control, and the pair of crystals began to glow, illuminated from beneath. Mandy placed the eyepiece over Ratchet's eyes and he found himself looking at a series of colored lights. Rather unremarkable. After Clank was similarly configured, Mandy went to the control panel and pressed a shiny green button.
There were some flashes in the eyepiece, but Ratchet did not notice anything unusual. In fact, he was surprised when Mandy came back to him almost immediately. "All done," she said with a jovial chuckle. "That's it?" Ratchet asked, astounded. He had been bracing himself and, well, his grip on the arm rests of the padded chair was a little tight. "Yup. See for yourself!"
Mandy helped Ratchet and Clank off of the chairs. Leading them to the center of the stage, they could see that the two crystal cubes now seemed to glow on their own. In their depths, a pair of energy patterns twisted and shifted along the crystal matrix. They were quite fascinating to watch. Clank's seemed rather regular; probably to be expected given his robot nature. Ratchet's was all over the place, as though looking for a way out of the cube.
Clank studied them for a moment, and then moved to the side of the stage so that he could examine the cubes from another perspective. Looking from that vantage point, he could see through both crystal cubes at the same time with the patterns overlaid. His eyes widened.
Mandy had moved away and was powering off all of the equipment, pausing briefly to 'accidentally' brush her hand across Chuck's shoulder in passing. Chuck's eyes widened slightly and turned to follow her as she moved. Ratchet could only chuckle to himself. Yup - it was just a matter of time...
"Ratchet, do you have your wrench?" The urgency in Clank's voice shocked the lombax out of his speculation. "Of course. What's wrong?" "Ratchet, we must destroy these crystals. I will explain later. On the count of three..."
Ratchet was shocked at the intensity of Clank's voice and the determined expression on his face, but he trusted his friend. He nodded.
Clank assumed his 'Clank-fu' stance from his holovid days in front of his crystal. Ratchet positioned himself carefully next to his own.
Ratchet's omniwrench appeared in his hand, summoned by his neural matrix from his manifestor.
Ratchet performed an overhead strike, bringing his wrench down hard through the cube of crystal, shattering it into thousands of fragments. Clank performed a 'Clank-fu' chop, slicing his hand through his own crystal, also breaking it.
There was a stunned silence in the hall. Conversation at the dignitary's table was stopped immediately, and the murmuring drone of the other tables changed pitch and muted. All eyes turned to Ratchet and Clank with a single question.
But then those eyes moved to look at the remains of the two crystals. The energy patterns that had represented Ratchet and Clank's BetaTex recordings had not winked out of existence as those gathered expected. Instead, the two patterns appeared to be drawn to each other, like oppositely charged ions. Because the cubes had been close together on the stage, it only took moments for the expanding patterns to touch. At first contact, they appeared to grow brighter, and the energy fields began to merge. While they remained unique, the two patterns moved into a single structure, appearing to feed back on one another and grow stronger; brighter. Soon the entire structure stabilized into a dual matrix of energy, floating above the broken fragments of crystal and hovering between Ratchet and Clank.
Ratchet stared at the structure curiously. Leaning inward to get a better look (his eyesight was not as keen as it used to be), he was surprised when one part of the pattern approached him. A single static electric discharge jumped from the chaotic portion of the structure to the very tip of Ratchet's extremely sensitive lombax nose. Ratchet let out a tiny yelp, jumped backward approximately half a cubit and rubbed his nose with his gloved left hand. The entire energy structure seemed to shimmer; twinkle; almost as if in amusement.
Clank let out a chuckle of his own at Ratchet's maneuver. Looking up at the structure, he extended his right fist towards it and butted it gently against the energy matrix. A second static discharge ran from the logical portion of the structure to his fist.
Ratchet looked over to Clank and asked, "What just happened here?" Clank watched his friend very closely - he had expected this and wanted to observe Ratchet's reaction. "Do you remember the day that I was abducted by the Zoni?"
Ratchet blinked. This was not what he expected. "...Yeah..."
Clank continued, enjoying the suspense. "Do you remember what I learned about the Zoni, and of their origins?"
Ratchet thought back. "...Yeah..."
Clank waited. Ratchet thought about what his friend had told him on that day, over fifty years ago. He looked up at the pattern. Suddenly, Ratchet's eyes grew very wide and he jaw dropped open slightly. Clank let out a deep chuckle; this was exactly the reaction he had been expecting. "Congratulations, Ratchet. You are a father."
The wrench vanished from Ratchet's hand and for a moment there was a stunned look on the lombax's face. Then a small smile started to form. With the light from the structure reflected in his moist eyes, Ratchet reached up to touch the pattern once again. Clank mirrored his friend's motions. The pattern flickered for a second, and then grew very bright. A rift formed above the stage and there was a flash of intense blue light. When the glare faded, the stage was empty.
Kyzil Plateau, Veldin
11:48pm Local Time
The stars shone very brightly in the cloudless night sky. There was little pollution from artificial lighting here, and the only sound that could be heard was a light, intermittent breeze across the empty expanse. There were no locals nearby and no sign of any activity, natural or otherwise.
Much of Veldin had been renovated after repeated attacks and invasions by Drek, Tyhrranoid, Ranger, Pirate, Plasmoid, you name it; but this area had not been rebuilt. For whatever reason, this rather unremarkable location had been the epicenter of almost every single incident. And yet the only things this spot had to offer were the remains of a broken landing pad, the collapsed stone and metal fragments of a storage structure (possibly a garage) and a large tangle of thorntrees. These thorntrees had overgrown both pad and ruins, towered easily over one hundred cubits above the hard packed surface, and giant red spikes grew out at odd angles.
No one was there to see it as a rift seemed to open in the evening air. From this opening, a strange being emerged. It looked like a lombax kit, barely four years old, running barefoot at top speed across the plateau. The kit was wearing hand-me-down work jeans and a backpack of some sort. But the strange thing about the young lombax was that it seemed almost translucent, as though it was merely a holographic projection, and glowed with its own light in the starlit evening.
The kit reached the thorntree and leapt up to catch the lowest spike. The backpack fired a thruster, and the lombax was able to grab the spike with ease. Dangling there, he let go and dropped lightly back to the ground. "Let me do it myself." The words echoed over the empty plateau. But they seemed distorted, and the voice did not match the apparent age of the kit.
The backpack, or rather, the tiny robot riding on the backpack straps, chuckled. "As you wish."
The kit went back to its starting point, ran across the plane again, leapt and missed the thorn by a few centicubits. "Damn. One more shot..."
On the third attempt, the lombax kit was able to grab the thorn unaided. He pulled himself up, a huge smile on his face. Slowly, he began to climb. The kit made its way further and further up the thorntree, going slowly but enjoying the effort, stopping on occasion to simply dangle from an extremely large thorn, or hang upside-down by his knees, his tail tuft just visible over the top of his ears.
After some time, the kit reached the apex of the thorntree, where the spikes were more pliable and would no longer support his light weight. With a huge smile on his face, the lombax kit dove out and away from the tree, performed a somersault, tucked into a ball and plummeted towards the ground. When he was a mere two cubits from the packed dirt, a rift opened just above the surface of the ground and he fell through it, his tail pulled straight behind him by the velocity of his fall. The sound of the mingled laughter of both kit and robot filled the plateau. The rift closed a mere centicubit behind the lombax's tail, and winked out of existence. The final echoes of their laugher faded, with only the sound of the light breeze remaining.