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Those Magic Changes

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Sandover Village was a provincial place. Few people called it home, and those that did weren’t of great ambition. Their days were concerned with the banal trials and tribulations of a small seaside existance—fishing, farming, local gossip. So long as the harvest was good and lurkers weren’t conducting raids, the villagers were content to carry on with their simple lives as they had done for generations, embracing change only when it was absolutely required.

Samos didn’t share their sensibilities. As the Sage of Green Eco, it wasn’t enough to merely cultivate his plants, tend to the injured, and sit back on his laurels—he was driven by the pursuit of knowledge and a desire to improve the world around him. If there were green eco vents on Sentinel Beach he would find a way to harness them. If there was increased lurker activity on Misty Island he would send capable emissaries to mitigate the threat. Surely he would slide with ease into the gray gauze of senility if he waited around the way his neighbors did rather than rising to meet life’s challenges. But in a way, he couldn’t blame them.

The old man stepped out onto his second-story balcony, his six-inch tree branch sandals clip-clopping along the wooden planks. From here he could easily survey the entire village, a haphazard cluster of round huts that dotted the coast’s grassy islands and hugged the nearby sandstone cliffs. Their walls consisted of slate stone and white plaster, and their terra cotta tiled roofs shimmered like ripe berries in the late summer sun. Here and there were signs of technological progress. The anemometer atop the fisherman’s home spun in lazy circles, indicating the slow speed of the salty breeze, and the large windmill that provided power for the entire town turned in a glittering haze of azure sparkles, spurred endlessly on by a blue eco beam reflected from the long-abandoned Precursor Temple in the Forbidden Jungle—but always it was the natural world that inspired extended viewing. As the villagers went about their business so too did omnipresent fauna, such as the noisy gulls cawing in the sky and the farmer’s yakows mooing in the pasture, and the environment they shared was nothing short of paradise. Swaying palm trees, fluffy clouds, rolling waves… Samos clasped his wrinkled green hands behind his back and inhaled deeply. There was so much beauty here, even a jaded old cynic like him had to appreciate it.

The sound of a large crash followed by a yelp of pain shattered his reverie.

“JAK! Watch where you drop that Precursor crap! Ya wanna kill me?”

The sage growled at the unwelcome outburst. He returned to his lab’s threshold and glared inside.

The source of most of the noise stood about two feet tall and was covered ear to tail in vivid orange fur. He wore fingerless gloves over his fuzzy paws, and silver-tipped chin clasps dangled from a leather cap and goggles on his head, his only clothes. Until fairly recently he was a human, but an accident involving dark eco had turned him into an ottsel. His behavior, at least, was unchanged. He gesticulated wildly as he yelled an endless stream of grievances, his voice grating enough to drive even the most patient of souls to grind their teeth.

His companion, a teenage boy, was significantly taller and much quieter. In fact, as a mute he never said a word—his only response to his friend’s remonstrations was a sheepish grin. A wild spray of gravity-defying blonde hair with green roots grew up above the goggles resting on his forehead like a spiky bush, and his large eyes matched a cerulean tunic robing his slightly awkward body. One would hardly guess that this gawky youth had saved the world from certain doom just days ago.

The duo had just made use of Samos’ warp gate, and rather inelegantly at that. The bundle of bronze-like Precursor metal they carried had split open, spilling all over the floor and trampling the grass that grew up between the floorboards.

“This place is a mess!” Samos yelled from the doorway, his ire commanding the adolescents’ complete attention, “Clean up and get out before I turn you both into ferns!”

Boy and ottsel scrambled to do as the sage commanded and gather their scattered cargo with all speed, at which point he grumpily let them pass. They hurried out of the lab, and he stepped back to the edge of the balcony to watch them travel down the rickety walkway to ground level.

They were joined by a girl who ran out from the workshop below, her shoulder-length viridian and indigo-rooted tresses blowing about her face. Petite and slender, she was dressed in striking shades of white and purple. Her emerald eyes gleamed and she clapped her hands, unable to contain her excitement at the sizeable haul of Precursor Ring parts. As soon as it was deposited, she bent to her knees and ran her fingers over the ancient metal with uncommon reverence. Like Samos, she was intellectually curious, and he smiled warmly at the sight of her.

Then a shadowy thought crossed his mind, darkening his mood, and he fiddled with his spectacles out of force of habit. Whatever contentment he had nurtured over the years was now short-lived. He would have a mere few weeks more to enjoy the peace of the village before events far beyond his control would be set into motion. He regarded the trio, still children in so many ways, and deeply regretted the trials they would face.

After the girl dealt out instructions, the boys turned to trudge up the walkway for another trip through the warp gate. It was clear by the way they dragged their feet that they were wary of disturbing Samos. That at least would always give him a good chuckle.

 


 

“How many more times do we have to climb this junk heap?” Daxter groused, “I’m gettin’ sick of all this heavy lifting!”

Jak shook his head, considering as to how he was the one who really did all the work—not that he minded. He was always game for fresh air and exercise, especially if it was in service of the Green Eco Sage’s beautiful daughter. The only thing that did bother him was his friend’s incessant complaining.

Having just scaled Gol and Maia’s Citadel for the fifth time that day, Daxter was more than a little irritated. Even making use of the warp gates, it still took a good hour to make a single trip. As they rode an elevator up to their final destination, the ottsel ranted about the injustice of their task and blamed it all on Samos. Jak tuned him out, years of practice under his belt.

They disembarked on top of the citadel’s highest tower and counted the remaining pieces of the Precursor Ring. The mute happily noted that this would be their last haul. He was sore and exhausted, and the low angle of the sun urged him toward the comforts of home. Removing a rough-hewn net from his satchel, he spread it on the ground in one fluid motion and proceeding to pile the remaining pieces in the center. Having made multiple trips a day for several days, he had become well practiced at loading and tying off the net. It had proved effective insurance against further chastisement from Samos, but if he wasn’t discreet about it Uncle Kornelious might try and take advantage of his newfound skill and conscript him as a porter for an expedition.

Daxter walked over to the last small section and bodily dragged it over. “Don't worry, buddy. I got this one covered!” However, since the diminutive animal always rode on his much larger friend’s shoulder, Jak would still be saddled with the weight. Tightly gripping the hunk of metal with furry fingers, Daxter jumped up, and the unprepared boy fell to his knees with a grunt.

“You’re lucky to have such a dependable pal like me, huh, big guy?”

He raised a skeptical green eyebrow at his companion and hoisted his bulky net, but a moment later his silent gripes were forgotten. Something glinted as it bounced out from a piece of Precursor Ring, a tiny but bright flicker that caught his eye. He dropped his burden with a loud ka-clang and lurched forward, causing a cursing Daxter to fall to the ground in the process. Just before the glowing object soared over the tower’s edge down to the forest far below, Jak caught it. He brought his closed fist up close to his face before carefully opening it, and his eyes widened in surprise.

“Jak!”

At the sound of Daxter’s irritated voice, he speedily tucked the item into a weathered pouch hanging from his belt.

“What the hell are ya tryin’ to do?! Are you an’ Big Green plotting against me, or something?”

Jak turned back to his glaring friend and grinned an apology.

“What, like you smilin’ is gonna make me feel better?” the ottsel demanded, rubbing the back of his head.

Kneeling so as to be nearer the same height, Jak made the most imploring crocapuppy eyes he could manage.

Daxter leaned away, miffed. “Hey, stop that! Don’t give me that look!”

Going for the kill, Jak puffed out his lower lip. His expression was now as uncomfortably pitiful as possible.

“Fine then!” Daxter relinquished, “I’ll forgive you if you stop making that face!”

The mute nodded triumphantly and did as he was asked.

“The things I put up with,” the ottsel grumbled as he got to his feet and dusted himself off, “At least, I’m the still stud of the duo.” Licking his paw, he slicked back his ears and struck a pose fit for a randy flut flut.

Jak rolled his eyes even as a quiet chuckle escaped his lips. Daxter was always good for a laugh. Helping his small friend onto his shoulder and once again lifting the bundle of Precursor Ring parts, he stepped back onto the elevator and the two were on their way.

 


 

Keira turned off her blowtorch and lifted her welding mask, exhaling as she wiped the sweat off her brow.  After painstakingly disassembling, cataloging, blueprinting, and moving every individual piece back to Sandover Village, the large, zoomer-like machine they had found atop Gol and Maia’s Citadel was nearly rebuilt. The odd thing about it was that it wasn't Precursor technology. Some of its instruments were Precursor in origin, but on the whole, it was constructed out of materials she had never seen before. Stranger yet, there was something familiar about its design, as though she inherently understood the logic of the engineer responsible. This had the advantage of speeding up its reconstruction considerably, and she could hardly wait to discover how the vehicle worked. It sat outside her workshop, next to a growing pile of similarly carted parts from the far larger Precursor Ring.

Her thoughts briefly turned to the ones tasked with all the moving. Really just the one though. Not only was Jak responsible for the grunt work, he was also the object of her affection.

Despite how obviously she flirted with him, Keira was still unsure of his real feelings. That was the trouble with having a crush who couldn’t speak—she had to rely almost entirely on his body language, and he had an unfortunate propensity for blowing hot and cold. Sometimes she would catch him stealing furtive glances at her, and other times he would be as slippery and evasive as a fish. He had always been shy, but that seemed a poor excuse given that they grew up together.

Surely if the appropriate setting presented itself—one where they were alone—she could suss him out. But no matter if that “sussing” was verbal or otherwise, interruptions never failed to occur. When the two had tried to kiss after he defeated Gol and Maia, Daxter told them to put it on ice.

Keira wistfully sighed, remembering every detail of the occasion. They were intoxicated with the flush of victory and turned to one another all congratulatory smiles. Then there was a blaze of intensity in Jak’s gaze, and she knew exactly what they would do next. The nearby talk of the Sages and Daxter melted into white noise, and she felt as though they were the only two people in the world. They leaned toward each other, his hand tentatively rising to cup her cheek.

But the moment had been broken, and since then Jak had been nothing but diffident. Keira wondered if it was possible to ever get it back before she lowered her welding mask into place and returned to her work. This was no time for taking a break, not even for daydreaming about romance. Whenever Precursor technology was involved the engineer in her wouldn't be denied.

An hour or so later, she heard Daxter’s distinct voice floating down from the lab above. Craning around for a better look, she saw the duo wearily trudging down the walkway, burden in hand. Carefully placing her tools so she could easily pick up where she left off, she hopped down from the machine, eager to inspect the last sections of the Precursor Ring.

No sooner did she walk up than the ottsel composed himself and said, “Hey, baby! Whaddya say to givin’ Orange Lightning a big smackaroo?”

He puckered up his fuzzy lips, and Keira obligingly smacked him.

“HEY!” he yelled, indignant.

Ignoring him, the green-haired girl walked over to Jak’s bundle and happily exclaimed, “I can’t believe you got the whole ring moved in just four days!” She knelt to open the net but found herself fumbling with the knots. They had become increasingly difficult to undo, and her brow furrowed as she realized today was no different.

She froze when Jak’s fingers clasped hers. A giddy shock coursed up her arm and through her body, weakening her knees. After lingering for one glorious moment, he gently pulled her hands off the net and set about untying it himself.

Keira studied the guarded expression on his face, searching for any semblance of what she felt. He remained determinedly focused on his task. She stood and left him to finish unloading the parts, frustrated.

 


 

Once labor on the vehicle wrapped a couple days later, it was time for the mother lode—reassembling the Precursor Ring.

Keira worked furiously for several weeks, possessed by a total obsession with her project. A small work table had been moved outside for her, and after only the first day it was littered with sketches, blueprints, tools, and remnants of the day’s meals. It was not uncommon for her to forget to eat or stay up too late, at which point she would be very grumpy. Samos worried over her health, Jak tried to get her to rest more, and even Daxter was thoughtful enough to bring her snacks, but she would not slow her pace. The forces of creation were pulsing in her mechanic’s veins, and she was compelled to continue.

Each stage of construction presented its own challenges. Right off the bat was the matter of where the Precursor Ring would go, and between how little extra space the tiny island upon which her father’s hut stood had to offer, the probability that the vehicle would require some runway, and the potential hazards of something going wrong with the test, it was deemed best for the Ring to not be on the island at all. And so scaffolding and a long ramp were erected, sloping gently out and up to where the mammoth structure would be suspended over the ocean.

This made for a dangerous construction site, and it only grew more tenuous as the Ring loomed higher and higher. More scaffolding became necessary, providing ever more opportunities to fall into the rocky water below, and there were some close calls. In one such incident, Daxter slipped and Jak caught him by the tail, losing his own balance in the process. Both came crashing down on the rough planks of the ramp, narrowly missing the edge.

After one arduous month, on a rare cloudy day, Keira deemed the Precursor Ring complete at last. She was making some minor adjustments when Jak arrived. So engrossed was she in the task at hand that she didn’t hear him walk up, and when he tapped her on the back she screeched in surprise.

“Oh, Jak! It’s you!” She mentally slapped herself for sounding so lame as she stammered, “No Daxter I see… um, what are you doing here?”

He gestured to the Precursor Ring towering over them with a questioning look, and she read his meaning easily.

“Yep, It’s finally done! We’ll be able to test it out tomorrow.”

Keira bounced on her sandaled heels in anticipation, but when Jak quietly laughed she planted her feet and asked, “What? What’s so funny?”

He raised a large index finger and tapped her forehead.

“No, you’re the one who’s funny,” she retorted as she rubbed the spot he touched, blushing, “acting so weird.”

He crossed his arms and continued smiling at her, softly shaking his head. His spiky hair and long ears swayed with the motion.

Keira indignantly straightened up. “Stop making fun of me. You know how I am when it comes to stuff like this.” She tossed her hand at the Precursor Ring and zoomer in illustration. “Anyway, what do you want?”

In answer, Jak gestured at the sun and lowered his arm until it was pointing below the horizon. Then he indicated Keira, himself, and the ground beneath their feet.

“You want me to meet you here after sunset?”

He nodded.

“What for?”

Jak replied with a bashful shrug, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. After pointing at the ground again to emphasize his request, he waved goodbye and turned to trot back down the bridge to the village.

Keira placed her hands on her hips and stared after him. Her eyes traveled down his body, taking in his slim yet strong torso and lingering on his backside. A tremor rippled through her, and she abruptly resumed her work.

Later that evening, the clouds cleared, allowing the stars to wink into view above the pink horizon. She was still tinkering when Jak returned. Noticing his approach, she quickly dropped her tools and reached for a cloth to wipe up the grime. She turned to welcome him, but as soon as he stepped off the bridge he halted and stared at her. He pressed his lips together tightly, and soon he was bent over, shaking, trying to keep himself from laughing.

Utterly confused, Keira was about to demand what was wrong when she looked down at herself. To her horror, she was even dirtier than before. Her attention snapped back to her work table, and she saw that the cloth she had mopped herself with wasn’t a clean one but a filthy rag she had been using on the Precursor Ring.

At the flabbergasted expression on her face, Jak was barely able to contain his laughter.

She stared at him, stung. “Very funny!”

Hearing the stern tone in her voice, the boy straightened up and crossed his arms in an attempt to sober up, but he was betrayed by quivering lips and flaring nostrils. His failure to keep himself in check was now so ridiculous that Keira couldn't help but crack a smile. He nodded at her, futilely pressing a tight fist against his screwy mouth.

“I’m not laughing,” she insisted as she unsuccessfully bit back a snicker, and the jig was up. Both of them exploded into an uncontrollable fit of mirth.

“Alright, you win,” she conceded as she brushed tears off her cheeks, “I’ll be right back.”

She ran inside to wash up and change into fresh clothes, still laughing to herself. She would have liked a proper bath, but she wasn’t about to leave Jak waiting that long. With a cursory glance in the mirror, she decided she looked good enough and stepped back outside.

Jak stood at the base of the Precursor Ring, deep in thought. He quickly turned around when he heard her approach. Flashing an inviting grin, he walked toward the bridge and cocked his head for her to follow. They descended into the village in single file, their path demarcated by small lanterns and the windows cheerily glowing from lamps and fires within.

“Where are we going?” Keira asked.

She almost ran into Jak when he stopped and faced her. He smiled as if to promise her she would like it and shyly took her hand in his. Again, she felt his touch rocket through her system like an electric shock. Somehow remaining composed, Keira returned the smile and allowed him to lead her forward.

The pair walked on in silence under the star-peppered sky. Turning inland after the farmer’s hut, the two headed up to the entrance to Fire Canyon. Pulling her to the left of the small pass, Jak released her hand and began climbing up through a narrow and easily overlooked crevasse in the sandstone. Now even more interested in discovering their destination, Keira eagerly scrambled after him. After thirty feet or so, the crevasse expanded into a small ledge. Stepping up onto it, Keira looked around and saw Jak scaling a stair-like formation that hugged the cliff face. She followed, and just when she wondered how much longer the climb could possibly go on, she found herself standing at the top of the cliffs overlooking Sandover Village.

The round roofs below stood in silhouette to the glow cast by the lights indoors, and Samos’ lab shone above it all like a beacon. Sentinel Beach, the Forbidden Jungle, and even Misty Island far in the distance were all visible, bathed in starlight. Soft waves endlessly undulated over blue sand, whispering a rhythmic lullaby.

The view took Keira’s breath away. “How have I never heard of this spot before?”

The mute beamed with pride, clearly pleased by her reaction.

“It’s absolutely beautiful, ” she affirmed as she sat down to lean against an accommodating rock.

Jak joined her and indicated the village below, an excited glimmer in his eyes.

The mechanic understood his gesture with ease. “I know. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight knowing tomorrow’s the big test. Can you believe how fast the time has flown?”

He shook his head in answer and was still.

The pair sat side by side in companionable silence for a time, watching the stars in the sky and listening to the ocean. Yet even with all the abundant splendor around them, Keira felt herself grow more and more antsy with each passing moment. One reason was her proximity to Jak. She was close enough to hear him breathing and, though they weren't touching, feel the heat of his body next to hers. There was no Daxter, no father, no urgent world-saving task to get in the way. Just her and him. She wanted to reach out and touch him as she had yearned for so long, but now that they were well and truly alone she was too nervous to do anything bold.

She decided to discuss the other issue bugging her. “What do you think is going to happen tomorrow?”

He shrugged.

“To be honest, I’m a little bit scared to find out. Maybe it’ll be something incredible. Maybe our names will go down in history for what we discover… or maybe not. Maybe it’ll be awful, and we’ll be to blame for some terrible disaster.” She paused long enough to heave a mighty sigh. “Anything can happen if the Precursors are involved.”

Jak waved a hand to get her attention, and he shook his head, his brow knit with concern.

“You think I’m worrying too much?”

He nodded.

She sighed again. “You’re right. I’m being silly, and I really do want to go through with tomorrow. It’s just…” I’m afraid.

Keira truly did want to start the vehicle and see what the Precursor Ring would do. She had far too curious of a mind not to. But now, after weeks of hard work, she had begun to doubt the test. After all, this was Precursor technology, the most powerful and potentially dangerous force their planet had ever known, even more so than dark eco. What if something bad did happen? What if she was hurt in the process? What if her father or Daxter or Jak was? What if she couldn’t do anything to help them?

Despite herself, Keira rested her head on Jak’s shoulder. He immediately stiffened but soon relaxed enough to wrap his arm around her. Closing her eyes, she felt every finger slide over her shoulder.

“Tell me a secret,” she whispered.

Ever since they were children, it was something they said to each other. Gestured or wrote in Jak’s case. They would share simple things, like silly preferences and quirks. It was like a special conversation between just the two of them, always ongoing, always comforting.

Jak responded by rummaging around in a pouch on his belt. Keira picked her head back up, curious. He withdrew a closed fist and held it out in front of her. She obligingly raised an open hand beneath his and was astonished by what he dropped into it. A small, round object, no bigger than her pinky fingernail, fell into her palm. It glowed brightly, emitting a pure white light that illuminated their faces and pushed back the darkness beyond. A delicious warmth instantly radiated through her entire body, and she felt all her anxieties wash away.

"Is that… light eco?”

He gently closed her fingers around the shining gift.

She stared at him, totally floored. “But… I can’t take this! For all we know this is the only light eco crystal in the entire world!”

Indeed, Jak was incredibly lucky to have obtained a substance as precious and rare as light eco a second time, much less a permanent crystallized version. The fact that he would choose to give it to her rather than keep it for himself… The enormity of such a gift was staggering.

“Jak, I…”

Something about the way he gazed at her stole the words from her tongue. She felt as though he peered into her innermost thoughts, searching for an answer to an unspoken question.

He tapped his lower lip with the tip of his finger. Tell me a secret.

Keira hesitated, mesmerized by Jak’s magnetic presence, his deep blue eyes, his enticing mouth. His hand, still hovering below his chin, trembled ever so slightly, a mirror to her own nerves. Her pulse quickened, and she swallowed in anticipation of what she was about to admit.

“I really want to kiss you,” she declared in a breathless tumble of words, and she pressed her lips against his. Just as quickly she broke away, her head light and spinning.

Jak stared at her, dumbfounded, then cracked a joyous smile. He caressed her cheek and tenderly pulled her back for more.

Chapter Text

 

When Jak rolled out of bed the next morning, he felt as though he were on top of the world. The sun was shining brightly, the sea breeze was fresh, and the birds were singing, all it seemed for him. At last, after years and years of unrealized yearning, he had kissed Keira—or perhaps it was more accurate to say she kissed him since she initiated it. He blushed, bursting with happiness as he sat down to breakfast with his uncle.

Poring over a stack of maps as he sipped on a cup of tea, the explorer was oblivious to his nephew’s bliss. “Good morning, my dear boy,” he said, his thick blonde mustache bobbing up and down over the rim of his hot beverage.

Jak nodded good morning back as he helped himself to a heaping plate of bacon, eggs, and toast. The pair sat in comfortable silence as they did most mornings, the only noise from utensils scraping plates and rustling papers.

Being an orphan since before he could remember, Jak never knew his parents. Neither did anyone else because wherever they were from, it wasn’t Sandover. The mystery of his origins did nothing, however, to change the fact that he needed a guardian, and it was Kornelius the Explorer who filled that role. Though he wasn’t a blood relative and was often off on one of his many expeditions for weeks or even months at a time, Jak didn’t mind. He spent much of his time living alone, but he was far from lonely. There was Daxter, Keira, and Samos, not to mention the rest of the villagers. Tiny and close-knit as the community was, it was fair to say that all the adults of Sandover had a hand in raising him.

Never one to eat at a slow pace, Jak was nearly through his meal by the time Kornelius looked up and took note of his good mood.

The old man adjusted his monocle and spoke in a stately yet ponderous voice, “I must say, you’re looking rather chipper today… I take it your date with the sage’s daughter went rather swimmingly.”

The teenager’s fork paused halfway to his mouth, and he lifted one green brow in question. He hadn’t shared any details about his plans when he left the previous evening.

“Oh don’t look so surprised, my boy. It’s a small village, and I spied you two lovebirds walking past hand in hand.”

Jak shyly grinned in response, shrugging.

“Well, I’m glad to hear it. After all these years it is most desirous for the hunt to be over, wot? Tally-ho!”

Not entirely keen on the direction the conversation was going, Jak finished his breakfast and wasted no time taking care of his dishes. Once that was done he stood before his uncle and gestured toward the front door.

“Yes, yes, you have a spot of business with that Precursor Ring to attend to. Good luck, my boy!” Kornelius waved goodbye before once again burying his large, mustachioed nose in his maps.

Jak made his way up to Samos’ hut, where he found Keira already outside with her father loading power cells into one hundred empty slots on the Ring. Using his eco abilities the sage was able to levitate individual power cells in orbs of green light and carefully lift them into place. His daughter busied herself with those within reach lower down, and she did so with impressive alacrity, moving easily about the base of the precarious structure.

The power cell Samos was attempting to mount sputtered and protested, wildly spinning about like a hyperactive atom. “Keira,” he groused, “It’s happening again!”

“Rotate it ninety degrees clockwise, Daddy.”

The sage did as instructed, and the finicky artifact slid smoothly into its slot. “I’ll never understand how you can do this so well.”

“Funny considering you’re the one who’s spent your life studying the Precursors, not me,” she teased before catching sight of Jak on the island. Her already bright face was transformed by a radiant smile, and she walked up to him with such energy that he almost thought she would break into a run. She was so effervescent that it seemed her skin was the only thing keeping her from vibrating in every direction at once. “Good morning!”

Though he felt slightly shy now that they stood in the light of day, he returned her eager greeting with a charmed grin.

“All rested and ready to go?”

He nodded, his eyes glued to hers, and he pointed back in question.

“Me? I’m ready, but I didn’t sleep a wink. Too excited.” She bit her lip, still smiling, and it was so profoundly endearing that Jak wanted nothing more than to embrace her on the spot.

“What the heck is there to be so excited about?”

Boy and girl looked down to see Daxter trudging up, shoulders slumped and paws trailing on the ground. A late sleeper, he was always grumpy in the mornings.

Keira replied, her tone playful, “Come on, Dax, the unknown wonders of the Precursors aren’t worth perking up for?”

“When they get between me and my beauty sleep? No, not at all.”

Samos floated over to join them. “Perhaps if you would heed my wisdom and treat these matters with the respect they deserve you would go to bed at a reasonable hour and save us your bellyaching while you’re at it!”

Daxter muttered under his breath but otherwise restrained himself from escalating the situation. He wouldn’t have the energy for such an argument until at least lunch.

Samos turned to address the other new arrival. “Today’s the big day, Jak. I hope you are prepared… for whatever happens.”

The youth in question held up a confident fist as if to say he could take on anything. Then he realized there was something… off about the little green man’s countenance. He seemed almost sad.

“Yeah, yeah,” Daxter grumbled through a yawn, too tired to notice much of anything, “I’m sure it’ll be a real hoot. So what are we in for anyway?”

“We’ll have to wait and see, but,” Keira paused as she swept her arm toward the large vehicle behind them, ready and waiting at the foot of the ramp, “I think I figured out most of this machine. It interacts somehow with the Precursor Ring. Now, all we have to do is load up the power cells, turn everything on, and see what happens.”

And so the foursome all put their efforts into doing what she asked, though Daxter complained enough to further sour Samos’ already strange mood. Once all one hundred power cells were in place they each thrummed and glowed, and the Ring’s hollow center burst with blindingly white light, just as it had had atop the Citadel. They had all seen it before, but none of them could refrain from stopping and staring at the magnificent sight for a few moments.

All that was left was for everyone to pile into the vehicle. Keira took a seat first, glancing over the machine in a last-minute inspection. Now that the test was upon them the previous evening’s anxieties once again took hold, and though she found nothing wrong she nevertheless was uneasy. She nervously clasped her hands and sighed. “It’s time… I just hope we didn’t break anything moving all this here to the lab.”

Though it was beside the point, Jak couldn’t help but think how beautiful she looked as the noon breeze brushed her viridian hair against her soft cheeks, and his pulse quickened. Wanting simultaneously to touch and comfort her, he sat to her right and slid closer.

Popping up between the two, Daxter interrupted, “Easy for you to say! We did all the heavy lifting!”

Keira rolled her eyes, and Jak was amazed at how bad his friend’s timing could be.

Harrumphing, the tired ottsel frowned at the dashboard. It wasn’t long before he became fixated on an object that resembled a huge bronze egg, and he raised a finger to tap it.

“DAXTER! Don’t touch anything!” Samos bellowed, “Though the Precursors vanished long ago, the artifacts they left behind can still do great harm...”

“Or great good,” Keira added, trying to stay upbeat, “If you figure out how to use them.”

Jak had heard many such overly portentous platitudes from Samos before, so he couldn’t help but chuckle when Daxter lifted up his a paw and flapped his fingers, his fuzzy lips wordlessly moving in time.

Samos, not one to be disrespected lightly, whacked the ottsel over the head with his staff. “I’ve had experience with such things!” Reigning in his anger and taking a seat, he turned to Jak. “I know you can make it work.”

With everyone situated in the vehicle, they all stared expectantly at Jak. He stifled the urge to fidget and looked down at the dashboard. After a moment’s consideration, he decided on pressing the big ruby button.

The egg-shaped object immediately split in half revealing a small floating gyroscope within. It spun swiftly as little spheres circled around it in a quivering orbit.

“Looks like Jak’s still got the mojo!” Daxter nodded up at his friend approvingly.

Keira leaned forward, fascinated by the object. “Interesting… It appears to be reading out some preset coordinates.”

Suddenly the vehicle rumbled beneath them and the large disk on its back rotated to life with a rusty groan. The skies darkened ominously, and the very island began to quake. Jak took in the rapidly mutating scene, growing more alarmed with every passing second, but his attention returned to the Ring when a grating screech issued forth from its base. It expanded and rotated, causing the wooden supports holding it up to split from the pressure and crash into the sea below. Instead of following them, the Precursor Ring levitated and spun faster, its two concentric bands moving in opposite directions.

Daxter’s jaw fell slack, and he murmured in absolute awe, “Wow! Look at that!”

As if on cue the Ring spun faster still, and a cloudy mass of purple swirled towards its center, swallowing the shining white light. It looked like an enormous warp gate.

Everyone flinched when a terrible voice boomed out, “Finally! The last rift gate has been opened!”

Jak gasped in horror when flying creatures poured out of the Precursor Ring in a buzzing swarm. They resembled giant insects, with four muddy gossamer wings and armored bodies. They began wreaking havoc on the village, firing blasts of dark eco from the tips of their tails and sending the people running out of their huts in a panic.

“What are those things?!” Daxter wailed.

Samos muttered to himself, “So this is how it happened…”

Jak didn’t know whether he should run to aid the villagers or demand what the sage meant, but his dilemma was immediately forgotten. A massive head like no monster’s he had ever seen popped out of the Ring. A gem as tall as a boulder lay embedded above the creature’s four narrow eyes, all glowing a ghostly lutescent color. Its metal-plated face was haloed by wickedly curved spines, and row upon row of sharp teeth protruded from its malicious, putrid-smelling mouth like daggers. The monster screamed out in a petrifying, unearthly voice, “You cannot hide from me, boy!”

Jak felt something deep inside him stir. The monster’s visage struck a terrifying chord in the very core of his being, and he broke out in a cold sweat. He felt he was being revisited by an old nightmare, the kind which makes one fall out of bed screaming.

Keira began shouting at him, “Do something, Jak!!”

Daxter jabbed a finger at the dashboard. “What’s this do? Or that? How ‘bout this one??” too hysterical to wait for a response, the ottsel cried, “Everybody, press all the buttons!!”

Jak looked on as the foreign creatures decimated the village, Daxter and Keira panicked, and Samos sat entranced. He could feel his own urge to scream rise up and knew that this was an enemy far beyond any he had ever faced. Gol and Maia seemed harmless by comparison. Acting on pure instinct, he punched the ruby button again. His stomach clenched as the engine roared to life, spouting great tail flames, and the machine launched forward with a boom. As they traveled up the ramp towards the monster Jak shut his eyes tight, steeling himself for the death that would surely come… but they continued flying forward, the sounds of destruction around them gone. They were inside the Precursor Ring, white and purple light streaking past them in droves.

“What was that thing?” Keira demanded, shaken.

In response, the vehicle shook beneath them and started to speed up.

Samos gripped the edge of his seat. “Hang on everyone!”

They flew forward with such velocity that Jak felt his lips peel back from his teeth.

Daxter’s voice rose an octave as he screamed long and loud. “I WANT OFF THIS THING!!”

Still, they were picking up speed. Jak was beginning to think he might pass out when a bolt of energy struck them. The entire vehicle exploded, sending its passengers spiraling off into the vortex.

Jak felt Daxter latch onto his arm in a death grip and heard Keira shriek in the distance. Samos yelled, “Find yourself, Jak!” and the boy was swallowed up by blinding light.

His free fall was abruptly and painfully ended when he crashed onto the hard ground, knocking the wind out of his body as he slid to a stop. He gasped, struggling to fill his lungs with air and slow his racing heart. A sharp pain erupted in his head. Jak groaned and pressed a hand on the base of his skull. He pushed himself up to sitting with great effort. Feeling slightly nauseated, he was about to lie back down when he noticed his surroundings. Momentarily forgetting his pain, he stood up and gaped at the world around him.

Jak was situated on a metal bridge suspended over streets so dark they reminded him of the tunnels in the Spider Caves. They were predominantly illuminated by red lights, their glow eerie and unnerving. The only sunlight available was veiled by a haze of smog, something he had never seen before. The air was stale and windless. There were no plants, no animals – no entity of the natural world. Similar to the monsters from inside the Ring, nearly everything was made of metal—not the warm alloy of the Precursors, but a cold blue substance that made him shiver involuntarily.

To Jak’s astonishment, countless zoomers sped by below the bridge. At least he assumed they were zoomers, yet the longer he stared at them the more he questioned if that was true. Like Keira’s A-Grav they were long and fish-like with side fins and tail flaps, and they hovered over the ground. Yet the lines of their metal frames were far sleeker, and they traveled much higher and faster without the air of propellers. It was clear even the bulky, slower zoomers far outstripped Sandover’s limited technology.

Jak became vaguely aware that he was attracting attention. Passersby stared at his clothing, so different from their own. In contrast to the inhabitants of Sandover Village, they were guarded and made no effort to engage with him. Indeed they hurried past, as though lingering would only cause trouble. They were scared.

It wasn’t long before he spied the source of their agitation. Men in red armor walked among the skittish citizens, their air one of control and brutality. Some were on foot, some rode zoomers, and all carried weapons.

Where in the name of the sages was he?

Daxter groaned loudly at Jak’s feet, clutching a grab handle from the machine. The diminutive animal stood on shaky legs, spared a cursory glance for his surroundings, glared at the useless object in his paw, and threw it on the ground as hard as his tiny arm could manage. “Okay… I swear that’s the last time I ever—EVER—touch any stupid Precursor crap!”

The infuriated ottsel was about to let loose a string of curses when they were approached by a group of soldiers led by a swaggering man. Everything about him oozed arrogance, from his fiery red hair to his flashy attire. He wore a crimson breastplate and shoulder guards over a strange jumpsuit of navy and yellow leather, and his face and ears were covered in bluish-gray tattoos. Even from a distance, the iniquitous gleam of his amber eyes was unmistakable. He looked as implacable and cruel as a lurker shark, and Jak disliked him instantly.

“There he is,” the redhead said with a triumphant smirk, “Move in.”

Jak spun about as the soldiers surrounded him, utterly shocked that he was the one they wanted.

“Step away from the animal!” one barked.

Yelping in fear, Daxter scampered between the man’s legs and disappeared from view. A soldier raised his gun to shoot the fleeing ottsel when the leader held up an authoritative hand.

“Forget the rat. The Baron wants him!”

The man’s tone of voice made the back of Jak’s neck prickle. His eyes darted fearfully around the circle, looking for an opening to make a break and run for it.

“We’ve been waiting for you.” The man smiled, as cold as ice.

One of the soldiers raised his weapon and brought it down on Jak’s head with considerable force. Seeing stars, his knees buckled and he again fell to the hard ground. Just as everything went black he thought he could hear Daxter’s voice.

“Don’t worry, Jak! I’ll save you before you know it!”

 


 

Keira dimly noticed two things: everything hurt, and the air stank.

Groaning, she opened an eye and immediately regretted it. Blinding pain burst out from the back of her head, and she raised a hand to probe the area. A large goose egg protruded from her skull, and it sharply ached when touched. Just what I need, she thought.

Keira dared to open her eyes again, very slowly this time, then gasped. She quickly sat up and whipped her head around, heedless of the pain. She lay amongst bags and barrels of foul-smelling trash in an unrecognizable dark alley. She wasn’t in Sandover.

“The Precursor Ring!” Keira cried as she suddenly remembered the metal monsters, the violet vortex, and the exploding machine.

She leaned back against the alley wall and pushed up to a standing position, her eyes closed in an effort to curb the vicious pangs in her head. Moving on trembling legs, she made her way as best she could out into a broad street. A canal ran through its center and people in outlandish clothes walked about. There was no plant life to be seen, an unnatural and deeply unsettling deficiency for the daughter of the Sage of Green Eco. Wondering how long she had been out, she vaguely noted the polluted sky was a dusty orange. It was around sunset.

Keira desperately looked around, searching for anything familiar, then stopped just as fast when she faced the south.

The day’s remaining light reflected off an enormous building that appeared to be balancing like a top. Sporting dozens of blade-like towers, it seemed to be a palace of some kind. Six support cables radiated out from the behemoth structure like a hexagonal spider web, disappearing from view behind the surrounding rooftops. It was so astoundingly tall, she thought it must touch the very clouds.

Attempting to focus, Keira tore her gaze from the palace and continued examining her immediate surroundings. And then she remembered her companions.

She frantically ran to the nearest person, a young woman. “Excuse me, have you seen Samos the Sage?”

Staring at her like she had two heads, the stranger hurried along past her.

She grabbed the arm of another passerby. “Please, do you know where I can find Daxter? He’s an ottsel about this big. Or Jak?”

He yanked out of her grasp, cursing.

She turned every which way, pleading, “Can anyone help me?” Only bewildered and hostile faces stared back. Looking down at herself she realized she was filthy, courtesy of the trash heap she woke up in. She must seem crazy to these people.

Deciding prudence was wisest, Keira took several deep breaths with her eyes closed, calming her panicky nerves. Courage, she thought, I must have courage . Slowly exhaling, a resolved expression graced her features. She set out at a steady pace to find her friends and figure out where she was.

In the process, she noticed the zoomers. Her hands twitched, impatient to examine the remarkable machines. What sort of engines purred beneath their hoods? How were they able to fly without propellers? What manner of technology allowed them to hover fifteen feet off the ground? Her inner mechanic buzzed with questions, elated by the mere sight of vehicles more advanced than her old A-Grav.

It wasn’t long before the sun set completely and the sky darkened, but this was like no night Keira had ever seen. The streets were brightly illuminated. Light of all colors poured from windows, streetlamps, and signs. If her situation weren’t so desperate she might find it beautiful.

She wandered aimlessly for an hour or so, growing hungry, and still finding no sign of Jak, Daxter, or her father. No matter how deeply she breathed or what she told herself she could feel alarm rising in her throat. It wasn’t until she happened upon a new strange sight that she was able to forget the dangers of her predicament for a few precious moments.

The broad boulevard crossed through a several story high wall and was split in half by a glowing, translucent blue field. Could it be a gate? Squinting at it, Keira could see it quiver slightly. If such a thing as living light existed, she would believe this was it. She walked up for a closer look and was about ten feet away when a man covered head to toe in crimson armor stepped in front of her, blocking her path.

“Security pass.”

She stared at him blankly, unable to look away from the glowing red eyes of his helmet. “What?”

“I need to see a security pass.”

She realized it was for the gate. “But I don’t have one.”

“Oh, no?”

A plated hand lunged for her, and she automatically dodged and slipped out of reach. The soldier took a step toward her, and Keira felt a great surge of adrenaline. She immediately turned and bolted into the crowd. Armored footsteps kept pace behind her, and the surrounding people took notice. They parted to make way for the soldier, and she could hear him gaining.

In a last ditch effort to lose her pursuer, her lungs burning, she lurched right into a dark alley. She hoped she could put her natural agility to good use by weaving through side streets, but instead she was met with a dead end.

She whirled around just as the soldier was upon her. He roughly grabbed her by the neck and slammed her against the wall. She coughed and spluttered, her small hands uselessly clawing at his gauntlet.

“You’re a feisty one! How did a tramp like you wind up in Main Town?”

Keira could only choke in response.

“A pretty tramp too.” He leaned in, his breathing heavy. “I think I’ll teach you a lesson before I arrest you.”

He threw her to the ground, and she hacked and gasped for air. She could barely see through watering eyes when his helmet landed beside her. Then he fell upon her, his lips clamping over hers and his hands tearing at her clothes. She choked again as his tongue invaded her mouth. With all her might, she bit down. The soldier screamed, and warm blood splashed down her throat. She applied more and more pressure, nearly biting all the way through when he socked her in the cheek and she let go in a daze. He rolled off, thrashing in tremendous pain, and she turned to violently retch.

Spitting bile, Keira pushed up to her hands and knees and stood on wobbly legs. She took a step back to the alley entrance and then nearly crashed back down. Though he was still writhing, the soldier had managed to grip her ankle. He yanked, dropping her to the grimy pavement. Sobbing, her scraped hands felt around for something, anything, to use as a weapon. Her fingers closed on the soldier’s helmet, and without hesitation, she swung it with all the strength she could muster into his bleeding face. A sickening crack followed, but still, his hand gripped her ankle. She swung again and again until it grew slack. She looked at the helmet, now slick with glistening red, then at what was left of the soldier’s face. Gagging, she threw the helmet down and fled the alley.

By the time she had any sense of time or space again, she was on a narrow ledge that ran beneath street level alongside the canal. Panting and covered in sweat, her legs burning from exertion, she slowed her pace and caught sight of a large storm pipe sticking out of the wall. She ducked inside it and collapsed, sobbing into her cold hands.

“Jak—”

She cried inside the pipe in the strange street with a canal running through its center, terrified of this foreign world where her hero was not by her side.

For the first time in her life, Keira was alone.

Chapter Text

Keira’s stomach growled loudly, and she wondered when she last ate. Twenty-four hours at the least.

Twenty-four hours in this hellhole of a city.

Keira had woken up that morning still inside the pipe, disoriented and exhausted. Remembering the previous night’s assault she immediately fell to pieces, and she stayed where she was for a long time before working up the courage to set out again. When she finally did her entire body ached painfully, her muscles so stiff it was difficult to walk. She kneeled by the canal, attempting to examine her rippling reflection. The guard’s dried blood caked her bruised and swollen cheek.

Keira plunged her hands into the water and splashed her face. She scrubbed as best she could, holding her nose and clamping her mouth and eyes shut. The water stank, but it was better than the alternative.

As clean as she could get herself, she stood and traversed the canal, looking for a way up to the street. Before long she found a ladder, and she reluctantly scaled it. Now within easy sight of pedestrians, her wildly disheveled appearance got plenty of attention. Everywhere she walked she was given a wide berth.

Keira journeyed alongside the water, considering what steps to take, but all she could really focus on at the moment was the beastly hunger gnawing at her insides. She grimaced and placed a hand on her belly.

As if on cue, an enticing scent floated past her nostrils. She searched for the source of the delicious smell, sniffing the air. Not far off, she found a bakery occupying a small storefront. A sign in the window read The Finest Baked Goods in Haven City!

Haven City, she wondered, I’ve never heard of this place… But just then there was no time for considering her location. Her empty stomach gurgled stronger than ever as she smelled the aroma of freshly baked bread. Her mouth watered, and she quickly made a beeline for the shop.

The bakery was just big enough to hold a display case and no more than five or six customers. The woman behind the counter glanced at Keira and frowned before curtly nodding. She scowled back, wondering why everyone in this city was so rude when she remembered how filthy she was. She must look like trouble in a neat little shop like this.

Firmly setting her jaw, Keira walked up to the display case and surveyed its wares. Deciding on a pair of good-sized rolls, she pointed. “I’d like two of those please.”

The shopkeeper raised an eyebrow but went to bag the indicated items. Then she impatiently extended her hand toward the unwelcome customer. “That’ll be three credits.”

Her nerves spiking, Keira realized she had no money. She chewed on her lip and reached into a pouch on her belt, pulling out several Precursor orbs.

Placing them in the shopkeeper’s hand, she asked, “Will this be enough?”

The woman stared first at the orbs and then Keira, blinking several times as she did so, totally dumbfounded. A few awkward seconds passed, and Keira shuffled her feet, starting to feel uncomfortable. The movement seemed to bring the shopkeeper back to her senses because she speedily tucked the orbs into her pocket as she blathered, “Oh, yes, that will do nicely! Thank you so very much, your patronage is appreciated!” She handed over the purchase and continued babbling words of gratitude as the green-haired girl walked out the door.

Keira stopped just outside and frowned down at her bread. What in the name of the Precursors was that about?

Not wanting to linger, she moved out of sight of the bakery and crossed the busy street back to the canal. Figuring it was safe at last to eat, she leaned against the railing as she pulled out a roll and ripped right into it with her teeth. She closed her eyes as she savored the warm, buttery taste. Taking her time to chew and swallow, she steadily worked her way through both rolls.

Patting her full belly contentedly Keira set out again, looking for something that might inspire a plan of action. This city was too large and dangerous to find her friends and family overnight, of that she was certain. Her appearance and apparent ignorance of the way things worked put her at a major disadvantage, and she wouldn’t do herself any favors by living on the street. If she was going to have any chance of success she needed a point of entry into Haven’s society…

Another storefront caught Keira’s eye, Zoomer Zone. It appeared to be some sort of retailer. Her interest piqued, she entered and was immediately overwhelmed. Everywhere she looked there were parts, accessories, and tools for every vehicular need imaginable, far more advanced than anything she had ever seen. She smiled joyfully and quickly moved around the aisles to examine anything she could get her hands on, audibly oohing and aahing over nearly everything she saw. The balding clerk behind the counter kept a wary eye on her, but she paid him no mind. She was like a kid in a candy store.

Then something cut through Keira’s euphoria, and her ears pricked up. She could hear two voices through the shelves, a woman’s and a man’s, rising in volume. Though she really shouldn’t be eavesdropping she found herself creeping closer to the argument anyway. Still unable to make any of it out, she peered around the corner for a better vantage point. She didn’t need to because at that point the woman blew up.

“Who needs you anyway?! You’re fired!” she yelled.

“Oh, I’m not fired,” he yelled back, “I quit! I wouldn’t stay if you got on your damn knees and begged me! Good luck replacing me in less than a week!”

“You can take your luck and shove it! I can hire another mechanic anytime I want!”

“Yeah, I’d like to see that,” he spat, “Axle’s Garage is marked! No one in their right mind wants to work for a harpy like you. You’re finished!”

“Whatever you say,” she stormed out the door, calling over her shoulder, “Have a nice life, jackass!”

The shop fell into silence. Keira stared at the man who had just lost his job, his face bright red and veins popping out of his neck and forehead.

“What are you looking at?!” he snarled and shoved past her toward the exit.

Keira spared a final glance for the clerk, who rolled his eyes and shrugged, before turning to leave in the hope she could catch the woman. She caught sight of her just down the street, leaning against a zoomer and scowling deeply. She was tall, her physique sleek and imposing. Wavy raven locks framed her stern, olive-skinned face and fell freely to her waist. She appeared to be in her thirties. Her outfit was striking, including as it did scarlet kicks, vivid yellow pants, and, most interesting of all, a weathered blue jacket. The garment was covered in faded patches featuring the logos of races and championship titles. Keira immediately thought she was the coolest woman she had ever seen, and she felt both drawn and intimidated.  

“Um… excuse me,” she squeaked.

The woman turned and glared at her, a beautiful, piercing brown stare. Her ears, fanning out from her face at a high, piqued angle, were missing triangular chunks of flesh. Lined in slightly ragged, white scar tissue, the absent pieces enhanced her already formidable appearance.

Keira struggled to keep from openly gaping and stumbled along, “I, uh… I couldn’t help but overhear back in there, so I was wondering if you could hire me.”

The woman stared at her, unblinking as a bird of prey.

“...as a mechanic.”

She narrowed her eyes and looked the younger woman up and down. “No,” she said simply and got on her zoomer.

“Why not?”

“You look half out of your mind.”

Keira winced. Though she couldn’t blame the woman, it didn’t make her words any easier to swallow.

“You’re also a skinny little waif. With a build that tiny you’d burn out faster than a Metal Head fart.”

Giving only brief consideration to what Metal Heads were, Keira persisted, “Just because I’m small it doesn’t mean I can’t work hard, and I’ve got years of experience!”

The woman turned to look at her again, a slightly disdainful expression on her sharp face. “The last thing I need is some drifter stinking up my garage.”

Before another word could be said, the woman had punched the ignition and zoomed off like a shot.

So much for that job interview, Keira thought, heaving a weary sigh.

Hoping to regroup, she returned to the zoomer shop. She made her way down a narrow aisle she hadn’t yet explored and discovered a display stand of books, most of which were made exclusively of strange paper. She picked one up to examine more closely. The paper was unlike any she had ever seen. It was exceptionally thin and shiny. Flimsy too, she learned when she accidentally tore it. The pages within were very colorful, brimming with big, dramatic pictures and articles.

At the top of the display, Keira saw a label, Good Reading. Curious, she skimmed the contents of the magazine she held, most of which was information on racing zoomers—also known as air racers. Two hours later, she had devoured half of the rack and her knees hurt from standing for so long.

At last, she had some idea of what to do next. Though her knowledge from home was primitive by comparison, it provided a sufficient base to learn about the world around her. Her father always said she had a photographic memory, and what little reading she had already done was cracking open the mystery box of Haven’s technological landscape. And if mechanics could lose work here then they could get it too.

Perusing the entire display one last time, she selected a half dozen materials to study further— Principles of Anti-Gravity Engines, Hamill’s Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers, and Zoomers Illustrated to name a few – and took them up to the counter.

The balding clerk totaled up the sale and said in a monotone voice, “Twenty credits please.”

Keira smoothly placed a single Precursor orb on the counter.

Pursing his lips in excitement, he silently took the orb and bagged her purchases.

Thank goodness she had a stash of the ancient currency on her because clearly it was quite valuable in this place. Certain he would be helpful to an overpaying customer, Keira asked, “Can you tell me about the dark-haired woman who was just in here?”

“You mean Vivian?”

She nodded.

“Well, she’s not exactly what you’d call well-liked. She’s made plenty of enemies carrying on her father’s garage at the stadium. She’s got one hell of a driver though. If firing her mechanic doesn’t sink her, her team’s got a shot at winning the NYFE Championship.”

“The stadium…”

The clerk frowned at her. “Mar Memorial Stadium.”

“Right, right, ‘Mar Memorial Stadium.’ Can you tell me how to get there?”

The directions she received were rather confusing since he assumed she had a basic understanding of how to navigate the city in the first place, but she was able to understand one key piece of information. If she followed the canal to the north she would eventually reach the stadium plaza.

Keira sincerely thanked the puzzled clerk and left the shop. Her first order of business was to look at least somewhat presentable, and so she ducked into the first clothing boutique she found. The shop ladies weren’t even remotely interested in helping her until she flashed some of her Precursor orbs, at which point they changed their tune so drastically she was able to access the employees only bathroom and freshen up with clean water. She purchased an entirely new outfit save for her gauntlets, goggles, and choker, and though she still needed a shower and her cheek was black and blue, it was enough for her to no longer resemble a vagrant.

Feeling far more comfortable now that she was able to blend into the crowd, Keira wandered around the streets until she found a bench to sit on and read in peace, her second order of business. She spent the next several hours studying, losing herself in blissfully ignorant discovery. When she was finished the sun had dipped toward the horizon, well below the surrounding buildings, setting the clouds above on fire. She stood, feeling a twinge of worry about whether or not she would have a safe place to spend the night, but she quickly quelled the thought. Courage… I must have courage.

At last, it was time to set out for the stadium. Keira followed the canal as instructed, noting that the streets were even busier than usual. All the people appeared to be going the same direction she was. They were enthusiastic, more so than she had seen since her arrival, and those who were in groups chattered amongst themselves.

As the crowd progressed through the winding streets the sky darkened, and the air felt just a bit cooler. Keira shivered as she noticed there were large posters in this area, all depicting men and women in strange garb and protective gear standing beside air racers. The canal ended, and the people pressed in closer around her as the road ahead narrowed and passed under an arch into a high-walled bottleneck. The twilight sky was repelled by a bright glow from beyond. Straining to see around the corner, she gasped when the bottleneck abruptly opened up, revealing a glorious sight.

An enormous plaza dotted by fountains and gardens stretched out before her. Keira was overjoyed. It was the first greenery she had seen, and she eagerly pushed down the steps to the nearest grassy hill. She sighed happily as soon as her booted feet made contact with the soft earth. An octagonal garden crowned the crest of the hill, a bed of pink flowers surrounding a manicured tree. She carefully reached down and stroked a delicate petal. It was softer than a feather, beckoning her to dip her face in and inhale deeply. Finally, here was the scent and caress of the natural world. It felt like a small piece of home, and Keira was immediately rejuvenated.

With great reluctance, she turned away from the garden and noticed an enormous statue rising out of a fountain. She slowly walked up to it, estimating it easily stood forty feet tall. It was of a proud warrior resting on his sword. There were two more identical statues, and all three were backlit by the fire of huge cauldrons. She couldn’t help but be awed by their majesty. They seemed to her silent sentinels, guarding the many broad stairs that led up to the enormous building above.

Keira did a double take once the sight of the stadium itself registered, and she backed up to better survey it. Massive stone archways topped with narrow gardens beckoned the mobs of people inside. A partial domed roof of orange panels glowed beneath the gigantic lights, mounted on the ends of towering supports that raked across the sky like mighty spines.

Allowing herself a centering breath, Keira was prepared to enter the stadium and search for Vivian when a pair of red boots appeared before her, and she looked up and into the glowing eyes of a matching helmet. If she had the presence of mind just then she might have chosen to act natural and calmly go about her business to avoid arousing suspicion. Instead panic surged through her body, and she turned to run when the soldier roughly grabbed her by the wrist.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded, “What did I do?!”

“What’s the rush?”

Remembering all too vividly her last encounter with a soldier, intense fear twisted her insides. She instinctively pulled away, but he tightened his grip causing her to cry out in pain, “Ow! Let me go!”

“You’re coming with me.”

Keira cringed when a protective arm encircled her shoulders, and the soldier released her. She heard a musical yet commanding voice, “I’ll thank you to leave my lady friend alone.”

“Of course, Mr. Ryker!” the soldier stammered, “I had no idea she was with you!”

Keira watched, lightheaded, as the soldier hurried off. She felt as though she were barely in her body as she was led toward the stadium steps. Bewildered, she stole a glance at this “Mr. Ryker.” He was a good head taller than her, and even though she scrutinized him from an odd angle his rakish handsomeness was unmistakable—a strong jaw framing a mouth that seemed made for grinning, unruly chestnut hair falling over golden topaz eyes. Much like the people in the posters, he wore bulky shoulder guards and a breastplate over a bold orange and gray jumpsuit. Once they were at the base of the steps he stopped and faced her.

“Sorry for being so familiar,” he said, still talking in that singsong voice, “but it was the only way to get you away from that soldier. Shouldn’t an East Side girl like you know how to deal with the KG?”

She stared at him, uncomprehending. “KG?”

He frowned at her slightly. “KG. The Krimzon Guard.” When Keira’s expression remained blank, he went on, “Don’t you know what I’m talking about? You are from the Slums aren’t you?”

She shook her head. “I’m from Sandover Village. I’ve never even heard of the Slums.”

He raised a thick eyebrow, his pupils darting to her bruised cheek and back. “Did you get hit on the head?”

Panic once again rose in Keira’s throat, and she blurted without thinking, “You don’t understand, I’m not from here! I don’t even know where here is!” She could feel tears welling up and blinked furiously to try and keep them from falling.

Straightening in surprise, the brunette glanced around several times before again putting his arm around her shoulder. He guided her the rest of the way up the stairs and through one of the archways, his honeyed eyes contrite. “How about you just relax and watch the race? I can get you the best seats in the house.”

He led her past a ticket booth, up a flight of stairs, and out into the hollow bowl of the building. Keira gaped at the sight, her senses overloaded. Row upon row of seats full of whooping and hollering people overwhelmed her with their vast number and volume. They were a sea of indistinct faces, roiling with barely contained restlessness under the stadium lights. A dazzling rainbow of colors shone from every direction, often from screens that flashed pithy advertisements and calls to action, and far-off speakers blared strange, percussive music. It all circled around what appeared to be a large track. Flooded with blue light, it wove and swiveled about the stadium’s center like an azure snake.

As she took it all in, she thought of the arena at Rock Village and the race course at Dead Man’s Gorge, neither of which could even remotely compare in scale or scope, and a pang of homesickness lanced through her chest. When her rescuer stopped and gestured at a front-row seat she quickly took it, grateful to no longer have to stand.

“You just sit back, relax, and enjoy the race. I’ll find you afterward.” And with that, he turned on his booted heel and walked away.

Keira blinked after him. Maybe not everyone in this city is so bad…

Over the next five minutes, the seats surrounding her were all filled, the people growing ever rowdier. She looked around anxiously, far from comfortable in this strange environment, when a loudspeaker boomed out, “Citizens, the race is about to begin!”

Several people pointed, and the crowd let loose a deafening roar. Keira looked down onto the track and saw vehicles being lowered from a bridge above into their starting positions. Their drivers were bent low, their features indistinguishable behind vaguely skeletal masks. A huge screen across the way lit up with the racers’ profiles, and she stiffened when she saw one of them was the young man who had helped her. His full name was Crys Ryker, a hotshot moniker if ever she had heard one. His picture smiled dashingly at her from the screen, and a subtitle indicated he was the racing favorite. No wonder he’d been able to get her away from the guard with ease.

A hovering machine with four lights on it appeared in front of the racers and Keira felt a ripple of anticipation travel through the entire stadium.

The lights illuminated one at a time, accompanied by loud beeping, and the race began.

Keira was completely enthralled over the next five minutes. Here was the application of all that she had read earlier, and the results were astounding. The air racers were so incredibly fast they flitted in and out of view on the track like fireflies in the night. She was barely able to keep up with Ryker. The crowd’s enthusiasm was infectious, and she was soon on the edge of her seat.

The drivers were brutal and took every opportunity to play dirty. The noise intensified whenever violence occurred. One unfortunate soul was grinding with another and forced into a gaping black hole in the track. At another point, two more were pushed into a head-on collision with the wall and exploded in great balls of flame and smoke. The carnage astonished Keira, but the crowd was going wild.

Soon it was the last lap, and with only half of the original racers still on the track, Ryker was in the lead. Victory wouldn’t come easily, however. He was constantly dogged by the racer in second, and they switched places twice before he boosted his way to the finish line and earned a standing ovation. Keira, overtaken by the moment, stood up and screamed a victory cry, more grateful than she could possibly express that the only person to show her genuine kindness in the last two days had not only survived but won.

People began streaming out of the stands. Neither wanting to stay put nor stray too far from her seat, Keira followed only as far as the arches. She nervously looked around for any sign of Ryker when she spied one of the other racers walking out from behind the far bend of the stadium. She fidgeted, weighing whether or not it was foolish to search for him rather than waiting to be found. Then she noticed a pair of soldiers milling about, and her decision was made. She ducked into the dissipating throng and hurried off as quickly as prudence allowed.

Beyond the arches was a seemingly endless series of large bay doors numbered in yellow paint. The second one was open, and she peered inside. It appeared to be a repair shop, littered as it was with tools and parts. A couple air racers were propped up on work tables, and an old metal sign hanging above a storage unit read Axle’s Garage in chunky turquoise and yellow letters.

No sooner had she read the words then Ryker walked across the threshold, divested of the protective gear and mask he wore before. His beautiful face broke into a broad grin when he saw her. “Hey! I was just coming to get you.”

She shrugged. “I didn’t want to wait around, so… here I am.”

“Impatient, huh?” His voice was teasing but gentle.

“As I see more of those soldiers I’m getting to be, yeah.”

“Can’t blame you there, but stay here long enough and you’ll get used to them. The KG are all over the place, lording over us commoners like a thousand petty tyrants.”

“I’ve noticed…”

Ryker regarded her, his countenance compassionate, before tossing his thumb over his shoulder in casual invitation. “Come on in.”

Keira obliged, reminding herself of the need to be cautious as she went.

“Did you enjoy the race?”

She nodded, feeling strangely squeamish beneath his warm gaze. “Yeah. I don’t know if I’ve ever watched anything that exciting.”

“NYFE’s the city’s most popular sport for a reason. It’s so fast and violent no other escapism can compare.” He ran a hand through his chestnut locks, evaluating the wayward girl. “You look like you’re feeling better.”

“A little,” she admitted with a weak smile. “I should thank you by the way. If you hadn’t shown up when you did I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

He was about to respond when a familiar voice sounded from a nearby flight of stairs. “Okay, Ryker, good job.”

Keira started in surprise. The woman who stepped into view was none other than Vivian, flipping through a notebook.

“If you can keep that up we might make it to the Grand Champ—” she looked up and, noticing Keira for the first time, stopped mid-sentence. Her brown eyes clouded over with hostility. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“You know her, Viv?” Ryker said, surprised.

She paid no attention to his comment and continued staring stonily at the unwelcome visitor. “And I suppose you still want a job.”

Despite how nervous she felt, Keira raised her head up high. “Yes.”

Ryker seemed elated by the news. “You’re a mechanic?”

“I told you I don’t want to hire some drifter.”

“I’m not a drifter!” the green-haired girl shot back, her timidity melting into anger.

Vivian crossed her arms, unimpressed. “You think showing up here with a change of clothes is enough to convince me otherwise?”

Keira flushed with righteous indignation, and she stomped up to the taller woman. “Look, lady, I haven’t exactly had a good two days. I’m new to this city, and I hate it already. Almost everyone has treated me like I’m garbage or worse, but like it or not I’m stuck here. I’m in desperate need of a shower, a hot meal, and a decent bed, and I’ll gladly work for all those things. So I’d thank you to get off your high horse and give me chance!”

Vivian maintained a level glare when—to Keira’s utter bewilderment—she began chuckling, a low and silky sound. “You’re certainly a persistent one.” She shook her head, smiling, and walked up to one of the mounted air racers. She placed her hands on her hips expectantly. “The engine won’t start. Fix it.”

Keira stared at the zoomer and gulped before walking up to the table and beginning. First thing’s first, she needed to find the engine hood. After only a few seconds of looking the vehicle over, she thankfully found it and got it open. From then on, she was perfectly at home. Even though she had to search for every tool she used, she felt like she was working in her old lab during the five minutes it took her to do the job, and thanks to the literature she studied earlier she had little trouble solving the problem.

Her repairs done, Keira reached up to hit the ignition, and the engine roared to life.

Vivian nodded at her approvingly. “I’m impressed. Our old mechanic would’ve taken fifteen minutes at least.” She rubbed her chin, a thoughtful expression on her face.

Ryker piped up, “Such a comment from the lofty boss… You know, coming from her she must be blown away.”

“I could do without the editorializing,” her censure was as swift and biting as a whip.

The racer held up his hands in mock surrender, plainly unperturbed, and Keira wondered if they always interacted like this.

“Anyway, as you may have noticed earlier, I’m Crys Ryker, the driver for this team. And she’s Vivian Ildri, the manager of this garage.” He held out a gloved hand. “And you are…?”

She stared at his hand, hesitating, before taking it. “Keira. Keira Hagai.”

Ryker smiled at her again, his handshake firm and friendly.

An answering blush threatened to creep up over her cheeks.

Vivian looked at Keira again, calculating. A corner of her mouth twitched, and she nodded decisively. “You’re hired.”

 


 

A sweet, putrid stench filled Jak’s nostrils. He wrinkled his nose, trying to block it out, before starting awake with a gasp.

He immediately felt a searing pain in his forehead and found he couldn’t open his right eye. Remembering the orange-haired man and his arrest, he reached up to gingerly feel the spot where the soldier had hit him. The touch further inflamed his angry flesh, hurting so fiercely he sucked in a sharp breath between bared teeth. Steeling himself, he reached up again and probed around the injury. He felt something crusty and realized his eye was sealed shut by dried blood.

Jak briefly struggled before his eyelids cracked open, and then he noticed with a flinch his clothes were different. He wore stained green pants and a shirt, raggedly cut off at the knees and shoulders. His forearms, hands, shins, and feet were wrapped in equally discolored bandages, though they covered no wounds. Again reaching up to his head, he felt for his goggles and instead touched a red scarf, swathing his hairline and neck like a cowl.

Wondering where he was, Jak shivered. He sat in a dank and dirty cell of sorts with a cheap, flickering light fixture in the ceiling. The only window was high up on the thoroughly fortified metal door. Acid green light dimly shone through the bars. There were two beds—more like slabs—opposite each other against the walls, and then he gasped in horror.

The bed furthest from Jak was occupied by a rotting corpse. The face was almost unrecognizable, and most of the ears were missing, looking as though they had simply been blown away. A few soiled rags that were once clothes sparsely shrouded the figure, giving it a strangely mummified appearance. Its countless wounds were coated in black liquid, and one mangled hand flopped over the edge of the bed, revealing small patches of white bone.

Jak wanted to scream.

He scrambled onto the opposite bed, trying to put as much distance between himself and the cadaver as possible. Placing his chin on his knees he stared at it, unable to look away until at last, he heard footsteps outside. He watched as several of the red-armored soldiers entered. One stayed by the door as the other two walked over to the corpse.

“Whew! What a stench on that one!”

“How long has it been here?”

“Just yesterday, I think.”

“Who cares. Let’s just get it out of here.”

The soldiers busied themselves with loading up a body bag, and Jak’s pulse quickened. With only one guard at the open door, maybe he had a chance to escape.

Adrenaline surged through his body and blood pounded in his aching head. Delaying only a few seconds, Jak lunged at the soldier and grabbed his weapon. The boy twisted with all his strength, slamming the rifle into the side of the soldier’s head. He staggered, dazed just enough that he lost his grip.

Jak started to push past when an armored hand clamped over his mouth and violently yanked him back. Already recovered, the soldier wrested the weapon away from his assailant’s desperate clutches. He lifted a steel-toed boot and stomped on Jak’s exposed foot with a sickening crunch.

A guttural howl tore out of Jak’s lungs, muffled by the hand grasping his face.

“Try anything like that again and I’ll do much worse, maggot!” the soldier threatened in a low, menacing voice before releasing Jak. He crumpled to the floor, gripping his leg as though he could squeeze away the searing pain. He dimly heard shuffling and footsteps, then the door slamming shut. The soldier’s voices echoed as they receded from his cell, saying something about how everything might be shut down within the year.

Jak's throbbing foot was undoubtedly broken. With great effort, he managed to stand on one leg, hobble back over to his slab, and collapse. Some time passed before he pushed himself up into a seated position to examine his injury. Nearly his entire foot was sticky with half congealed blood, fresh red still seeping from where his big toenail used to be. Wherever the gore wasn't, young bruising showed, and his swollen flesh strained against the bandages.

Jak leaned against the wall, wincing. What was he going to do now? His captors were not only terrifying, they were a total enigma. Glancing around his cell, his addled mind remembered what the soldiers said about the corpse. How was it possible? How could a dead body be so far gone after only one day? His eyes returned to stare at the spot where the corpse had lain.

He jumped several inches into the air, no longer aware of the terrific pain in his foot. A strange substance pooled in an impression of the body. Black as pitch, it glinted violet in the flickering light, the same liquid that had covered the corpse.

Dark eco. Jak’s breath caught in his throat, and his body turned to ice. He cast a despairing glance about every corner of his cell. What is this place?

Desperate for something, anything to distract him from this awful place, he tried to think of comforting faces. His uncle and all the rest of the villagers—including the bumbling Mayor—all came to mind. He then imagined Samos, Daxter, and Keira—especially Keira. He tried to picture her, laughing and animated, talking about this and that; working on the A-Grav, bright with excitement; under his arm, green eyes sparkling in the pure glow of the light eco crystal. He seized upon memories of her like she was a light that would save him from the darkness.

Chapter Text

Keira awoke with a start, gasping out of her nightmares. Groaning, she sat up and shook her groggy head in an effort to clear it. A clock on the wall read five thirty, and she heaved a heavy sighed. Though she had long considered herself a morning person, this was much too early an hour for even her to tolerate. Unfortunately, if recent experience was anything to go by she would be unable to fall back asleep. She wrapped herself tightly in her blankets and settled into a comfortable position, hoping she might drift off, but it was a futile effort. In the end, all she could do was toss and turn, her mind already a busy station running several trains of thought. Grumbling, she got up to get dressed, resigned to her internal clock’s betrayal.

As with most mornings, when the garage was quiet and she only had her own musings for company, the mechanic reflected on her time in Haven City. Her first days were in large part spent attempting to better understand her surroundings. Mar Memorial Stadium was located in Main Town, an area of the city known for its booming commerce and beautiful canals. It was one of many districts, each with their own distinct economy and atmosphere, all separated by security checkpoints. It was also by far and away the most privileged.

For years now, Haven had been ruled by the dictator Baron Praxis. Even longer than that, the city had been at war with the Metal Heads, the same terrifying creatures that invaded Sandover Village through the Precursor Ring. Keeping the city safe was Praxis’ justification for everything he ever did, and he governed with an iron fist. Only a scant portion of the citizens, the business and military classes, enjoyed prosperity under his reign. Most everyone else resided in one of the city’s vast slums, their labor exploited to keep the eco flowing.

Eco powered everything in Haven, but the most voracious drain by far was the great shield wall surrounding the entire city. It was a marvel of engineering, a five-story-tall bulwark made all the more formidable by a series of sharp spires jutting out of its parapet like hundreds of jagged metal horns. Sustaining it necessitated vast mining operations that sprawled into the wilderness beyond, pillaging the earth for ever more resources. Outside the safety of the city perimeter, they were vulnerable to Metal Head attacks and very costly to protect and maintain. Slum workers made the best of the horrible pay and dangerous conditions, but many died on the job.

Wages were further driven down by the slave labor of lurker babaks, great beasts that rallied under the evil Gol and Maia in Keira’s world. Since before she could remember they had always been a threat, raiding villages and wreaking havoc with savage ferocity. She couldn’t believe it the first time she saw one lumbering past, docile as a meek child, following its human master with packages and bags balanced in its furry purple arms.

The great inequality of the city bred contempt for its ruler, and that contempt bred action. Though she was insulated from the struggling majority, Keira still heard whispered conversation in the streets of the Underground. Over time she came to understand they were a resistance organization, constantly mucking things up for the Baron’s forces.

Unfortunately, no amount of familiarity with the socioeconomic and political realities of Haven proved helpful in finding Jak, Daxter, or her father. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months with no sign of them, and she began to doubt they were even in the city. Surely if they were looking for her too she would’ve heard something by now.

Once she asked Vivian where it is is people go when they disappear. A few might make it beyond the shield walls and into the treacherous Wasteland. More likely they were made to labor in the eco mines or imprisoned in the Krimzon Guard Fortress. In all cases, they would never be heard from again.

Further complicating matters, she didn’t know exactly where or even when Haven existed. The spread of information was so tightly controlled that library access was restricted, and the only maps she ever saw were of the city layout. And the year… Her first day on the job, she learned from Ryker that it was 497. Her response was nothing less than incoherent shock. According to the calendar she was familiar with that would place her well over one thousand years in the past, and yet her surroundings were so technologically advanced that it must be impossible. Had the Precursor Ring transported her between worlds? Dimensions? Unfortunately, she realized then and there that she would somehow have to find answers on her own. Ryker wasn’t just puzzled by her reaction, he looked at her as though she had ten heads. She didn’t blame him. Such fantastical travel wasn’t the province of mere humans—it only existed in tales of the fabled Precursors themselves.

And so she did her best to pass off her ignorance as an absent-minded blunder and vowed to keep the truth of her past secret. Until she could find a way to learn more about the city’s history, she was forced to conclude she was in a different world from her own, and possibly from her companions as well.

Despite the trauma of her arrival in Haven and the crushing disappointment of her fruitless searching, Keira stayed afloat by throwing herself into her job. Indeed, she had time for little else. Vivian put her to work right away, fixing engines, waxing zoomers, and completing odd jobs around the garage, all of it revolving around Ryker’s races every weekend. She made a small stipend, and her breakfast and bed were provided. Of course, the food was cheap and she slept on a lumpy, old couch, but she wasn’t complaining. She was safe, and she rather liked the people she was interacting with.

Vivian was an extremely proud woman, largely because of her father’s legacy. He had been one of the top managers in the business and she did her best to honor his memory. It wasn’t always easy. Women weren’t exactly commonplace in the racing world, and so she often wrestled with a double bind. Many considered her a threat simply by existing, and it was only through sheer tenacity of will that she continued to scrape by. Even though she always maintained an aloof exterior, Keira deeply admired her. She had never met such a fierce woman.

Ryker, on the other hand, was far from aloof. He was warm, friendly, and an irredeemable flirt. He seemed to take particular joy in getting Keira to blush, but she was no slouch at making eyes. She’d flirt right back, assuring herself it was all in the spirit of their amicable rapport. Although he didn’t live in the garage he still spent a great deal of time there, most often for testing out her modifications. He needed any edge he could get as this was his rookie season. Given the often deadly nature of the sport, a racer had to be at least eighteen in order to legally participate, a requirement he barely satisfied. But what he lacked in years he made up for with raw talent. He was a truly gifted racer and determined to dethrone Erol, commander of the Krimzon Guard and longtime city champion.

As Keira proved her mechanical acumen and won the trust of her superiors, she earned the right to accompany them on errands around the city. It was in this way that she first went out of Main Town and began exploring the rest of Haven, though she was always required to stay in the zoomer and away from any business transactions. Vivian maintained an odd chain of suppliers, many of them in the East Side Slums. The KG were always to be avoided, and Keira soon came to understand that they were operating outside the bounds of legal commerce. She didn’t mind. Her horrifying experience with the Krimzon Guard when she first arrived and the appalling poverty of the Slums instilled in her a deep hatred of Praxis’ regime.

At times like these, when Ryker or Vivian took Keira to the Slums, she saw glimpses of a very different man and woman. Cracks would show in their carefully controlled exteriors, hinting at deep wells of anger. Keira sensed they must have endured great hardship in the past, but given her own unwillingness to talk about herself, she denied her burning curiosity and avoided asking questions. Left to fill in the gaps, she imagined them exacting vigilante justice as members of the Underground.

After throwing on some clothes, Keira went to the restroom and turned the sink’s squeaky handle. Cold water flowed into the basin as she bent to splash her face. A shiver traveled down her spine, and she grabbed a small towel to dry off. Dragging the terry cloth down to her mouth, she opened her tired eyes and stared at her reflection for a few moments.

She exited the restroom and glanced at the clock again. It was only five forty-six. She glared up at the ceiling. Vivian owned the tiny apartment above the garage and was undoubtedly, in Keira’s mind, enjoying the peaceful embrace of a deep and blissful sleep.

Muttering to herself, she set about finding some breakfast. By the time Vivian came downstairs, she was well underway with her work finishing a new customization of the air racer. Ryker was due at noon for a tune-up, but the hour came and went without him showing up.

For lack of anything better to do Keira continued tinkering with the zoomer. She was nose deep in the engine when one of the large bay doors, at last, slid open. She looked up just as Ryker walked in with a beautiful blonde. They were all smiles, engaged in companionable discussion, and the green-haired girl scowled. They were such an attractive pair she immediately assumed they were a couple. Why else would he blow her off?

“You’re late,” she tartly announced, interrupting their conversation.

“Am I?” he asked, a sly frown wrinkling his brow, “I thought I was early.”

“You were supposed to be here almost an hour ago,” she corrected, jerking her chin at the clock on the wall.

“Really? I could’ve sworn you said to get here at one.” He grinned as though that were a sufficient excuse.

“You know how testy Vivian gets when you’re not on time for tune-ups, so don’t blame me if you get chewed out.”

Ryker shrugged, utterly shameless.

“Can’t say I’m surprised that this lug had something better to do,” the blonde stated as she extended her arm, “I’m Tess.”

Keira hesitated, looking the woman up and down. She was what Daxter would call a bombshell. Her figure was sublime, shown off by clothes that clung to her curves and bared her toned midriff and thighs. A plum headband coiffed her perfect flaxen locks, and her scarlet lips were parted in a friendly smile.

Cautiously warming to Tess’ amiability, the mechanic wiped her palms on a clean rag and clasped the proffered hand. “Keira.” She was met with an enthusiastic shake.

“Now,” Tess said, “Let’s get down to business.” She lifted a huge suitcase on top of an available work table with notable ease, evidently stronger than she looked. After fiddling with the clasps, she opened the case and revealed a cargo of gleaming firearms.

Keira’s emerald eyes widened. She didn’t know what she had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this. She watched as Tess picked up a large handgun for Ryker to examine, and it dawned on her that she was watching a sales pitch.

“Wait,” she murmured, “so you’re here to sell guns? Not…”

“Not what?” Tess asked, her long lashes fluttering expectantly.

“Well…” Keira fiddled with a wrench, suddenly feeling childish, “The way you walked in together I thought you two might be…”

Tess and Ryker exchanged a look, and a beat later she burst out laughing. “Us? An item? He wishes!”

“I do not,” he quickly objected. His expression was unusually earnest, and his golden eyes kept darting to Keira and back as though he was assessing if she was taking this seriously.

“What’s got you so flustered, Ryker Baby?” Tess teased as she elbowed his ribs, doubly amused by the racer’s apparent agitation. Though her words were coquettish, there was no genuine passion behind them. Their dynamic read as strictly platonic. Keira couldn’t help but smile as she watched them, surprised by the relief she felt.

The sale resumed, and as the discussion honed in on the firearm’s minutiae she studied the rest of the wares. In addition to guns and ammo, there were grenades branded with the seal of Baron Praxis. Black market then, Keira thought to herself, and her estimation of Tess grew. Then her gaze settled on the smallest gun in the lot. Unlike all the others it had a cylinder of chambers, and the accompanying ammo glowed with lime light.

“Interested?”

Startled, Keira looked up to find the perky Tess blinking at her. “Oh,” she mumbled, “Yeah… I mean, I’ve never seen a green eco gun before.”

“It can take any type of eco so long as they’re in the correct cartridges, but I’m fond of the green ones. What they lack in power they make up for in accuracy.”

The arms dealer delicately picked up the revolver and offered it for inspection. Having never touched a gun before, Keira awkwardly wrapped her fingers around the grip. She was instantly struck by how heavy the small weapon was. She shifted it back and forth, testing the weight. Though it seemed foreign and strange, she couldn’t deny it felt good to handle.

“I’ll pick that up too,” Ryker declared.

“For yourself?” Keira asked.

“For you.”

She gaped at him. “Why would you get me a gun?”

“Do I need a reason, Hagai?”

“Yes,” she replied in a deadpan voice, “yes you do.”

“So I’ll have an excuse to take you out shooting,” he answered with a cheeky wink.

Keira stared down at the revolver, considering the proposition. She was in a hostile city ruled by a fascist dictator. Maybe having her own weapon wasn’t uncalled for. “Alright… Why not? I don’t know the first thing about it though, so good luck to you.” She saluted him with the gun.

“First thing’s first then,” he said as he quickly grabbed her hand and redirected the barrel toward the ceiling, “even if you know it’s not, always assume the gun is loaded and point it in a safe direction. Accidents can happen, and I need my beautiful face intact.”

Footsteps sounded on the stairs. “Keira!”

“What can I do for you, Viv?”

The manager walked into view and stopped on the second to bottom stair, resting her forearm on the low clearance above. “I have to run to the stadium offices, so—What is this?” Her brown eyes narrowed as they took in the scene, lingering on the shining weapon in Keira’s hand.

“Tess’ popup armory,” Ryker said in his singsong voice.

“I thought you knew better than to conduct business in the garage like this.”

The racer’s smile evaporated, and he shuffled to and fro on his feet. He couldn’t look more uncomfortable. “But,” he protested, “it’s just Tess.”

Vivian scowled at him with such intensity that Keira wondered what on earth was going on. She had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn’t be having this discussion if she wasn’t there.

Snorting in exasperation, the manager descended the last two steps and stopped at her side. “May I?”

Realizing she was asking for the revolver, Keira obediently handed it over. Vivian unlatched and opened the cylinder with practiced ease, spinning it like a wheel. With a flick of her wrist, it swung back into place, and she smoothly aimed at the back wall to test the sight. Satisfied, she placed it on the table.

“It’s a good choice,” she concluded. Turning on her heel, she swept toward the bay doors. “When I’m back I expect the transactions to be finished and the tuneup underway.”

“Nice to see you too, Vivian,” Tess called after her.

Her only response was a dismissive wave over the shoulder, but just before disappearing into the stadium hallway she turned toward Keira and pointed at a stack of drawers. “By the way, that package over there is for you.”

The mechanic glanced at the boxy object, wrapped in plain, undyed paper. It sat on top of the drawers, small and unremarkable. She had noticed it earlier but thought nothing of it. There were always mysterious parcels coming and going. She might have asked what it was, but the manager had already vanished. Instead, she went to open the package, and her face lit up. Inside was a weathered old tome, hardbound and inked with plain dark letters.

“What is it?” Ryker asked.

“A book,” Keira replied, reverently running her fingers over the cover.

The racer leaned over her shoulder for a better look. “Haven: A History,” he read, “Sounds riveting.”

Despite his sarcasm, her spirit was soaring. Though she had recently discussed her desire for a history book with Vivian, she never anticipated the manager would go out of her way to acquire one. This was precisely the type of text that was kept under lock and key at the library, and the answers she had been searching for may very well lay within its pages. “How do you think she got it?” she wondered aloud as she leafed through.

“Viv has plenty of connections even I don’t know about, so it’s hard to say.” He gave a noncommittal shrug. “What do you want with a boring old book like that anyway?”

“Ever the scholar, eh, Ryker?” Tess needled.

Keira grinned, and her eager eyes settled upon a map of Haven’s corner of the continent. “So long as I’m in this city I figure it can’t hurt to learn about its hist—” As she took in the depicted geography she was robbed of further speech. Much of it was unfamiliar, notably the sprawling Wasteland that spread over the earth like a barren blanket, but there were certain landmarks she recognized near the southeastern coast—the ruins of an old Precursor citadel, the white-capped peak of Snowy Mountain, the volcanic grounds of Fire Canyon. Each familiar feature led to another and another, stringing together a tapestry she knew but couldn’t comprehend. By the time she found Haven City, neighbored just off the coast by small and craggy Misty Island, the book quaked in her trembling hands.

“What’s wrong?”

She glanced up to find Ryker frowning at her, concerned and confused, and found she had no words with which to respond.

“Hagai.”

He said the name with enough force to snap her out of it, and she closed the book so hard there was a sharp thwap. “Nothing! Nothing’s wrong. I’m just going to put this away, and we should get to work before Vivian comes back.”

Before he could say anything to the contrary, she made a beeline for the small lounge that served as her bedroom and pulled its patchwork olive green curtain shut behind her.

 


 

Jak regarded the light fixture in the ceiling, tallying each time it flickered on and off. Just when he thought there was a recognizable rhythm to it, it would break with the pattern he imagined and reset his count to zero. With every irregular cycle, his stone-faced expression would calcify a little more, and his boredom grew more oppressive.

How long had it been since his spectacular failure of an escape attempt? His thoughts aimlessly meandered through the memory of that first day as they had innumerable times.

Within an hour of his scuffle with the guards, the door opened again. In came two new guards and a medic to tend to his injuries, a thin man who wouldn’t speak or look him in the eye. The prisoner’s blood was drawn, his forehead and toe were cleaned and bandaged, and his shattered foot was encased in a cast. This surprised him. These didn’t seem like civilized jailors, so why heal him? Why not let him rot? Not long afterward he received his first meal through the slot in the base of the door, its reservoirs slopped with gruel and mushy vegetables. Again he was surprised. While plain in flavor and disgusting in texture, the food was not without nutritional value. It was as though they were trying to keep him healthy.

With no social interaction, no clock, and no window to the outside, Jak soon lost count of how many days he had sat in that same prison cell, frequently staring at the same dark eco stain. Aside from medical visits to check on the condition of his cast and eventually remove it, he was in solitary confinement. Footsteps would occasionally echo in the halls, but once he was healed they always passed on. There was no one to see and nothing to do. At least once his cast was off he could throw himself into exercise, but all too much of his time was spent doing nothing at all.

And so Jak would let his mind wind wander, endlessly retreading the same lines of thought. Would he ever see the sun again? Why had the corpse oozed dark eco? Where were his companions? He had no idea if Samos and Keira had even landed in the same place, but Daxter was another story.

It didn’t take long after Jak’s incarceration to realize that, for the first time in his life, his friend had abandoned him. Instead of standing his ground when the KG showed up he ran away. Why now? They had been in plenty of life-threatening situations before, but the more time passed the more convinced he became that Daxter was gone for good. It stung him deeply, brewing resentment and magnifying his loneliness.

There were times when Jak was overcome by bouts of hysteria. He would scream, he would beat the walls with his fists, and he would weep like a child. Never before had he experienced such violent torrents of emotion, and the shame of it ate away at his psyche. He never felt more pitiful or powerless in his life. Existing alone and unstimulated in crushing silence was slowly driving him insane.

The quiet was interrupted on rare occasions—sometimes Jak would hear screams. It was diminished such that it was obviously far away yet still so piercing that it seemed the victim was all too close. The horrible noise would usually only go on for a minute or two, but it felt much longer than that.

On one day like any other, Jak was contemplating the reason for his incarceration when he heard several pairs of feet thumping in the hallway. Knowing they would pass by, he didn’t even look up. But then he heard the lock clank and the hinges screech as the cell door swung open, and he stared into the glowing vermillion eyes of a guard’s helmet. Several of them walked in, and one gruffly commanded, “Get up.”

When Jak failed to immediately comply, one roughly grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet. He winced but didn’t make a sound.

Handcuffed and encircled by his captors, he was marched out of his cell and down a long corridor. They passed what seemed to be hundreds of numbered doors identical to his before they entered a cavernous chamber. Straining to look over the taller shoulders of the guards, Jak saw the room was lined in cells and catwalks. Barred sconces cast a chartreuse glow, and acrid steam rose from vents in the floor. There was a warp gate on the far side, but it was inactive. A small platform, connected to the main walkway by a bridge, rose out of a gaping pit lined in yet more cells. Atop the platform sat a steel chair armed with restraints and reclined to angle toward a massive machine above.

Jak involuntarily shivered as his eyes swept over the length of the mechanism. The overall effect was not unlike a three-armed top, suspended from the ceiling by a pillar of luminescent orange circuitry and bulging pipes. Each mechanical arm sported devilish apparatuses, all pointing threateningly at the chair below along with the main column.

The guards led Jak over the bridge toward the platform and three people who stood waiting. One appeared to be some sort of scientist and wore a white lab coat. The man who had arrested him stood to the left, grinning maliciously. The third was a new face. Half a face at least , Jak thought to himself when he noticed the right side of the man’s head was covered in metal plating and wires. A meticulously groomed beard of auburn and gray sprouted around his mouth, affording his intimidating profile a regal air. He wore shining silver armor accented by swathes of red cloth, and a sword hung from his oversized leather belt. A plate shielding his abdomen bore an emblem, a half skull over a blade—a fitting symbol for a man who looked every inch a ruthless predator.

The closer Jak drew to them, however, the less he paid attention. He became wholly fixated on the machine. It filled his entire being with dread so powerful his leaden feet grew heavier with each step. Only by reminding himself of the soldier’s weapons and the pit below was he able to force himself forward.

The bearded man scowled and gestured at Jak with an open palm. “This is your prime specimen?” he scoffed, “He’s just some punk kid!”

The redhead soldier countered, “He may be young, Baron Praxis, but my scientists tell me he has great potential. He shows the residual effects of advanced eco channeling.”

“The best eco channelers all but vanished after the Metal Heads appeared.”

“Even so, the data is unmistakable. He has the most potential of any subject we’ve seen.”

“I don’t want potential, Commander, I want results,” Praxis growled, and he studied Jak without a trace of empathy. His one eye narrowed. “He’s awfully quiet. Usually, they’re begging for their lives by now.”

“The boy is mute, Your Eminence.”

“Really?” That seemed to intrigue the Baron. He stalked forward, his considerable height growing more domineering with every step, and snatched Jak’s chin with a large, unyielding hand. The prisoner was helpless to do anything but flinch and endure the dehumanizing scrutiny like livestock. He could feel the wet heat of the Baron’s breath, a sour warmth that quickened the rise and fall of his own chest.

“...How old is he?”

“We’ve placed his age around seventeen.”

“That makes him the youngest one yet… May you last longer than the others.”

Praxis released Jak and nodded at the guards. With the obedient efficiency of trained crocadogs, they proceeded to remove his handcuffs and manhandle him into the chair. Panicking, he fought back and succeeded in getting an arm free long enough for his fist to make contact with one of the soldier’s exposed ears and send its owner staggering backward. He almost managed to leap off the chair when the other two tackled and wrestled him into a tenuous submission. They held his arms and legs down and latched the restraints into place.

Their task done, the guards stepped back from the chair and watched as he struggled against his bonds. No matter how hard he wrenched, Jak couldn’t free his wrists and ankles. There were only bruises and chafed skin to be won. Primordial fear began to seep into his mind like melting ice. He looked first at the scientist, then the commander, and last the Baron, his desperate gaze imploring.

Praxis looked dispassionately back. “Let’s begin, Erol.”

The redhead nodded and spoke, it seemed, to thin air, “Initiate Dark Eco Injection Cycle.”

“Initiating Dark Eco Injection Cycle,” responded a computer-generated woman’s voice.

A sinister clanking sounded in the machine above, and Jak futilely recoiled like a cornered animal. Several consecutive layers, each smaller than the previous one, slowly extended down from the center of the column. The last layer contained the instrument-laden tip of the machine, three long and vicious needles that hovered mere inches from his breast. He broke out into a cold sweat as he stared wide-eyed at the ominous contraption. Then everything stopped moving.

The scared teenager released the breath he didn’t know he was holding, his racing pulse thundering in his ears. Was that it? A low humming noise vibrated from above, a sinister answer to his question. His very bones quivered as they resonated with the sound. It slowly built upon itself, rising in intensity until it was a throbbing pitch. Just when he thought he could stand no more the sound shattered into a sizzling cacophony and violet rays of dark eco erupted from the needles, arcing into his body.

Jak’s flesh exploded with such agony that he couldn’t hear the pure, primal scream tearing out of his own throat. His heart pounded relentlessly, forcing out blood that savagely hammered through his distended veins. Every muscle, every nerve, every inch of skin bunched and burned as if he were being flayed alive. So violent was the stimulation it felt like his very cells would rupture and disintegrate, leaving what consciousness he had adrift in an infinite ocean of pain. Driven by instinct and wailing without end, he arched against the restraints, endeavoring to free his limbs till his wrists and ankles grew slick with red.

If he had the mental capacity he would have tried retreating into his head and escaping to a place where the eco couldn’t touch him. He would have thought of Daxter making him laugh so hard he cried. He would have recalled Samos scolding him for running off to Misty Island. He would have remembered Keira kissing him for the very first time.

But the dark eco was inescapable. It devoured his flesh, mind, and soul, dragging him into darkness so complete not even his memories could survive.

Chapter Text

Keira diligently walked among piles of metal scrap that rose anywhere from three to thirty feet into the air. She occasionally saw shells of vehicles, appliances, and other long abandoned relics, waiting their turn to be cannibalized or corroded beyond recognition.

“How about this one?” Ryker yelled over, holding up an ancient zoomer seat.

“Too well used,” she responded.

Wanting to have a ride of her own, Keira had spent the last few weeks scavenging the scrapyard for parts to build a custom zoomer. Ryker often tagged along. She appreciated the extra muscle, as it could be exhausting work.

“What about this one then?” He held up another seat. Vermin had chewed a hole in the fabric and pilfered most of the stuffing.

“Better luck next time.”

She smiled to herself at the sound of Ryker grumbling.

“You, Hagai, are a difficult girl to please.” He sidled up to her, his singsong voice in full swing.

“Oh, I’m not that bad. I just want to be able to sit down without injuring myself.”

“Is it possible your standards are just a tad high?”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Come on now, a comfortable seat is one of the most important parts of zoomer design. I need something that’s evenly padded. Something with genuine leather. Something…” she rummaged around in the nearest pile and dislodged a seat from what looked to be a fairly recent model, proclaiming, “like this!” She grinned triumphantly as she held up her find. It was dirty but in remarkably good condition.

“Fine, I stand corrected.” Ryker held up his hands in mock defeat, and he obligingly took the seat to carry it for her. “Is there anything else on the list?”

“I think that’s good enough for today,” she announced as they walked up to a small heap of parts they had gathered, “We managed to find a few belts, a starter, spark plugs, gears, gaskets, a decent combustion chamber, an eco supercharger,” she indicated the latest addition, “and a seat fit for my high standards.”

“Ready for some target practice then?”

“Yes!” she eagerly agreed.

Despite Keira’s total lack of experience with firearms, once Ryker bought her a revolver she soon discovered that she was a natural markswoman. Shooting had quickly become a favorite pastime, and so the pair went to the scrapyard at least once a week. As her skill grew they had shifted to more elaborate configurations of targets, and she was making an excellent run of it today.

“Very nice shooting, Hagai,” Ryker commented as he reloaded, “I’m impressed.”

Swelling with pride, Keira confidently raised her chin. “Impressed like ‘wow, good job’ or more like ‘sweet Precursors, you’re so amazing you’re even better than I am’?”

“Definitely the first one.” A beat later he shot and hit a bullseye, and he flashed her a victorious smirk. “Maybe you’ll catch up in a few years or so.”

Keira narrowed her eyes. Emboldened by his condescension, she took aim in one fluid motion and also hit her target dead center, a twin to the cocky brunette’s. She was unable to keep from smiling as she said, “That smacks of exaggeration.”

“Maybe,” he granted, his answering grin mischievous, “but I’ll sleep soundly in the knowledge that you’ll definitely never be a better racer.”

“Well you’ll definitely never be a better mechanic,” she retorted, mimicking his inflection.

“No contest there,” Ryker conceded with a laugh, “It’s not just zoomers for you either, it’s like you’re the brain surgeon of machines. How do you know so much about it anyway?”

“I taught myself mostly.”

“Taught yourself?”

“Yeah, though my father got me started with the Sage…” Keira trailed off, realizing the nature of the details she was sharing. “Sage advice. He always gave me plenty of that.” She barely stopped herself from wincing at her own failure to be smooth, but there was no helping it. The great eco sages were nothing more than a legend in Haven City.

Ryker stared at her, eyebrows raised.

Trying to paper over his piqued curiosity, Keira fumbled along, “Well anyway, I… I was a self-sufficient kid.”

“So,” he began, clearly suspicious of her behavior, “you’re a self-taught mechanical genius from a town no one’s ever heard of. Just where is this Sandover Village of yours anyway?”

Sucking in a breath, the green-haired girl raised her revolver and fired on the first target she saw, missing.

She didn’t know what to say. As she had hoped, the history book Vivian procured did indeed provide answers, but the truth was far more disturbing than she had imagined possible. A man named Mar founded Haven City, its tremendous shield walls an imperative line of defense against the Metal Heads. The alien creatures laid waste to the land, a rapacious horde that destroyed entire ecosystems and birthed vast deserts. Without Haven and other strongholds flung far across the continent, human civilization may have ceased to exist entirely, and the site from which the city grew was once a small seaside hamlet. Now forgotten by many, its name was Sandover Village.

It was her fault. The Precursor Ring she had rebuilt opened a rift gate, a portal out of which poured the Metal Head invasion and the catalyst for a world shift so catastrophic that the calendar was reset to mark a new age. The reality in which she found herself was the future of her world, nearly five hundred years on from the fateful day the Ring was activated.

At least she had the sense to wait until after Ryker was gone for the day and Vivian had retired upstairs before poring over the book. She remembered how she felt then, as though the walls were closing in around her, a hungry maw threatening to swallow her whole. Ever since she had felt undone and unmoored, adrift in a sea of dread with no land in sight. It was all her fault… If only she hadn’t sought to understand the secrets of the Precursors. If only she had left well enough alone.

Returning to the present moment, she regarded Ryker with pregnant silence. Over the many weeks she had known him he had given her no reason to believe he was untrustworthy—Vivian too—but it didn’t matter. No amount of feeling safe with her new friends could offset how outlandish her tale was. Though she wanted with her whole heart to unburden herself and feel just a little bit less alone, she knew she could never tell anybody where exactly she came from.

“Far away from here,” she, at last, answered and quickly shot again before he could press her further.

It wasn’t long before the pair decided to pack it in. They gathered up the day’s haul in rough-hewn bags and nets, preparing to lug it all out of the scrapyard.

“So, are you nervous about the big race?” She looked at him expectantly as they each shouldered the load. Ryker was poised to take home the championship trophy. All that was left was the final race of the season.

He gave her a quick glance before shrugging, his burden clanking in response.

“Come on, you’re not even worried about taking on Erol once and for all?” she probed, one blue eyebrow raised. The three-time champion had a reputation for exceptional violence on the track.

“Worrying will get me nowhere,” he stated in an even tone, “And I always win when it counts thanks to my super special strategy.”

“Which is?”

“Drive really fast.”

Kiera sighed in exasperation. “Have I ever told you you’re an idiot, Crys Ryker?”

“No need!” he cheerfully replied, “Viv’s been telling me what an idiot I am for years.”

“You know,” she changed the subject, a thought occurring to her, “I’ve never asked you how you met Vivian.” She had often wondered about it, but somehow it always felt like the wrong time to bring it up.

“That’s true, you haven’t.”

Keira waited for him to elaborate further but only heard their boots trudging on the dirt. “So…” she prompted, “how did you meet Vivian?”

“Well, it was ‘far away from here.’ ”

“That’s not fair.”

“Isn’t it? Whenever your life before Haven comes up you clam up tighter than a crocadog’s ass.”

Keira pressed her lips together, unsure what to say. Ryker wasn’t wrong after all.

“Tell you what, I’ll make you a deal,” he offered, “If I tell you how I met Vivian, I can ask you something about your past too.”

The mechanic eyed him dubiously. His cheeky grin made it clear that he had her right where he wanted her. Sure she would regret it but too curious to say no, she hesitantly agreed, “...Deal.”

“It actually wasn’t far away at all. I met Vivian a few miles from here on the East Side. Ever heard of the Slum Stars?”

Keira shook her head.

“They’re an orphan gang. One of many.”

“Orphan…” she repeated.

“Yep. My parents died when I was little.”

He said it so matter of factly that Keira grimaced. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, all too aware of the woeful inadequacy of her words.

“Don’t be. I barely remember them anyway, and at least I was able to get some serious street cred.”

He chuckled, trying to get Keira in on the laugh, but she didn’t think it was very funny.

He stumbled along, “No, I mean… life in Haven City is hard for most people. Nothing special about my circumstances. No need to feel sorry for me. I was in a gang to get by. Taught me some things too. That’s how I started racing, and that led to meeting Vivian. She saw me driving like a bat out of hell and recruited me. The rest is history.”

“And that’s that?” Keira asked, sure he was leaving something out.

“That’s that,” Ryker concluded as he sidled up to their parked zoomer and proceeded to strap the hauled parts onto the back of the vehicle.

Keira joined him, absorbing what he had just shared. Even though it had long been clear Ryker had a personal connection to the city’s oppressed, it was still upsetting to hear even sparse details of his childhood.

“Your turn,” the racer announced in his singsong voice, “Did you leave your heart behind wherever you came from?”

Keira immediately looked up, eyes wide and a betraying flush creeping up her cheeks. He steadily gazed back, his lips curved in a gentle smile.

“I-I…” she stuttered, her face burning beet red, “I guess… you could say that.”

“And?”

Her mouth opened and closed as she tried to muster a sentence.

“C’mon, I’m dying to know more about this guy!”

She was painfully aware of how much he had revealed. At some length, she said, “I grew up with him. He was a good friend. Strong, brave… kind. We never really were together or anything, but…” she paused, remembering the light eco crystal and the kiss they shared, “I lost him when I arrived here. I don't know where he is or if he’s even alive.”

“Do you think you’ll find him?”

“...I don't know,” she admitted. She felt hollow inside.

“Well, if it wasn't for the whole being lost part I’d say I’m jealous of the guy.”

Keira’s heart skipped a beat as Ryker’s bold words unleashed a kaleidoscope of flutterflies in her belly. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and saw that although he pretended to be busy with a bungee cord he too was blushing.

They finished loading without another word, the air crackling with tension. Their cargo secure, they hopped into Vivian’s two-seater and, Ryker in the driver seat, left the scrapyard. They drove north through the Industrial Zone, it’s dark streets claustrophobic as ever, then entered the more open East Side Slums. Relative spaciousness was really all the poor neighborhood had going for it by comparison.

Without warning Ryker switched hover zones to park and exited the vehicle, leaving it running.

“Wait, why are we stopping here?” Keira asked, twisting to face Ryker as he walked around the back.

“I just need to pick something up. Be back in a flash.” And with that he popped around the corner, leaving her to guard the vehicle.

Keira settled back into facing the front, uneasy. Laden with cargo and the engine idling, she felt like a sitting duck. Haven City’s crime rate was nothing to sneeze at, and she feared someone might hijack the zoomer with her in it. Or worse still, the Krimzon Guard would start asking questions. With a shiver, she shook off an unbidden memory of the soldier who assaulted her.

Keira nearly jumped out of her seat when Ryker suddenly slid back behind the wheel and dropped a small drawstring bag in her lap. He immediately opened up the throttle without bothering to change hover zones. She barely had time to react and nearly dropped her charge as he dangerously wove through the pedestrians.

“Are we in a rush?!” Keira yelled, gripping the bag tightly to her chest.

She was answered when a red-hot blast of eco streamed between her and Ryker. She ducked down with a yelp, her ear slightly singed where the bullet passed too close.

“If we weren’t before we definitely are now!” Ryker’s golden glare was glued to the road ahead.

Keira turned and inched just high enough to peer at their assailant. Her eyes widened in alarmthere was a Krimzon Guard HellCat cruiser hot on their tail, great clouds of exhaust billowing out from behind its wickedly spiked, scarlet hull. She ducked again, narrowly avoiding another shot.

“Stay down!” Ryker commanded.

“Why on earth are the KG after us?”

“Maybe we’ve got a tail light out.” His words may have been jocular, but there wasn’t a trace of humor in his tense face.

“What the hell is going on, Ryker?!” Keira cried with all the strength as she could muster, hoping to finally break through to whatever he was hiding.

“Nothing! You know our business isn’t always on the straight and narrow!” Beads of sweat formed on his brow as he slid around a corner.

Keira violently swayed with the maneuvering zoomer, her knuckles white. “Yeah, well this seems like an outsize response for a little black market activity!”

“ENOUGH! Let me concentrate on getting us out of this mess!”

Ryker yelled with such force that she complied, stung.

They rounded the Krimzon Guard Fortress just as their pursuer fired more shots. One caught the left tail flap, causing their zoomer to dangerously swerve. Ryker grunted, the lean muscles of his arms bulging as he attempted to wrangle the steering back under control. Their only hope now was to use size to their advantage.

Spotting a nearby alley to the right, the racer prepared to enter a power slide. At the last possible moment, he cut the gas and allowed their tail to swing around in a ninety degree arc.

Keira’s perception slowed to a crawl, the decrepit buildings inching by in a blur. Then a light caught her eye. The mouth of the small bag she held opened, and out was flying a glowing shape. It resembled a teardrop, curved as though it were half of a circle. Her free hand slowly extended and, just as the mysterious artifact was almost out of reach, caught it. Ryker put the pedal to the metal, and their zoomer just barely rounded the corner, the driver’s side bouncing off the far wall with a clang.

The alley was only just wide enough to fit a two-seater, so the larger HellCat cruiser had no chance of following. Ryker wove between the main streets of the Slums, turning into byzantine networks of alleys whenever possible. Before long they managed to make it to Main Town, but even then he kept to side streets. He slowed down just enough for it to be safe to look around. Never did he see a pursuer. The KG were long gone.

At last, they pulled up to Mar Memorial Stadium, their cargo of parts somehow still intact. Ryker turned off the engine, his breathing heavy. Keira ran a shaky hand through her hair, tangled from the wind, willing her adrenaline levels lower.

“Don’t say anything about this to Vivian,” he instructed.

The mechanic gaped back, incredulous. “All she’ll need is one look at this zoomer to know what happened.”

His only response was to hold up an open palm and eye the small bag she still clasped. She returned it, drawstrings tightly in place.

“And that’s that?” Keira asked again, her mouth twisting bitterly.

Ryker’s expression was strained, a silent indication of how badly he wanted to tell her his secrets. He hesitated, weighing the decision just long enough to give her hope that he would, before responding exactly as he had earlier that afternoon. “That’s that.”

The matter was closed.

 


 

Jak hit the ground, scraping his shoulder, and crumpled into a fetal position. The door slammed shut behind him, but he barely heard it. The agony penetrating him like countless white-hot wires was all-consuming, robbing him of the ability to focus on much of anything. Only time would return the full use of his faculties.

Until then it was all he could do to press his contorting hand against the grimy metal floor, and his body heaved with the effort it took to breathe. Each inhalation burned his raw throat like fire, rattling, ragged gasps that would befit a dying man’s lips. He might as well be one for how cold he felt—chills traveled up and down his spine in icy waves, causing his teeth to chatter.

Jak didn’t know how long he lay there before he could think straight. Time and space had lost virtually all meaning in his miserable existence. How long had they tortured him? Days? Months? Years? What season was it? Was anyone searching for him? Did anyone even know he was alive? As each question drifted through his battered psyche, he didn’t dare move. He feared if he did he would fall apart.

Something was happening to him.

At first, he didn’t even know it was there. He would somehow endure his torture and come out the other side with his sense of self intact. But as the injections wore on, he felt it more and more—something thriving off the dark eco, a terrible dark side of his soul that threatened to overwhelm him. As it grew, so too did his rage—rage that simmered, rage that boiled, rage that hissed like scalding steam. So great was his fury that he would dream of vengeance against those responsible, an irrepressible lust that shocked and terrified him. This wasn’t who he was supposed to be, he insisted to himself. This was wrong.

“There are many types of eco.”

Jak’s bleary eyes blinked open at the familiar words.

“Of course you already know green eco well. Representing spirit, it contains the energy of life and is abundant in the natural world. By channeling it we can make plants grow and heal the injured.”

It was Samos’ teaching he remembered.

“Blue eco represents the mind and governs the properties of motion. It can unlock the body’s potential for speed, and by harnessing the blue eco beam from the Precursor Temple we are able to power our little village.”

He was a small boy then, just starting to learn about the mysteries of eco channeling.

“Red eco represents the body. It’s raw power greatly augments strength, and—”

“Yeah, yeah, skip to the good stuff, old man!”

Daxter had been there too, his lack of respect for authority already well-formed. After a swift reprimand, the lesson continued as planned.

“Represented by the heart, the essence of yellow eco is courageous indeed. Much like the bonds between people, it can cross great distances without losing energy.”

Both Jak and Daxter were excited for what the sage would tell them next.

“Dark eco, on the other hand, is marked by the absence of all these qualities. It warps and destroys all it touches, and is so dangerous not even the Precursors, in all their wisdom, saw fit to utilize it.”

“Cool!”

Samos had grown especially stern then.

“There’s nothing ‘cool’ about it, Daxter. What do you think happens to those who seek to control the uncontrollable?”

“Um...”

“Insanity.”

Jak flinched as his memory of Samos’ gravely timbre shifted to something alien.

“Ruination.”

The distinct green color of the old man’s skin drained away, leaving a pasty gray hue behind.

“And death.”

He vanished, crumbling like so much dust that could never again be made whole.

Violent tremors began to ricochet through Jak’s frame like one thousand little earthquakes, and he squeezed his arms until his fingers ached. Not again...

The sole refuge to be found was in remembering happier days. He would frequently relive old experiences, letting the sights, sounds, smells, and textures carry him away from his hellish existence. But the longer he was imprisoned the more compromised his memories became. The Sandover of his mind was distorting with every injection, slowly mutating into an ugly, ashen realm that would collapse in on itself. Recalling even simple things was an increasing struggle. The caress of the wind on his face, the shade of the palm trees over his eyes, the tang of the salty air in his nostrils—only sometimes could he summon them. Was this what Gol and Maia experienced, as years of exposure to dark eco twisted their minds and bodies?

Desperate to latch onto something heartening, Jak tried to think of Daxter. If anyone could remain unpolluted by the injections, surely it was the boy who fell into a pool of dark eco and survived, albeit transformed into an ottsel. If he could remember just one joke… but his friend’s loud antics were diminishing to an indiscernible buzz.

Something more potent then. He attempted to picture Keira next, soft features he had memorized through many a stolen glance. The strength of his feelings for her should make it easy… but he couldn’t. It was like trying to focus on a mirage. The viridian flip of her hair, the shining emerald of her eyes, the tender pink of her lips—all of her was melting away, disappearing into the hidden recesses of his tormented mind.

Jak sobbed, a brittle, wretched sound. The dark eco was stealing all that he loved, leaving him nothing but a shadow of his life’s memories. Intense despair mingled with his rage, wrapping around him like an impenetrable cloud that smothered whatever hope he had left. And so, with no hint of dawn’s approach in the blackest night he had ever known, he prayed. He prayed to the Precursors that he wouldn’t lose himself.

Chapter Text

The midday sun beat down on the hot sand, warming Keira’s skin, and a lazy breeze tickled her cheek as it drifted through her hair. She smiled in contentment, breathing deeply of the fresh, salty air. Sensing a presence, she looked down the beach and saw Jak walking toward her. Flushed with excitement, she playfully waited for him to close the distance. He arrived at her side and wrapped her in a soft embrace, his large hands resting on the small of her back. She sighed into his arms, safe and happy. Locking eyes with the Hero of Sandover, she leaned in for a kiss, her lips tingling in anticipation.

The moment was shattered by an explosion over their heads. The Precursor Ring was rotating above them, its cacophonous drone deafening. The blue skies darkened to a menacing purple and the ocean boiled into a raging froth. Flying creatures swarmed the beach as a horrible monster emerged from the rift, laughing triumphantly.

You cannot hide from me, boy!”  it yelled in its terrible voice.

Jak leapt in front of Keira. She cried out for him to run, but he stood his ground even as the monster laughed at his attempt to protect her. With a terrible swing of its spiked tail, the mute was disemboweled on the spot. He fell to his knees, grabbing at his belly as viscera slid onto the sand.

Just as Keira let out a blood-curdling shriek, a Krimzon Guard soldier appeared and threw her to the ground. He was on top of her, holding her down, ripping off her clothes. She uselessly struggled, screaming as loud as she could.

“KEIRA!”

Her eyes snapped open and she gasped, her pulse pounding. She felt warm hands on her shoulders but she couldn’t see. She began resisting, panicked, but whoever it was held firm, grounding her back into her body.

“It’s alright! It’s me!”

Keira’s eyes focused and she found herself face to face with Ryker. She shook her head, still befuddled by the haze of her nightmare.

“It’s ok! You’re here. You’re safe.”

She looked at him again, her breathing ragged, only just seeing him for the first time. He appeared alarmed, his thick brows knit and topaz eyes wide, but he rubbed her arms in an effort to soothe her.

At last Keira calmed down enough to realize she was lying on her couch in the garage, Ryker kneeling at her side. The clock read one in the morning. She blinked, then raised a shaking hand to her clammy forehead. Steadying herself with a controlled inhale and exhale, she sat up and asked, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know... Just forgot something earlier, figured I’d swing by.”

She stared at the evasive brunette, clearly unconvinced. “In the middle of the night?”

He squirmed slightly, uncomfortable. “I have some business with Viv.”

“Whatever.” Keira had no patience for his equivocations as she scratched her head, willing away her grogginess. “Why did you wake me up then?”

“You were crying out in your sleep.”

She took another deep breath. “...It was nothing. Just a nightmare.”

She leaned over and reached to the ground to grab her canteen. She needed a good long drink to wash the bile down. “So… what business do you have that couldn’t wait till tomorrow?”

Ryker turned away, his countenance guilty. He remained quiet.

“A secret lovers’ meeting perhaps?”

He shot her a sharp look. “That’s not it.”

“So what is it? The championship is tomorrow. You should be resting.”

“I can’t tell you,” he said in a harsh tone, commanding that the conversation be over.

“There’s always something you can’t tell me!” Keira flared up like an angry match, startling him, “You think I haven’t been watching you two for months? That I’ll just forget that stunt you pulled with the Krimzon Guard? I know you’re hiding something from me, and I’m sick of it!”

“Hagai…” Again, his tone warned her to stop.

“What’s so important you can’t trust me with it? Is it the Underground? Do you think I’ll go running my mouth off to the KG? Do you think I’m that damn stupid?!”

Ryker grabbed her shoulders and cried, “NO! I don’t think you’re stupid!” Realizing how forceful he was being, he loosened his fingers and lowered his voice. “I don’t think you’re stupid… and I want to trust you.”

“Sure you do,” she scoffed, dripping with sarcasm, “It’s just so obvious, how silly of me for doubt—”

Keira was abruptly cut off when Ryker’s lips muffled hers in an ardent kiss. She stared at his closed eyelids, stunned into total stillness.

He pulled back, his searching golden gaze cloudy with passion. She could plainly see that he wanted her, and he was asking if she wanted him too. A half-remembered reel of their countless interactions played in her mind, and despite her best efforts to downplay every smile, every flirtation, every blush, she realized that she did. An eternity passed in the next moment, a decision swaying precariously on a knife’s edge.

Throwing caution aside, Keira seized his face and hungrily fell upon his mouth. Ryker groaned and responded in kind, wrapping his arms around her petite frame and squeezing her body against his. She was utterly overwhelmed by sensation. His tongue darted across her lips, and waves of desire emanated from between her legs in time. She lay back down, pulling him on top and parting her knees in a silent invitation for him to obliterate all thought with pleasure. His mouth gripped her neck in answer, his hips pushing into hers. With an ecstatic jolt, she felt the hard length of his erection pressing against her flesh, and she moaned as the waves vibrated into shocks.

Jak had never touched her like this.

Keira’s eyes opened again, briefly pulled out of lust. Almost four months had passed, and there was no word, no hint, no trace of her father, Daxter, or Jak. She had every reason to believe she would never see them again. She was in the future, in a strange and hostile city, with no way to find her friends or go home. This was her life now.

Grief washed over her, threatening to end the spell she was under. Defiant, she tugged at Ryker’s clothes. He obligingly ripped his shirt over his head and threw it to the floor.

 


 

The first thing Vivian saw when she came downstairs the next morning was Keira sitting in a chair, her upper half splayed across a work table and one arm thrown over her face. Her viridian hair was disheveled, and she hadn’t yet dressed.

“Rough night?”

Keira peeled her cheek up and swiveled her head around, her wide emerald eyes shot with red from lack of sleep.

“You look terrible,” Vivian said, smirking, but her regard was kind.

“Sorry to disappoint you.” Keira let her tired head collapse onto the table with a dull thud. She didn’t deserve kindness right now.

There was a pause as the manager considered the situation, then the sound of her feet padding back upstairs. Keira felt a pang of guilt for pushing her away, but it was a mere drop in the ocean of self-loathing she was drowning in.

As it turned out, sex was a poor substitute for grieving. The experience itself wasn’t bad. Ryker was a sensitive lover, and his enthusiasm for her was a powerful aphrodisiac. The pleasure he gave her was intense and all-consuming, but it was also fleeting. Once they finished, he reluctantly went upstairs for the meeting that brought him there in the first place, and she hurried to get dressed and flee the garage. The halls of the stadium were always illuminated, but as soon as she turned to enter the arena itself darkness closed around her, forcing her to cautiously follow her outstretched hand. The main lights were off, and there was no moon. She picked her way to a seat, her vision slowly adjusting to the gloom. Her eyes wide and her breathing shallow, she looked at the vast expanse around her. She vaguely thought she should be devastated, furious, screaming, a complete emotional wreck. Instead, she felt smaller and emptier than ever before.

There was no denying her body ached for Ryker—even now, the mere thought of their tumble on the couch caused blood to rush between her thighs—but her heart ached for home… and Jak. She used to imagine how her first time would go, and always it was with him. Now it would never happen. Her body and emotions were at complete odds with each other, and the dichotomy made her feel worse. Though she cared for him she didn’t love Ryker, and he couldn’t erase her yearning for what she had lost.

In her lust-addled brain, she somehow thought taking this step would change everything. She would be a woman, too grown up to waste time on sad memories. Instead, the tenuous scaffolding she had constructed over the last few months came crashing down. There would be no swiftly burying her father’s guidance, Daxter’s quips, Jak’s smiles—she’d have to let go of them slowly, piece by piece.

She was surprised when footsteps descended the stairs again. Vivian was carrying two steaming mugs, their aroma amazing. She placed both down on the work table and went to grab another chair. Dropping it next to Keira’s, she sat with her legs casually crossed and sipped at one of the mugs before nodding at the other. “Drink.”

Keira gripped the indicated vessel and raised it to her nose, inhaling deeply. The incredible smell was spicy and sweet. She gingerly sampled the taste, careful not to burn her tongue, and managed a small smile for the first time that day.

“Like it? It’s my signature blend,” Vivian explained.

“...You blend your own tea?”

“Is that so surprising?” She sounded slightly defensive, as though she were uneasy revealing such a domestic activity. “Anyway, I find it’s always a good choice when I’m under stress.”

“I can see why,” Keira said before taking a gulp. This time she burned herself, but she didn’t care very much. Although she didn’t feel great by a long stretch, the beverage was a soothing balm for her weary soul. Maybe she could manage to face the world today.

“So, do you want to talk about last night?”

Keira choked and spluttered, nearly dropping her tea in the process. “Wh… what is there to talk about?”

Vivian cocked her head to the side, studying the younger woman over the rim of her mug. “Whatever’s bothering you.”

She patiently waited for a response, but none came. Keira wouldn’t even look her in the eye. She sighed but didn’t press the subject. “We don’t have to discuss it of course. I’ll just say that no matter the circumstances, it’s important to be gentle with yourself.”

Keira glanced at the manager just as she took a long sip of her tea. Outside acknowledgment, even an oblique one, dissolved all her endeavors to bottle up her wounded psyche. Her vision blurred with welling tears, and her shoulders quaked with the effort to keep from completely falling apart. When she felt Vivian’s hand cover hers in a show of genuine compassion, her last defenses fell. Keira doubled over, sobbing, her forehead pressing hard into the table.

 


 

The bay doors of the garage were closed, guarding against the din of the pouring rain and surging crowds. Vivian, smartly dressed for the skybox, and Keira, wearing her usual clothes, leaned against a work table waiting to send Ryker off, although the mechanic had rather felt like skipping out and heading directly into the stands. She hadn’t spoken with him since the previous night, and she deliberately avoided being in the same room when he arrived to suit up earlier. Instead, she was down at the track, going over last-minute preparations and safety checks with his air racer. She was ashamed of her behavior, but she couldn’t keep her nerve.

The right door slid open, and her heart skipped a beat. Ryker entered all dressed up in his protective gear and form-fitting orange and gray racing suit, a metal mask under his arm. He turned to the control panel on the nearest wall and shut the door, revealing an Axle’s Garage logo emblazoned across the back of his broad shoulder guards.

Even with all her ambivalence, Keira couldn’t help but recognize how dashing he was. Her heart twisted when he faced her for the first time that day, naked with raw emotion. He was clearly hurt by her conduct, and she couldn’t blame him. Unable to maintain eye contact for long she stared at the ground, grateful that at least she could support her jellied knees by gripping the table.

Ryker uncomfortably fiddled with his collar before buckling the mask on and pushing it to the top of his head. He took a deep breath and stood exceptionally tall, puffing up his chest and jutting out his lower jaw in a parody of self-assured strength. “So do I look like a champion?” he asked, his voice deeper than normal, and earned a nervous round of laughter.

Their new baggage notwithstanding, Keira once again looked at Ryker. She didn’t shy away this time and instead nodded at him encouragingly. He managed a tentative smile back.

Vivian walked up to him and dusted off his shoulder guard. “You’re gonna win this thing, you hear? You’re gonna bring me back one huge, gold trophy!”

He grinned at the raven-haired manager. “No problem, Boss.”

A voice blared over the stadium loudspeaker, “Attention all drivers, the Grand Championship will begin shortly.

Ryker strutted back toward the exit with exaggerated confidence. Once again pausing before the control panel, he called back, “Wish me luck.”

Both women said in unison, “Good luck!”

He spared Keira one last glance before turning to leave for the most important race of his life. His finger was inches from the button when there was a bellicose series of knocks on the door.

“This is the Krimzon Guard! Open up!”

Ryker and Vivian simultaneously looked at each other, wide-eyed, and then at Keira, identical expressions of indecision on their faces.

The guards pounded on the door again. “Open up or we’ll enter by force!”

Instead of complying, the racer punched a different button. Thick blast doors Keira didn't know were there slammed shut, reinforcing the entrance. Vivian ran upstairs, and Ryker proceeded to open up several cabinets and storage units. Moving with all the care of a ransacking intruder, he gathered various weapons, artifacts, and documents. Upon roughly dropping the mess of items in a disarrayed pile, he ran over to a large chest of drawers and shoved it several feet to the side, its base squealing on the metal tile. He knelt where the furniture once stood and felt the floor.

Vivian ran back down, some more weapons and a bag of money in her arms, and threw them down next to Ryker. She too bent to search the floor, angrily demanding, “Why the hell are they here?”

“I think it's my fault,” he admitted.

The manager’s fingers slipped into the floor, and she pulled up, revealing the edge of a hidden trap door. He helped her move the heavy slab out of the way.

“When the KG chased us the other day—”

Vivian’s sharp brown eyes shot daggers at Ryker. “ ‘Us’? So when you busted up my zoomer you had Keira with you?!” She furiously dumped the contraband into the secret compartment below.

He flinched and continued, “We had a piece of the seal...”

“And I’m just hearing about this now?!”

The sound of an eco-fortified saw split the air with a high-pitched whine.

Keira stared at the two, rooted to the spot. “What’s going on? What’s the seal?”

Vivian, resuming the task at hand, spoke without looking up, “Never mind that! Gather up any valuables you have.”

The mechanic pressed on, her heart in her throat, “You’re in the Underground, aren’t you?”

“Now’s not the time,” Vivian roared, “If you’ve got any money, grab it!”

Too shaken to protest further, Keira ran over to a small chest beside her couch. Flipping the latch with trembling fingers she opened the lid and retrieved her stash of credits and Precursor orbs as well as her revolver. She returned to Vivian and Ryker just as they pushed the drawers back into place over the secret compartment, only weapons they could carry on their person still scattered about their feet. As they equipped themselves the saw broke through the blast door, spitting sparks into the room with rapidly spinning teeth.

“Come on!” Vivian yelled, holstering a blaster and knife. She ran upstairs, and Ryker and Keira followed. The younger woman wondered what the manager’s plan could possibly be. The apartment above was only two rooms, one a bathroom and the other containing just a bed and a galley kitchen separated by a half wall. There was, however, a single window. Crouched in the kitchen sink, Vivian unlocked and slid the panes open to the rainy night. She led the way out as Ryker barricaded the door. Keira awkwardly clambered up and out, stumbling as she landed on the slick roof. She struggled to get her bearings as Ryker exited last and shut the window behind them.

They were just on the far side of the wall from the stadium courtyard. It stood ten feet high on their left, muffling crowd noise and blocking light. Stretching out to the right the roof curved out of view around the side of the stadium, and ahead was a precipitous drop into an alley.

Vivian darted across the rooftop, moving in a stealthy crouch. She swung her legs into thin air and disappeared from view. Dumbfounded, Keira peered over the edge and watched as the older woman shimmied down a drainpipe and dismounted onto a waiting dumpster twenty feet below. It was all she could do at that moment to gulp as paralysis swept over her. She was far from the most athletic person in the world, but Vivian looked up at her expectantly, gesturing for her to hurry it up and get to climbing.

“I’ll help you,” Ryker said behind her, his voice reassuring.

Keira nodded, stifling a whimper. Only with great effort was she able to lay on her belly, her feet dangling in space. The racer clasped one hand, acting as a counterweight and allowing her to slip into position as she blindly groped for the drain pipe. Catching hold of the wet metal, her feet barely gaining purchase on a bracket, she prepared herself for the inevitable. She took a deep breath and let go of Ryker, and for one gut-churning moment, she thought she would fall. Then both her hands found their mark, and she somehow traveled down the pipe in a matter of seconds. She landed on the dumpster and jumped the last five feet to the glistening pavement, so grateful to be back on solid ground that she nearly fell over.

Once they were all safely down in the alley, the trio ran parallel to the stadium for two blocks before arriving at a manhole cover. Without pausing for even a breath, Vivian and Ryker grunted as they lifted it to the side, and the former once again led the way down. Keira followed, much easier this time with a ladder, but stopped short at the sound of a gunshot. Her attention snapped to the opening above, but all she could see was Ryker firing. After several rounds, he practically leapt into the hole, shouting, “Go, go, go!”

Keira hurried the rest of the way down as he slid the manhole cover back into place, and Vivian shone a flashlight up at them. “What happened?!”

“Two Krimzon Guards,” Ryker called down, “I think I managed to close everything up before any more arrived.” He joined them at the bottom of the ladder and placed his hands on his knees, panting. The respite was short-lived.

“It won’t be long before they’re discovered. We better get a move on quick,” Vivian instructed.

The three set off through the sewer, each with their own flashlight to combat the dank blackness, and while their pace wasn’t what Keira would describe as leisurely, the urgency of their flight from the garage had diminished somewhat. She took the opportunity to examine their dripping surroundings. Large pipes coated in rust snaked across the scummy walls and up to the distant ceiling. High above she could make out the occasional turbine or grate. At one point she even saw a statue looming in the distance. Always there was fetid water near their feet.

“Where are we going?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.

Ryker answered behind her, “These sewers lead to the Water Slums. We should be able to make a safe break from there.”

But to where? Keira thought to herself. After a moment’s hesitation, she said, “You two have some explaining to do.”

The only response was their feet scraping along the wet concrete.

Keira persisted. Just as she had earlier, she asked, “You’re in the Underground, aren’t you?”

After another pause, Vivian sighed deeply, a defeated sound. “Yes.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was for your own protection that we kept things from you.” The manager glanced back over her shoulder at the younger woman, her normally stern visage sad.

“My protection?”

“Yes. We didn’t want you to become a target of the Krimzon Guard. Of course, now that you’ve fled the scene with us we’re way past that.”

“We had no choice, Viv,” Ryker cut in, “They would’ve locked her up if we left her behind.”

Keira briefly contemplated the situation before asking, “So what’s next? Am I gonna enlist with the Underground?”

“Absolutely not!” Vivian shot back.

“Why? What other choice do I have?!” Keira demanded, blazing with unexpected anger. She was tired of being treated like a child.

“Joining the Underground is dangerous business. You’d be better off taking your money and fleeing the city.”

“And leave you two here? I can’t do that, Vivian, you’re the only friends I have!” In her pleading, Kiera had unconsciously come to a full stop. “I’ve already lost people… people who were important to me. I can’t bear going through that again!”

Her companions stared at her, considering her declaration. It was the first time in the months they had known each other that the language of friendship had been openly used, and the longer the silence stretched on the more foolish she felt for doing so. She shuffled her feet, self-conscious, when there was a gentle touch on her shoulder.

Keira dropped her gaze, regarding Ryker’s hand out of the corner of her eye. Excluding his help in the alley, this was their first physical contact since their fevered embrace the previous night. Despite everything that had happened and how viciously she condemned herself, she took great comfort in the gesture. She closed her eyes, inclining her face toward his fingers slightly, and he tenderly squeezed in return.

“Yeah, well,” Vivian finally responded, mollified, “If we get back to the Underground in one piece we’ll see if Torn has any bright ideas.”

When Keira looked up the older woman was already walking away. She turned to Ryker, questioning, and he helpfully supplied, “Torn’s the second-in-command. He deals with all the Underground’s internal affairs.”

The trio walked on without further discussion. In spite of the gloom around them, Keira felt much lighter. She was with people who cared about her, and just then that was all she needed.

At last, they came to the end of their journey through the sewer. “Here we are,” Vivian announced, “Ryker, help me get this door open.”

“You got it, boss,” he said as he positioned himself on the other side of a rusty lock wheel. At first, it didn’t budge, but with both of them pushing it soon squealed and rotated freely.

“I tell you what,” Ryker spoke between turns, “I can’t wait to get a good shower... There’s nothing like taking a walk in the shit tunnel... to make you want to bleach yourself.”

“You’re preaching to the choir,” Vivian replied.

The door shifted as the lock wheel disengaged. The duo pulled it open the rest of the way and stepped out into the fresh night air, inhaling deeply. The rain had stopped.

“At least we’re not far from—” Vivian cut off mid-sentence, and Keira immediately knew something was wrong.

There followed a series of mechanical sounds, like guns being lifted into position. “Vivian Ildri and Crys Ryker, you’re under arrest!”

The Krimzon Guard! Keira realized, her stomach dropping into her toes. She was about to run out and face the threat head-on with her companions when Ryker bodily shoved her back. She fell to the ground, the small drawstring bag with the seal landing beside her, and looked up just in time to watch the door close, leaving her all alone in the darkness.

Chapter Text

Jak’s screams echoed throughout the chamber, a terrible soundtrack to the horrific spectacle of his dark eco injection. As he thrashed against his restraints, his raw flesh conducting electric tendrils of violet, his audience stood unfazed—Baron Praxis impatiently paced the platform, Erol looked on with a smile, and a scientist kept notes. For all the awareness the tormented prisoner had of them, he might as well be all alone, trapped in an alternate reality where only endless agony existed. When at last the dark eco diminished and the torture was done for the day, he fell slack and drifted in and out of consciousness.

“Dark Eco Injection Cycle complete. Bio readings nominal and unchanged,” the monotone female voice of the computer announced.

“Nothing!” the Baron barked, “I was informed that this one might be different!” He glared at Erol significantly, reminding the Krimzon Guard commander that he was the one who said so in the first place.

“He is surprisingly resistant to your experiments, Your Eminence," the redhead man admitted, deferentially dropping his yellow gaze.

Making a sound somewhere between a snarl and yell, Praxis grabbed Jak by the hair and yanked him off the table as far as the restraints would allow. “You should at least be dead with all the dark eco I’ve pumped into you!” He roughly threw the boy back down.

“I fear the Dark Warrior Program has failed...”

“Tell me, Erol, have all the inmates in this fortress escaped?”

The commander blinked in confusion. “No.”

“Have all our dark eco reserves run dry?

“They haven’t—”

“Then it seems to me the Dark Warrior Program can proceed as normal, even if this one is worthless.”

“But my scientists have never found anyone else with eco channeling abilities like his. Our chances of success without a viable test subject—”

“Are better than if we shut the project down!” the Baron roared, “I don’t care if we have to inject every prisoner or round up every no-name vagrant in the streets. Someone’s bound to work—and if you disagree we can start with you.”

Erol gulped, his throat bobbing like a cork in dangerous waters. “Of course, Your Eminence. Forgive me for speaking out of turn.” He gave a groveling bow.

The Baron tossed his bearded chin, growling impatiently. It was all the clemency he would grant.

“What now?” Erol asked, his manner cautious, “Metal Head armies are pressing their attacks. Without a new weapon, my men cannot hold them off forever.”

“I will not be remembered as the man who lost this city to those vile creatures! Move forward with the final plan...” The Baron turned to leave but paused long enough to nod over his shoulder. “And finish off this thing tonight.”

“As you wish,” Erol confirmed. Before following his superior he leaned in close to Jak’s ear and whispered a chilling promise. “I’ll be back later…”

Then they both swept out of the injection chamber, the scientist trailing after them.

Jak’s breathing was so shallow his chest barely moved. He hardly registered a word of their discussion, but one thing had stuck out—the order to have him killed. The thought filled him with an odd sense of peace. Over the interminable months he had spent in hell, contemplating suicide became a regular activity. He might have attempted it were there any tools at his disposal to do so, but even if he did his captors would probably heal his wounds as they always did, refusing to let him die unless he was taken by the dark eco. But now, finally, there were orders to do otherwise. It would all be over.

A whirring sounded to his left. That was different.

“Ding, ding! Third floor: body chains, roach food, torture devices.”

Who was speaking? The voice niggled at the back of Jak’s mind, but he couldn’t place it. Then a familiar weight landed on his chest. His eyes slid open, catching a fuzzy glimpse of orange, before rolling back shut.

“Hey, buddy, you seen any heroes around here? Woah!” the voice exclaimed, “What’d they do to you?” Small hands grabbed the red scarf swathing his head and neck and gave him an insistent shake. “Jak, it’s me, Daxter!”

Daxter? No, it must be one of his hallucinations.

But the voice persisted, “That’s a fine hello!” It paced down his torso, stepping far enough to land a blow below the belt.

Jak cringed in pain, a wave of nausea sweeping over him, and his eyes fluttered open again. He still saw an orange blur.

“I’ve been crawling around in this place risking my tail—literally—to save you!”

The voice was grating and indignant. That certainly sounded like Daxter...

“I’ve been lookin’ for you for two years!” It was pleading now. “Say something! Just this once!”

Say something? He’d wanted the ability to speak for as long as he could remember, but always there was an obstruction, a deep-seated mental barrier that he couldn’t surpass. Samos had often posited that he had suffered a great trauma when he was small. He remembered nothing before coming to live in Sandover, so it seemed as plausible an explanation as any.

Surely this wasn’t Daxter then. He knew full well Jak couldn’t speak, and he had long ago turned tail and ran, leaving his best friend to rot.

Even so… the mute wanted to speak now more than ever. Wrongfully abandoned, unjustly imprisoned, brutally tortured—he wanted to express all the terror and agony and rage he had kept locked inside for so long. He could feel it bubbling up in his throat right now, fighting to break loose like boiling acid. His respiring grew heavy as he struggled to let it out.

Say something…

His tongue trembled.

Just this once…

His lips curled back from his teeth.

Say something!

The barrier shattered.

“I’M GONNA KILL PRAXIS!” Jak bellowed, his eyes flying open so wide his pupils contracted. All he could see now was red.

Daxter hastily covered Jak’s mouth with gloved paws. “Shhhhhh! Right now we gotta get you outta here. Just let me figure out how to open the security locks for your chair so—”

Jak roared like a beast and broke the restraints himself. The cut-off ottsel was sent sprawling, and when he looked up a creature he didn’t know was getting out of the chair. His friend’s skin had blanched to the pale complexion of a cadaver and his green-blonde locks had faded to the color of ash. Dark gray horns sprouted from his head, and immense onyx claws extended from his fingers. Rays of dark eco sparked around him like he was a frayed wire, but most frightening of all were his eyes. It was as though his pupils had dilated so far that they had subsumed iris and retina entirely. They were now as black and empty as a lurker shark’s.

Daxter assumed a meek posture. “Or, ah… you could do it.”

The monster turned his unnerving obsidian stare on the diminutive animal and slowly advanced, a malicious expression on his ghostly features.

“…Jak? Easy now. Easy, buddy. It—it’s your old pal Daxter!” He backed up to the edge of the platform, and with nowhere left to go, he cowered in fear. “…Remember?”

More dark eco surged over the monster’s body as he raised his dagger-like claws in a naked show of aggression. A heartbeat later he swung, a blood-curdling cry issuing forth from his feral lips, but then he froze mid-strike.

“Daxter?” he murmured. The color returned to his hair and complexion, and his horns and claws receded—the transformation was over. He staggered back, nearly doubling over as his dazed head collapsed into his hand.

Daxter gawked up at him. “What the hell was that?! Sheesh!”

Jak continued cradling his face, unable to speak.

“Remind me not to piss you off!”

The prisoner managed to marginally straighten up, a hand gripping his roiling stomach, and really look at the ottsel for the first time. Vivid memories of his childhood friend came flooding back, unclouded by dark eco, and it was enough to overwhelm him. “...You’re actually here.”

“Of course I’m here!”

“Where’s Samos?” he asked, his tone growing more urgent, “And Keira?”

“I don’t know.” At Jak’s crestfallen countenance Daxter quickly elaborated, “Haven City’s pretty damn huge. Finding you was hard enough!”

“Haven City?”

He waved his paws as if he could slow Jak’s curiosity. “Yeah, this place, the urban hellscape we landed in two years ago.”

“I’ve been locked up in here for two years?”

“More like two years and three months, but now isn’t the time for twenty questions! We gotta scram, and fast! Here,” he produced a bundle seemingly out of nowhere, “I, uh, brought you some new threads. Put ‘em on.”

Jak stared down at the bundle, which contained a blue jacket, tan pants, leather boots and gauntlets, a gleaming shoulder guard, and a new pair of goggles. He then took in his own filthy prison attire. I won’t get very far in these… he thought to himself and promptly changed, leaving only the red cloth draping around his head and neck in place.

Daxter whistled his approval. “Not bad. You look like hot stuff in those.”

“I dunno. The material is kinda stiff,” Jak muttered as he tested the clothing’s freedom of movement, bending various joints. Like everything else the last five minutes, it felt strange.

A clanging sound somewhere in the fortress brought the pair’s awareness back to their present situation.

Daxter hurriedly made his way toward the bridge, gesturing for Jak to follow. “Come on, tall, dark, and gruesome. We’re outta here!”

Jak obeyed, feeling as though he were in a dream. Not only was he bewildered by Daxter’s presence, but he also wasn’t feeling the usual effects of a slow recovery from the injection. Rather than being wracked by pain and exhaustion he was energized, as though the transformation had flushed his system of dark eco. A little nausea notwithstanding he could easily move around. But the respite somehow felt temporary. The darkness had only receded, like a wave pulling back from the shore.

At the other side of the bridge, Daxter climbed up to his old spot on Jak’s left shoulder and flashed a thumbs up and a grin. Jak mechanically returned the gesture, unsmiling. He wasn’t capable of levity yet.

“What’s the plan?” he asked.

“Uh…” The ottsel’s mouth hung open, as empty as his mind was blank.

“You don’t have one?” Jak demanded, his anger already rising, “What kind of idiot breaks into a place like this without an escape route?!”

“Look, big guy,” Daxter shot back, “just because you can talk now that doesn't mean you’re the brains of this outfit!”

“Oh, that’s real funny coming from a guy who thinks with his—”

The main door to the corridor slid open, revealing the usual cohort of two guards to escort the prisoner back to his cell. With nowhere to hide, Jak sprinted toward the soldiers and staggered the nearest one with a well-aimed fist. Before his target could recover he punched right into his helmet. Metal crumpled against knuckles, imploding into the face it was supposed to shield with a sickening crunch. The guard sunk to his knees, screaming.

“Watch out!” Daxter warned.

Just as Jak turned to the other guard a fiery projectile streaked past his face, burning his cheek. Sidestepping, he narrowly avoided a second bullet as he closed the distance and grasped the guard’s wrist. Wrenching with all his might, he tossed his victim over the pit’s edge.

The first was crawling toward the entrance, blindly fleeing for salvation. Jak leapt over him and, gripping his bleeding face, violently twisted. The man’s neck snapped, and he fell to the floor, lifeless.

Adrenaline throttled through Jak’s veins, and his chest heaved. The realization of what he just did hit him like a lurker club to the skull. Never before had he intentionally killed someone, not even when he fought with Gol and Maia to stop them from opening the dark eco silos. In the end, they were a casualty of their own mad scheme—but this was different.

This was murder.

The darkness in his soul shivered, reveling in the carnage that disturbed him so.

“Woah!” Daxter exclaimed, his voice incredulous.

Jak glanced at the ottsel out of the corner of his eye and regretted it immediately. Daxter’s shocked expression plainly reinforced the abnormality of his actions. A line had been crossed, and there was no taking it back.

Shaking his head, Jak tried to focus on the task at hand. They didn’t have long before more soldiers would show up. He surveyed the injection chamber, weighing their options. There was the main door he always traversed or the elevator the scientists sometimes used, but both seemed too obvious. Then he caught sight of a grate tucked into the corner, accessible via several stacked crates—just the sort of unorthodox route they needed. He grabbed one of the fallen guard’s rifles and sprinted over, awkwardly shouldering the weapon as he went. He took aim at the grate and, not at all used to the recoil, fired in a clumsy circle. Luckily, a high degree of precision wasn't necessary. Upon scaling the crates he was able to wrench out the weakened chunk and expose the ventilation shaft within. It would be a tight squeeze, but that might prove a boon if the bulky armor favored by the Baron’s forces stopped them from following.

Daxter crawled in first, then Jak. The shaft’s metal walls pressed into a tight rectangle, claustrophobic and cold, leaving the latter barely enough room to pull himself forward elbow by elbow. The pounding of his heart intensified, but he was spurred onward by a single, dominating thought—he must escape. Once they reached the shaft’s end, he managed to maneuver his stolen gun around his companion’s small form and make swift work of the grate blocking their exit. The pair dropped down into a nondescript and blessedly empty corridor, but their good fortune didn’t last. No sooner had their feet touched the ground than a siren sounded, emergency lights flashed, and the central computer blared, “Alert! Prison escape in progress!”

From there it was a mad dash through the bowels of the fortress. They ran into Krimzon Guards several times, and Jak dispatched them all with a speed he didn’t know he possessed. The part of his brain still capable of rational thinking hoped he was being careful enough to avoid unnecessary killing, but he was driven by desperation. Every encounter was another chance to be captured, and he never lingered when the bodies hit the floor. He couldn’t be sure they were alive.

After scrambling up a final stack of crates, Jak, at last, faced an open window to the night beyond. He approached the threshold, his limbs suddenly as sluggish as if he was walking underwater. Blinking, he looked outside.

The streets below were damp from a recent downpour, and the breeze carried with it the fresh scent of rain. He inhaled deeply, relishing the cool, fragrant air entering his lungs. Though the sky was partly cloudy, dark orange with reflected light from the city, he could see stars peeking out here and there.

“Uh, Jak, what are you doin’? We gotta get outta here,” Daxter asked as he stared upwards, wondering what could be so enchanting.

“…I haven’t seen the stars in two years, Dax.”

The ottsel hesitated then looked again, reconsidering the significance of the sight. The two friends didn’t speak as they gazed at the heavens, but neither one minded. Words weren’t necessary. After over two years of painful separation, sharing the moment was enough, and for a few precious seconds, Jak felt reborn.

His ears pricked with the sound of distant footsteps, and his answering pulse thundered against his ribcage. Though the shining stars above beckoned him to stay in their thrall, he tore his eyes away and jumped into the street below.

 


 

Assuming that everything Jak had seen since traveling through the Precursor Ring was part of the same city, the area outside the fortress was completely different from the one he first crash landed in. In contrast to the slick alloy structures he remembered, everything here was in varying stages of falling apart. Dilapidated buildings constructed of crumbling plaster, cracked concrete, and rusty sheet metal loomed like shambling corpses over streets pockmarked with huge craters. It was as surreal as a scarred moonscape and every bit as alien.

“We're free, Jak, thanks to me!” Daxter blithely proclaimed, “Nice to breathe some fresh air, huh?”

Disoriented as he was by their surroundings, it was all Jak could do to nod back as he half-ran half-stumbled under the garish glow of a neon sign. Only when he collided with another pedestrian did he notice how crowded the streets were. The people looked even more miserable than he remembered. Their clothes were shabbier and their faces more withdrawn. He soon realized how many suspicious glances his gawking roused and resolved to be more inconspicuous, lest someone summon the authorities. Though he was armed, he was terrified of encountering more red-armored soldiers.

“Serve your city!”

Jak nearly leapt out of his skin, drawing even more attention. That was the Baron’s voice.

“What’s wrong?” Daxter asked.

“Sacrifice for your city, and all will prosper!”

Too busy scanning the street for any sign of the tyrant to answer, Jak turned in a full circle before he saw where the voice was coming from.

“Have faith in me and the promised land is yours.”

Next to a nearby building stood what appeared to be a loudspeaker. Its height was more than doubled by a quivering vermillion hologram of the Baron’s emblem and a ticker streaming closed captions. It was a twenty-four seven propaganda machine.

“Follow me to a safer future!”

When Daxter understood what had captured his friend’s attention, he promised, “We'll get that Baron Praxis guy, all right!”

“Yeah,” Jak agreed, “we will.”

He hurried past the loudspeaker and was about to ask where they should go when a flash of white drew his eye. An old robed man carrying a staff and sporting a waist-length beard that would put Samos’ to shame walked slowly amongst the crowd, leading a small child by the hand. Wizened as he was, he seemed almost sage-like. Perhaps such a person would know something of value.

Jak stalked up to the old man who, noticing his approach, looked up with a curious expression. Gesturing with his staff, he greeted the pair in a tremulous voice, “Hello, strangers. My name is Kor. May I help—”

“You look like a reasonably smart man,” Jak cut him off, “I want information. Where the hell am I?”

“Ah, sorry,” Daxter interjected as he hopped to the ground, “He’s new to the whole conversation thing.”

The child remained silent but stared at the ottsel with blatant curiosity. He eagerly reached out to pet the orange creature but quickly snatched his hand back when Daxter seemed less than agreeable.

Kor harrumphed, dismissing the Jak’s volatile words with a toss of his magnificent beard. “Well, my angry young friend, you are a guest of His Majesty, Baron Praxis, the ruler of glorious Haven City.”

“I was just a guest in the good Baron’s prison,” Jak growled.

“Inside a cell or inside the city, walls surround us both.” The old man gesticulated grandly with his staff and planted it on the pavement with a dull clack for emphasis. “We are all his prisoners.”

Jak’s ears twitched as he picked up the sound of armored footsteps. A squad of Krimzon Guards was marching towards them.

“Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Kor started to shuffle away, herding the child with his staff. “I’d move on if I were you!”

But Jak didn’t hear, lost as he was in his own thoughts. Were they hunting for him already? He felt his muscles tense with the instinct to run.

The lead guard halted the squad with a raised hand and stepped forward, announcing, “By order of His Eminence, the grand protector of Haven City, Baron Praxis, everyone in this section is hereby under arrest for suspicion of harboring Underground fugitives. Surrender and die!”

Daxter waved a thumb at the armored man in disbelief. “Doesn’t he mean surrender or die?!”

“Not in this city,” Kor bitterly spat as he ambled off, once again holding the child’s hand. But then he turned around, his rheumy eyes imploring. “Protect us from these guards, and I’ll introduce you to someone who can help you!”

Jak took a step back, shaking his head. “Sorry, I… I can’t risk it.”

Kor begged, “Please! If not for me then this child!”

Jak stared at the boy. He wobbled fearfully on his bare feet, dirty from the pavement. Tufts of unruly green hair swept out from under his leather cap, and the neon of the streets glistened in his wide blue eyes. He couldn't be more than three years old.

Despite his near overpowering sense of self-preservation, Jak was just as strongly swayed by a sudden desire to protect the boy. And with that, he turned on his heel and walked right up to the enemy.

“You there!” the lead guard snapped at him, “What are you do—”

He was cut off when Jak shot him point blank in the face. Within seconds the teenager felled two more, but when he pulled the trigger once, twice, three times he realized he was out of ammo. Yelling a battle cry, he recklessly slammed the butt of his rifle into a fourth guard’s chin. Now the entire squad of a dozen was converging on him. He had little difficulty in the fortress because he continually encountered guards in small groups, but there was no way he could take on so many at once without a weapon and succeed. They would take him back.

Jak felt the darkness grow with his terror. Just like before it swirled around him, thickening like a lurid cloud until all he could see was red. He gripped his head as rays of dark eco pulsed over his body and lost himself.

In less than a minute it was all over. Jak reverted to normal, panting, the darkness satiated for the time being. Daxter gawked at the surrounding carnage, for once at a total loss for words. Every guard was dead.

Pulses of dark eco flickered around Jak’s body, bunching every muscle. “Something’s happening to me—” His hands slowly balled into painful fists, and his arms quaked. “Something he did… I can’t—can’t control it.”

Kor walked up to the pair, carefully stepping over mangled bodies. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, muttering, “Very impressive.”

Daxter placed a tentative paw on his friend’s leg. “You okay, Jak?”

The only response was ragged breathing.

“What you did was very brave. This child is important.” The old man indicated the small boy clinging to his robes.

Daxter exclaimed in sheer disbelief, “This kid? He looks kinda… scruffy.”

Jak didn’t disagree. He wondered how precisely an unassuming urchin like this could be important when he noticed something scarlet. The child wore an amulet of some sort, one that was peeking out from his shabby blue overalls.

A Krimzon Guard astride a zoomer turned onto the street and immediately radioed for backup at the sight of the slaughtered squad.

“Thank you for your help, but I must get this boy to safety,” Kor said, his wrinkled face animated with fresh urgency.

Daxter crawled back onto his shoulder perch, protesting, “Hey! What about us?”

“There is an Underground group waging war against Baron Praxis. Its leader, the Shadow, could use fighters like you. Go to the South Slums. There’s a dead end alley near the city wall. Ask for Torn. He can help you.”

Jak nodded his thanks to Kor and took off down a side street, melting into the darkness.

 


 

Six air racers blasted around the track with blinding speed. There had once been eight, but two had already been taken out of the race. They were engaged in a scuffle when they both lost control and collided with a wall. One was miraculously in intact and carried to safety in a stretcher. The other wasn’t so lucky.

Of the remaining drivers, it was really only a competition between the top two. They were a half lap ahead of the others, engaged in a vicious, high velocity battle. The one in second had been creeping closer and closer to first, but she was continually boxed out of the inside. Her time was running low. It was the fifth and final lap, and her opponent was three corners from victory.

With a perfectly executed boost, she was able to take the lead from the outside. Two corners to go. The straightaway flew by, and she powerslid around a hairpin. One corner to go. She was nearly home free when suddenly the former leader engaged in a reckless gambit. He boosted into her side as they rounded the final corner, grinding her toward the wall. She was mere inches away when she wrenched her air racer into a barrel roll under his, flattening her body enough to just barely avoid scraping herself along the track. Disoriented, he careened into the wall and spun out, leaving her to cross the checkered line unfettered.

Keira gasped, only just noticing how deprived of air her lungs were. No matter how many she watched, she could never avoid holding her breath during one of these damn races.

“Impressive!” said the tall, slender man who sidled up beside her, “Your girl really is something else, Violet. You must tell me the secret to your success.”

Keira straightened up. “Nothing more than hard work.”

“I doubt that very much.” He grinned wickedly, revealing gold teeth. “You don’t make it to the top three in this league without a hefty dose of luck.”

“Oh?” she asked with a roll of her eyes, “Well I’ll be sure to go knock on some wood. What are you still doing here, Vector? Your racer lost his heat.”

“Keeping my eye on the competition for one.” Vector jerked his chin at Keira. “Also taking care of some business.”

“Selling your weapons to some two-bit ganglord I take it?” She waved her hand around the crowd they stood in. Amongst the mechanics, managers, and sponsors gathered in the sky box for today’s race, more than a few were avatars for the various criminal factions of Haven City.

He lifted his chin and chuckled at the ceiling. “Far more exciting than that, dear Violet. I recently landed a rather large military contract.”

Keira did her best to look unimpressed, hoping it would goad him to continue.

He unwittingly obliged. “I’m going to outfit a new ammunition dump in the Krimzon Guard Fortress. I have a meeting with the Grand Champion himself.”

“With Erol?” She raised her eyebrows. “You better hope some of my luck rubs off on you then. I can’t imagine he’ll be happy that River just finished first.”

Vector’s smile faltered as he took her point. Erol certainly wasn’t known for his generosity of spirit.

Enjoying his sudden agitation, Keira clapped him on the shoulder. “Well congratulations, Vector. I hope it’s a productive meeting for you. Now if you’ll excuse me I have work to do.”

She marched off before the braggadocious arms dealer could protest, making her way for the exit. She wove through the crowd with some difficulty. It was tightly packed, and everyone was too excited about the race they had just witnessed to make it easier for her to get by. Outside the sky box was far worse. Even without the stadium at full capacity, enough civilians had attended to flood the halls.

Eventually, Keira made it to the docking bridge and took the short elevator ride down to the track. The six remaining intact air racers were parked along the checkered starting area, their drivers examining what damage they had taken or brooding. All for except for Erol, who had already stormed off after securing an unacceptable second place, and the winner. She stood in the middle of a host of stadium officials, trophy in hand and aqua hair cascading freely to her shoulders.

She immediately noticed Keira’s presence and, after pausing just long enough for a photo op, swaggered over for a high five. Her grin was wide and infectious as she exclaimed, “What a finish! What a rush!”

Keira couldn’t help but grin back, which softened the bite of her words. “You’re insane, River. If you try a barrel roll like that again I’ll kill you.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” the racer retorted, “Besides it worked, didn’t it?”

“Barely. I’m sure you’ve really pissed Erol off this time.”

“Never mind that douchebag!” River waved a hand around as if she could dissipate conversation of the Champion like a bad stench, “I don’t have to deal with him again for another week.”

Keira wouldn’t let her off the hook that easily. “Be serious for a second. We’re coming into the end of the season, and you’re a real contender. He’s going to have it out for you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” River wrapped an arm around her manager and mechanic’s shoulder, her smile still burning bright, “Let’s go have a drink!”

Together the pair shepherded their air racer back to the garage, discussing the ins and outs of the race as they went. Once the vehicle was safely mounted on a work table, Keira retrieved the bottle of starshine she kept in her freezer, a tradition for every first place finish. She poured a shot glass full for each of them with a flourish that would make Tess proud.

“To a successful race today!” Keira raised her glass.

“To winning another trophy next time!” River followed suit.

They clinked glasses and pounded them back, downing their contents in a single gulp. Keira just barely stifled a cough. Even after all their wins this season, her throat still burned every time she drank the fiery liquid.

River slammed her glass back on the table with great enthusiasm, still high on her victory. “We can do this! We’ve only got six more.”

Keira replied, shaking her head, “I can’t believe we’ve almost made it to the final month of the season.”

She stumbled when River glomped on and gave her a mock noogie. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Violet! No one else has a better mechanic… could be a better manager though,” the racer said with a cheeky wink.

Keira glared at her. “Be nice, or your zoomer might tragically malfunction next week.”

River leaned against the work table and crossed her arms, her teasing expression softened. “Really though, not to be mushy or anything, but I’m glad we’ve made it this far together.”

“Me too,” Keira responded with a small smile, “So be careful.”

River rolled her eyes in mock disgust. “Ugh! If you insist.”

“I hope you’re ready for whatever’s coming.”

“Already am,” River said, her hazel eyes aglow with such ferocity that Keira didn’t doubt she meant it.

 


 

At last the stadium was empty, and River had gone home for the night. Keira wearily trudged up to the tiny studio apartment above the garage. The stresses of the day had caught up with her, and she was eager to crawl into bed. She bent to unbuckle her red boots and pull them off, nearly keeling over in the process, then shrugged her jacket to the floor. She traded the rest of her clothes for an oversized pajama shirt and fell face first into her bed. After scrunching the blankets up in her arms as she stretched through her toes, she rolled over and reached for her communicator. Much as she wanted to rest, she had business to attend to first.

The device vibrated with heavily distorted rings before the signal patched through, and a gravelly voice answered, “Torn here.”

“Torn, Keira. Checking in at the stadium.”

“Is River in one piece?”

“Barely. She pulled a stupid stunt, but she finished first.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said in a tone that she would be hard-pressed to describe as such.

“I also learned something valuable. I got that idiot Vector to brag about installing a brand spanking new ammo dump in the KG Fortress.”

“Really?” Keira could almost hear the wheels turning in Torn’s head. “In theory that’s the most protected spot it could be, but if we could get in there…”

“I’m sure you’ll find a way to make the Baron regret it,” she said with a small grin.

“Do you still have funds?”

“I do. The prize money has really helped me stretch things.”

“And if the prize money runs out?”

“It won’t,” she countered a little too sharply, “and even if it does, I still have some runway.”

“Someday you’re going to have to tell me how you came into so many Precursor orbs.”

“Someday,” Keira affirmed with no intention of following through. Though she hated doing it, the only way to greenlight this mission was to reveal her secret stash of ancient currency. It was unavoidable, and with the Underground more strapped for resources than ever she felt behooved to front the money anyway. She hoped she wouldn’t need it much longer.

“Even so,” Torn continued, “you should get sponsors.”

Keira snorted. “How many times do we have to have this conversation? You know how superstitious people in this business are. Axle’s Garage resurrected had me branded from day one.”

Torn grumbled and fell into silence. Though he was on the other side of the city from her, Keira suddenly felt a great weight between them. Sure of what must be on his mind, she ventured, “Do you ever think about them?”

The other end of the line remained silent. Keira was beginning to wonder if she would get a response when Torn rasped, “Every day.” His strained tone would be the only expression of grief for the fallen allowed. He cleared his throat and changed the subject, “I still can’t believe I let you talk me into authorizing this. It’s irresponsible to put you back into the stadium. To anyone paying attention you’re—”

“Guilty by association,” she finished for him, exasperated, “Yes, we’ve been through this a thousand times. This is why we’ve gone to the trouble to forge me a fake identity, and it’s worked just fine for the last five months. Besides, I think Vivian was planning ahead. She was always careful to keep me away from any official business.”

“If you say so,” Torn acquiesced as he always did, and Keira pictured him shaking his head. “Anything else to report?”

“I think that covers it for now. I’ll check back in next week unless I learn something sooner.”

“Alright. Get some rest.”

“You too,” she replied and ended the connection.

Keira yawned, her eyes watering. It was time to crash, but not before finishing her nightly routine. She pushed off the mattress and set about getting ready for bed, brushing first her teeth and then her hair. Allowing herself a moment to examine her reflection in her tiny medicine cabinet mirror, she noted how long her straight blue-green tresses had grown. It was a good change. At just past waist-length, her new style helped to further separate Violet from the girl mechanic that lived and worked in the stadium before. Giving her hair a final toss, she returned to her cramped bedroom.

All that was left was putting away her discarded clothes, and the last item she picked up was her jacket. Keira stared at the worn navy material and fingered a frayed edge. It was faded to the point that the color was more of a midtone. She turned it inside out and gazed at the turquoise and yellow Axle’s Garage patch lining the back. The twin to the old sign hanging above her bed.

The night of Vivian and Ryker’s capture she doubled back through the sewer and snuck into the garage. What she found was a ransacked ruin. Anything not bolted down was toppled, anything fragile was broken. Nothing of value was left, save for the undiscovered contents of the secret compartment. The only thing she salvaged then was Vivian’s jacket, tossed on the bed in the apartment above. With the patch hidden she could wear it still, her mission uncompromised. The garment gave her courage.

She gently draped the jacket on a chair, then returned to her bed with a grateful sigh.

Chapter Text

“...so technology’s more advanced, poverty’s way worse, and don’t even get me started on the pollution problem!” Daxter ranted. He had been catching up his friend on all things Haven City as they searched for the Underground.

Jak nodded as he strode along, grateful that the streets nearest the wall were less busy.

“What I wouldn’t give for that fresh ocean breeze we took for granted,” the ottsel lamented, “Oh, and one more thing. Lurkers are here too, but as slaves.”

That brought Jak up short.

“I know, I know, it’s hard to imagine, but I do so solemnly swear on the hides of all the yakows I’ve ever tipped, lurkers are Haven’s very own docile slave force. You don’t see ‘em around the Slums too often though. Nobody’s got the dough to buy one.”

Jak shook his head, amazed by how different this world was from their own. Back home lurkers were a savage and primitive species, all too eager to serve the dark ambitions of Gol and Maia. They had always been vicious enemies. The thought of one subjugated in chains, humbly carrying out the banal whims of a human master, was difficult to accept.

As the duo exited the third alley of the night that met Kor’s description, Daxter grumbled, “If there’s one thing I love, it’s vague directions.”

Jak nodded again.

The ottsel raised an eyebrow at his friend. “Ya know, big guy, you nodding all the time makes me wonder if you’re still a mute.”

“No.” Jak raised a hand to his neck. “it’s just… I’m not used to talking.”

“Well, ya better get used to it. I’ve done more than my share for the last nineteen years.”

Jak smirked as he jogged toward another alley. “I’m surprised you realize that.”

“You know what? I take it back. You can go right back to sayin’ nothin’ at all.”

Rounding the corner at the alley’s entrance, Jak found he had no more words as he stared down the barrel of a gun at a buxom blonde. She radiated such menace he couldn’t help but feel she was an expert with the weapon in her hands—all the more reason to clobber the randy ottsel on his shoulder for whistling his approval. Her brown eyes narrowed to deadly slits as she circled a slender finger around the trigger.

Jak hastily explained, “We’re looking for a guy named Torn.” Met only stony silence, he stammered, “Kor sent us… um…”

Just as he started to doubt anything would come of this encounter the blonde lowered her gun and stepped aside, and a figure he hadn’t noticed before stepped out from the shadows. His face was tattooed in a similar fashion to Erol’s and all other soldiers of the Krimzon Guard. Though he had a full head of thick auburn dreadlocks his brows were hairless, and his icy blue eyes were all the more piercing for it. He walked forward with predatory grace, arms crossed over his metal-plated chest, giving the impression of a seasoned warrior who could take a foe down without breaking a sweat. He was also a good head taller, causing the younger man to unconsciously straighten up.

“Are you Torn?”

Again Jak was answered only with silence as the man eyed him suspiciously.

Daxter leaned forward and whispered at a not so discreet volume, “Maybe this guy’s a mute like you used to be.”

At last speaking, the man said in a smoky voice, “New faces make me nervous. And you are?”

He poked Jak’s chest with enough force to buckle the knees, earning only a glare in response.

“The name’s Daxter,” the ottsel introduced himself, “And this angry guy here is Jak. We helped Kor out of a jam and he pointed us toward the Underground.”

Torn proceeded to saunter around the pair like a carrion bird circling a carcass. “So you’re out to join the fight for the city. You know, picking the wrong side could be... unhealthy .”

Jak scowled right back, refusing to be cowed. “We want to see the Shadow.”

“Not likely. If you want to join something, why don’t you and your pet go join the circus?”

Daxter rose to their defense, “Hey! What bug crawled up your ass and died?”

“You’re just going to write us off like that?” Jak demanded.

“You bet I am. The Underground doesn’t just take anyone who wants to enlist, and you’ve got trouble written all over you.” When Torn looked back over his shoulder and saw boy and ottsel still standing firm, their arms crossed, he amended, “...Unless you got the fur for a really tough task.”

Reaching behind his back, the Underground fighter pulled a crescent-shaped dagger out of its scabbard and nonchalantly fingered a razor sharp edge. “Steal the Baron’s banner from the top of the ruined tower in Dead Town and bring it back to me. Then maybe we’ll talk.” He deftly spun the blade into the air and caught it.

Daxter asked, “And how are we supposed to get through the shield wall?”

Torn produced a security pass from his pocket and tossed it at Jak’s feet. “That’ll do the trick. Now get going.” He turned on his heel and walked back into the shadows, dismissing them.

 


 

An enormous door in the city wall sat sunk into a sizable hole, a good ten feet below street level. Weeds popped up between cracks in the pavement and several small vines snaked their way up the door’s metal surface. Huge locks coated in a grimy layer of rust barred any unauthorized passage to the outside.

“You sure this is it, Dax?” Jak eyed the rundown door apprehensively.

“Yep, this is Dead Town.” A chunk of pavement broke off the rim of the hole and tumbled to the bottom with a crash, sending a cloud of dust curling into the air. He dryly noted, “It’s a real popular locale.”

“So I see.”

Jak jumped down and stood expectantly in front of the door as Daxter scuttled over to a panel to scan the card Torn gave them. They waited, but nothing happened. The door was as silent as a corpse. The ottsel scanned the card again and again to no avail. He scratched his head, then waved his arms with a flourish, grandly shouting, “OPEN SESAME!”

Again nothing happened, and Jak gave him a sidelong glance. Frustrated, Daxter marched up to the door and kicked it, a poor decision for he immediately grabbed his foot and hopped around in pain. And yet the automatic mechanism suddenly creaked to life. The rusty locks turned till they aligned, and the door slid into the wall.

Jak stepped inside and a grumbling Daxter soon followed. The door behind them closed and another opened, revealing the outside. The female computer crackled to life. “ Exiting City .”

The voice made Jak flinch and his heart rate climb. He had only ever heard it inside the fortress, and aside from his escape, it was always during the torturous dark eco injections. Grateful Daxter didn't notice, he stepped outside Haven City for the first time in two years.

A floodlight on the city wall illuminated their immediate surroundings, a crumbling, roofless corridor with a damp dirt floor. Just beyond the light’s reach, the passage ended in inky darkness. Jak strode forward to get a better look, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom. Apparently, Dead Town was only as good as its entrance. Dilapidated buildings and naked walls sat sunken into a festering marsh, stretching seemingly without end into the night. Mounds of earth dotted the landscape in little islands, and the muck of the swamp saturated the air with the stink of sulfur and salt. A lone tower stood in the distance, looking just as decrepit as its surroundings.

Jak was about to journey forth when a green blur flashed in the corner of his eye. Quickly sidestepping, he whirled around to face his opponent. He frowned, not seeing anything at all when a croak drew his attention down to a creature no more than two feet tall. Remarkably reminiscent of the denizens of Boggy Swamp, the amphibious creature was bug-eyed, big-mouthed, and, naturally, covered in slime. Jak raised an eyebrow, unimpressed, and easily dodged a strike from its long pink tongue. Not wanting to waste any more time with such small fry, he kicked the creature into the water and nimbly hopped to the next island.

“What happened here?” he asked.

Daxter scratched his head as Jak scaled a wall, and responded, “I think I heard something about Metal Heads swarming the place.”

“Metal Heads…” Jak murmured as he made a running leap over to another wall, “The Baron and Erol would talk about them. What are they?”

“Nothing but bad news. They're like these armored animal things that’ve been attacking the city for years.” Daxter paused long enough to chomp his teeth together in an exaggerated bite. “They’re the same buggers that flew out of the Precursor Ring.”

Jak suddenly stopped short. The darkness made it difficult to navigate clearly, and he nearly missed the wall’s end. One more step and he would have tumbled into the marsh below. With no solid ground to jump to, he was forced to double back and search for an alternate path.

He cued his friend to continue, “So this is their homeworld?”

Daxter shrugged. “I guess so. Here’s hoping Sandover doesn’t look this sad.”

At the mention of their home, Jak felt an intense emptiness in his chest. He had given up all hope of ever seeing it again in prison. Though he was now free, becoming acquainted with his surroundings wasn’t exactly rekindling his sense of optimism. On the contrary, he didn’t dare believe it was possible to go back, and he pushed his broken memories of the village as far from his mind as possible.

In their place, thoughts of his missing companions bubbled up instead, and he asked, “How are we going to find Samos and Keira?”

“Hell if I know.”

Jak frowned. “Well, how did you find me?”

“You were arrested, so once I got the lay of the land I figured there was only one place you could be. All I had to do was figure out how to get into the fortress which… ah… took awhile.”

“And then what,” the young renegade demanded, growing impatient, “you were just going to check every cell? I couldn’t talk, so it’s not like they had my name on any lists.”

“More or less,” the ottsel said, seemingly oblivious to his friend's frustration, “It’s a good thing you were getting pumped full of dark eco right then or it might’ve taken way longer to find you.”

Jak’s nostrils flared, and he angrily shook his head. “So dumb luck then.”

The duo fell into silence. Jak contemplated Keira and Samos as they continued traversing the marsh, his tongue twitching as though he were saying their names aloud. Thinking of them was no more comforting than Sandover. The dark eco had done its work. What he could remember was as grey and jumbled as static, like the essence of his connection to them was locked away somewhere he couldn’t reach. And he had changed so much, inside and out. Even his once gravity-defying hair fell instead to his shoulders, as though no part of him could escape the downward pull of Haven City. Would they even recognize the person he had become? He was ashamed of his own insecurity.

After kicking aside another aggressive frog creature, Jak quietly began, “If they’re alive somewhere…” he stopped, then started again, “Will Keira still… If we find them, do you think they… I’m so…”

“What?” Daxter impatiently prompted as they came upon another dead end.

“Never mind,” Jak muttered as though he tasted something bitter, and he turned to retrace his footsteps.

He was realizing that Dead Town was something akin to a maze. Even though the tower was in plain sight, he found himself constantly circling around the small islands and crumbling walls in an effort to find a solid path. Several degenerating walkways, a handful of hostile amphibians, and a good ten minutes later, he finally stood across a narrow bridge from the base of the tower.

The structure looked even worse up close and creaked and groaned as though it were on the verge of collapse. Jak stared up at the tower skeptically. “Why would the Baron put a banner at the top of a ruin anyway?”

“Well,” Daxter replied thoughtfully, “it’s gotta be a pain in the ass to climb. Even though he lost Dead Town, what better way to stick it to the Metal Heads than putting a flag on something like he still owns the place? He might as well build a neon sign advertising the size of his equipment… which I’d bet is actually really small.”

The corner of Jak’s mouth twitched at the insult.

Encouraged, Daxter continued, “After all, all the great dictators in history have one thing in common: little pricks.”

He waited for Jak to chuckle, crack a smile, anything that would indicate his jokes were effective, but instead, his friend looked at him in a way that suggested he was all but immune to mirth. Daxter’s performative grin withered. Perhaps it was too soon after escaping the fortress to hope for laughter.

“Let’s get this over with,” Jak muttered and proceeded to jog forward. Given all that had come before, he didn’t relish the idea of climbing the precarious structure, and his trepidation was validated right away when the bridge began crumbling beneath his boots. He accelerated into a sprint, the sound of concrete slabs splashing into the swamp trailing after him and spurring him across. He turned and looked across the newly minted gap, a good twenty feet, and realized with a sinking feeling that he would have to find another way back. No use worrying about it yet, he thought, and he pressed on up a decaying walkway that wound around the tower.

He hoped the rest of the climb wouldn’t prove similarly treacherous, but he was immediately proven wrong. He had scarcely advanced ten feet when a gravelly rumbling sounded below, heralding further disintegration of the path. Scanning his surroundings, he at first saw no way to escape when he noticed an old cross-beam sticking out of the floor above. Coiling up, he sprang into the air just as the ground gave way. He arched his body, stretching to reach the beam. For one stomach-dropping moment, the teenager hung suspended, gloved hands just inches from salvation. Just when he thought he would fall to his death below, he grasped the beam. He braced his arms and followed through, swinging around in a wide circle as Daxter yelled in his ear. When his upward velocity was at its peak he let go and soared to the ledge above. Performing a neat backflip, he managed to land on both feet with only a small stumble.

Once again standing on solid ground, Jak allowed his tense muscles to relax and sighed in relief. He smiled apologetically at Daxter, who hung flaccid over his shoulder perch. “Sorry, Dax, I’m a little rusty.”

The ottsel raised a wobbly finger. “Just tell me when we’re back on the ground.”

Continuing to wind up around the building’s exterior, Jak encountered several more of the crumbling walkways with less difficulty every time, and Daxter steadily grew used to riding along as he once did. Eventually, they were high enough that they could see the eastern horizon. Where the ruins of Dead Town ended, a vast, flat expanse stretched over the curvature of the globe. It was difficult to discern in the dark, but Jak soon realized it must be the ocean.

“Huh,” he said as he pried open a doorway, “so this is a salt marsh. That explains the smell.”

“Oh yeah, Haven’s a port city,” Daxter explained, “There's a fish factory and everything. Kinda like a way bigger, way dirtier Sandover.”

Jak picked his way up a rotting wooden staircase. “That’s a depressing thought.”

After kicking in one last door, the duo found themselves on the top floor of the tower. One of the walls and a decent portion of the roof were missing as though a hole had been violently blown open. The long-anticipated banner sat planted near the precipitous edge, waving in the chilly night air.

Daxter jumped to the ground and asked mischievously, “Are you thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”

Jak blinked at the diminutive animal, not at all sure what he meant.

“Come on,” Daxter begged, “you grab the banner and I’ll bust a move!”

“Like we used to do,” Jak murmured remembering their antics from when they used to collect power cells.

“Yeah!”

Jak walked forward and grabbed the flagpole. With some effort, he was able to rip it off its foundation, and Daxter initiated his old victory dance. Though it felt strangely foreign, the blonde lifted the banner above his head in a hollow display of triumph. Before he could be admonished for his lack of enthusiasm, their bubble of half-hearted celebration was promptly popped when the tower began to quake. With time enough only to glance at each other in horror, the floor caved in and they plummeted towards the marsh below.

Twisting till he was feet first, Jak was able to rebound off a fabric awning with some small semblance of control. Daxter immediately followed, thrashing and screaming all the while. The awning launched them one after the other in a stomach-churning arc towards a steel cable. Jak somehow landed on the taut cord like a tightrope walker and slid down toward the city. Listing dangerously to the right, he held the banner out horizontally and barely regained a shaky balance. In the end he somersaulted safely to the ground, rolling to his feet with only a stumble. Daxter was not so lucky—he smacked into the cable fully spreadeagled before sailing into thin air once more. He was saved from landing face first when his friend caught him by the tail.

Jak nearly keeled over in surprise when he spotted a tall figure silhouetted against the flood light, eyes glowing red. The figure stepped forward and revealed himself to be Torn. He pushed the goggles he wore up to his forehead, the expression on his face something akin to astonishment at what he had just witnessed.

“So did we make the cut?” Jak asked, recovering enough to smirk.

As there was a final rumble from the tower rubble settling in the distance, the tattooed man slowly said, “Yeah. I guess you guys are in.”

 


 

Back in the alley they had met in only hours before, Torn led the way to a wall in the very back corner. It was spray painted with Baron Praxis’ sigil, a sword with a menacing skull instead of a hilt, only not exactly. The skull was cracking in half, the blow struck by a hammer poised over its dome. Torn scanned his card in a hidden panel, and the wall slid aside, revealing a hidden door.

“Here,” the dreadlocked man said as he flipped another card to Jak, “you’ll be able to get in with this security pass.” Without waiting for a response he disappeared into the dark stairwell beyond.

Jak snatched the card out of the air, sparing it a cursory glance. Then he followed Torn down a flight of stairs and through another door.

A fiery furnace and flickering overhead lamp provided some light within, but then there was very little to see. The entrance was flanked by four sets of bunk beds, extending the claustrophobic bottleneck of the stairwell. In the center of the room stood a large hexagonal table littered with maps and documents. Old crates and ramshackle shelving lined the walls, and exposed pipes and beams crisscrossed over an unfinished ceiling. A single old zoomer hung in a wanting workshop corner, and a man and woman sat engaged in a game of cards in another.

Torn turned to address the duo, “Welcome to Headquarters.”

Daxter looked around the room, thoroughly unimpressed, before bursting out, “ This is your secret Underground base? What a dump!”

“We do what we can with the limited resources we have,” Torn explained, ignoring the ottsel’s insult, “At least we’ve got ourselves a buffer wall.”

“Got fresh blood, Torn?”

The card players had stopped their game and stood, ambling up to the trio. Torn glared at them and said, a warning edge to his voice, “Weren’t you busy?”

“Yeah, yeah, need-to-know basis and all that,” the man said, waving Torn off, “I’m Gabe.” He appeared to be middle-aged, his brown beard shot with silver, but he looked as fit as a man in his prime. His sleeveless shirt revealed taut, toned arms, scarred from what appeared to be a lifetime of battles. With a jovial smile, he introduced his fellow card player, “And this is Lil.”

“Nice to meet you,” Lil nodded, evidently more reserved than Gabe. She too was older, as evidenced by her white hair and weathered brown skin, and she too had a remarkably well-maintained physique. Indeed, she was more muscular than most men.

When he realized Gabe and Lil were staring expectantly, Daxter made introductions, “I’m Daxter, and this is Jak. We just signed up!”

“You don’t say,” Gabe responded with a smile, “It’s not often you see an ottsel enlisting.”

“You mean you never see one,” Lil corrected in a deadpan voice.

“Oh yeah? Well, I’ll do you one better because Orange Lightning here snuck into the fortress to bust his buddy out of prison.”

Jak rolled his shoulder, forcing the unguarded Daxter to flail around to keep from falling off.

What?! ” the ottsel demanded.

Jak glared back significantly. The last thing he wanted was for everyone to know he was a fugitive. Unfortunately for him, it was too little too late.

“You just escaped from the Krimzon Guard Fortress?” Lil asked, her eyes glinting in the light of the furnace.

“So what if I did?” Jak retorted.

“You’d be unusual, that’s for sure,” Gabe replied, stroking his bearded chin, “No one ever gets out of there.”

Before anyone could say another word, Torn cut in, “Alright, that’s enough schmoozing. I’m sure you’ll run into each other later.”

He shepherded the pair toward the mouth of a narrow hallway, and Gabe called after them, “Enjoy the rest of the tour!”

Jak imagined there wasn’t much else to see, and he wasn’t wrong. First, there was the storeroom, which contained everything from rations to medical equipment. Here Torn presented him with a watch and communicator, so that he could be called in for work when needed. Then there was the armory, secured by a locked door and keypad. Jak’s eyes took on an excited glint when he laid eyes on the weapons inside, and he flashed a dangerous grin. It promptly faded when Torn handed him a small pistol and informed him access to the armory was restricted. Last, there was a washroom. Privately, Jak could hardly wait to take advantage of the facilities. He hadn’t been able to properly bathe since the Sandover days.

Their tour concluded, Daxter whined, “OK, Tattooed Wonder, I don’t wanna hear anymore about cheap supplies or crappy food. I just wanna crash! Where the hell are we gonna sleep?”

“Outside if you don’t quit barking,” Torn shot back, his tone razor sharp. He brusquely gestured at the claustrophobic bunks near the entrance, “The beds are first come first serve.”

Jak shuffled his feet uncomfortably and asked his friend, “We’re not going to your place?”

“Hell no,” Daxter protested, “It’s a good two miles away, and I’ve had enough running around for one night.”

The blonde considered the bunks for a few moments more before making for the entrance. “Come on, Dax.”

The ottsel immediately protested, “What? Why?! There are eight perfectly good beds right here!”

“I don’t do well with small spaces,” Jak said, implacable as stone. He would provide no further explanation and arranged a return to Headquarters noon the following day—the same day in fact since dawn wasn’t far off. Though Torn was anything but pleasant about it, he also showed no interest in getting wrapped up in whatever drama was unfolding. And so the frayed companions soon trudged out into the night once again.

The long walk passed in silence. Daxter stubbornly refused to say a word, and Jak didn’t care to engage with him.

They arrived at a derelict building, far shabbier than most in the Slums. It was littered with fading graffiti, and every last window was broken and boarded up. Within were grey, peeling walls, in some stretches stripped back to the studs, looming over littered, grimy floors. The air was musty with age, and the sound of dripping water perpetually echoed from a source unseen. The were no lights, and the darkness wouldn't improve much come daybreak thanks to the boarded windows.

Daxter led the way up two warped staircases and a ladder with a busted bottom rung, kicking up clouds of dust with every step. They reached the top floor and entered a relatively large and mostly empty room, illuminated by an eco lantern Daxter switched on. Hefty chunks of the planks nailed over the windows had been ripped away, allowing one to easily see the narrow street below. Along the opposite wall, a lumpy mattress lay on the floor. Some canned food and several Krimzon Guard crates stood stacked in another corner. One was kicked open, revealing ammo cartridges. The room had a musty smell, and the muffled scratching and skittering of rodents sounded from all around.

“So…” Daxter said, his tone dripping with disappointment, “this is it.” If the circumstances were different he might put on a good face and try to enliven things with a jocular tour, but he was in no mood for it.

Jak silently surveyed his friend’s lodgings, unimpressed but unperturbed. Unlike the cramped Underground Headquarters, this was spacious. There were windows and privacy from prying eyes.

“That’s the only bed, so I guess it’s yours,” Daxter grumbled.

Nodding, Jak walked over to the mattress and sat down, his weight causing it to sag several inches. He patted the surface, testing its pliability, before lying down. As he sank the springs creaked in protest, and he stared at the water damaged ceiling.

Tired and frustrated past the breaking point, the ottsel snapped, “I can’t believe you’d rather sleep here than at HQ! Those bunks weren’t anything to write home about but they’re obviously better than this!”

“Believe it!” Jak exclaimed as he angrily sat up. He had no patience for Daxter’s complaining, and though he hadn't allowed himself to feel it till now he was exhausted. Sleep was the only reasonable recourse. He yanked off his clothes, determined to crawl under the blankets and cut off all further conversation.

Daxter was left with no option but finding sleeping arrangements of his own. He scuttled over to the crates and, after briefly hesitating, dumped the open one, noisily scattering cartridges across the floor.

“Really?!” Jak censured, unable to ignore Daxter’s actions.

“Really!” the ottsel spat back. The crate was lined with foam to cushion its contents. Daxter proceeded to violently rip it to shreds, forming a pile to act as a subpar mattress of his own. His bed made, he settled into the crate and curled up in a grumpy ball.

Silence, at last, fell in the rundown room. Jak was grateful for the quiet until he realized how uncomfortable he was. Now conditioned to sleep on hard surfaces, even the terrible mattress on which he lay was impossible to settle into. He rolled over, trying to will himself into unconsciousness, but instead, he focused on the nearest window. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the desire, the need, to get out of the room. It was impossible to think of anything else. His breathing grew sharp and shallow, and he felt as though his life would end if he didn't leave right this instant.

He sprang up and ripped off the bedding.

The sudden action earned Daxter’s attention. “Jak, what are ya doin’?”

The teenager paid no attention as he kicked the last remaining boards off the window and, leaning out, tossed the blankets up to the roof.

“Uh…Jak?”

He stepped onto the windowsill, gripping the edge with white fingers. He felt so panicked that the scramble up the outside was a blur. The next he knew he was sitting on a crumpled pile of blankets next to a rusty chimney, his knees under his chin.

Scrabbling noises heralded Daxter’s arrival behind him. The ottsel cried in exasperation, “What the hell are you doin’ up here? Ya wanna die of hypothermia now?!”

“It’s not that cold.” Even as he said it Jak involuntarily shivered. He wore nothing to protect himself from the night air. Shifting, he wrapped his shoulders with a blanket.

Daxter stepped in front of the blonde and pointed at the roof beneath his furry feet. “First the bunks, then the flea-ridden mattress! What's your problem? ”

Jak said for the second time that night, his voice defensive, “I don’t do well with small spaces.”

“ ‘Small spaces’? It’s five times the size of your room in your Uncle’s house!”

“Don’t push me, Dax!”

“Even if it’s half as comfortable why would ya give that up for thi—”

Jak roared at Daxter, so fiercely the ottsel flinched, “What the HELL makes you think I can just sleep indoors like a normal person? After everything I’ve been through?! No thanks to you, I’ve been locked up in a cell the size of a lurker outhouse nearly twenty-four seven for two fucking years! No fresh air, no windows, just me and my thoughts, all day every day, except for the part where I get tortured. And thanks to the rock-hard slab I slept on even a garbage mattress like that one—” he violently pointed through the roof, “—is too damn soft! I’ll go insane if I’m expected to relax and sleep down there no matter how damn comfy it is. And if you don’t like it then congratulations, welcome to the fucking club!”

His throat raw, Jak finally stopped yelling long enough for his friend’s expression to register. Daxter’s eyes were large and quivering beneath his sharply peaked brow, his jaw slack. He looked utterly crushed.

Jak immediately regretted his explosion and hung his head in shame, tightly closing his eyes. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to disappear.

He heard Daxter’s feet pad along the roof, undoubtedly making an exit, but was surprised to hear them approach instead. Taking a peek, he saw the ottsel sitting by his side, staring out over the rooftops in quiet solidarity.

A wave of self-loathing crashed over Jak. He felt unworthy of affection and overcome with grief for his lost self. He gripped his chest with a shaking hand, taking a ragged breath before breaking the silence. “I feel it all the time. The rage… It’s like I’ll drown—” His voice broke, and he trembled. He slowly continued, “This thing inside me… Who knows what’ll happen the next time it comes out.”

“It’s a new day,” Daxter said at last, “No point in giving up yet.”

Jak looked east. A faint glow peeked over the horizon. He nodded as tears rolled down his cheeks. The two friends sat and watched as dawn drew near.

Chapter Text

“Come on, let’s get cracking!” Daxter urged.

“I’m working on it,” Jak muttered as he attempted to hotwire a parked zoomer. After a few moments, the engine purred to life, and the duo sped off through the Slums.

Since joining the Underground and surviving the first night out of prison, the two friends were much better off. While their interactions weren’t exactly without conflict, a new trust had been established. Not only had Daxter successfully aided in Jak’s rescue without giving up for two long years, but he also weathered the swells and squalls of Jak’s trauma as best he could. He wasn’t always patient or understanding, but he endeavored to stick it out as when he sat through their vigil on the rooftop. Never before had their companionship been so tested, and he had proven himself a true friend.

Daxter’s loyalty provided Jak with a small sense of security, a lifeline he clung to in the face of learning how to live in the hostile environment of the Slums. Every day they checked in at Underground Headquarters. Sometimes there were other recruits present, such as Lil and Gabe. More often than not, however, the sole person they interacted with was the surly Torn. True to his word, he wasted no time sending the duo out on a plethora of missions, most often concerned with mucking up the operations of the Krimzon Guard as best they could. At first, this proved challenging. Every time Jak saw one of the red-armored soldiers his heart would race and he would break into a cold sweat, horrific memories of his imprisonment threatening to overwhelm him like a waking nightmare. And yet, little by little, it became more bearable with each encounter. He was no longer a scared boy, powerless to defend himself, but a force to be reckoned with.

And so Jak began to grow accustomed to harassing patrols, diverting them from Underground safe houses or interrupting delivery of eco shipments. The cause was always strapped for resources, so he stole when possible. With Daxter’s help, he learned how to hotwire zoomers, and he favored doing so to KG HellCats, inciting mad chases through the streets that usually ended with tuck and rolling just in the nick of time as the stolen vehicle exploded spectacularly.

Their antics didn’t go unnoticed. Barely a week had passed when Baron Praxis cut off water to the Slums in an effort to flush out the Underground. The new recruits were tasked with journeying to the pumping station to turn it back on and in the process had their first encounter with Metal Heads.

Jak was unimpressed. They were a far cry from the nightmarish creatures that poured from the Precursor Ring. This particular variety was quadrupedal, no larger than a crocadog—swipers according to Daxter, lemmings as far as Jak was concerned. Their plan of attack was to blindly charge forward at any threat, thus making them very easy to kill with only a few well-aimed hits. Jak wanted to face more intelligent foes. He wanted his violence to be challenging, a desire that, if he was honest with himself, was deeply disconcerting.

“Watch it!” Daxter yelled, and Jak narrowly swerved around an oncoming zoomer, “Pay attention to the road!”

“I’ve got it!” Jak willed himself to focus on the task at hand. They were on their way to their most dangerous mission yet. Torn had caught wind of a new ammunition dump in the KG Fortress. Blowing it up would deal a body blow to the Baron, so Jak had earned himself a hacked Krimzon Guard security pass. He initially leapt at the opportunity to cause Praxis’ regime real damage, but the closer they got to their destination the more uneasy he felt.

After rounding a decrepit building the red walls of the fortress came into view, looming a dozen stories high. Jak’s throat clamped nearly shut in response, making it difficult to breathe.

He turned into an alley to discreetly park the stolen zoomer and check the watch Torn had given him. 1753… right on time. After a guard patrol marched past, he ran over to the entrance ramp. His pulse was rising, but he paid it no mind as he quickly scanned his pass and slipped inside.

It was then Jak froze. The door clanged shut behind him and the locks clicked as they rotated back into place. Every sound seemed to reverberate through his bones, shaking his very marrow. The drumbeat of his blood intensified until it hammered in his ears, and he was transported to the injection chamber. He could see the sinister machine, smell the acrid fumes, hear the arcing electricity. Most of all he could feel it. The cold, hard chair beneath his back; the restraints cutting into his wrists and ankles; the horrific agony ripping his body apart.

An orange paw fluttered in front of his face. “Jak? What is it?” Daxter’s furry head popped into view. “You’re pale as Samos’ toenail clippings.”

The dazed blonde drew a rattling breath, the sensation like sandpaper in his throat.

“Jak?”

He shook his head, trying to dispel the torturous fog shrouding his brain.

“Jak!!”

“It’s nothing!” he exclaimed, at last finding his voice, “I’m just…” He gulped, totally unsure if he could proceed with the mission, and his eyes roved around the room without really seeing it. He felt desperate, like a cornered animal. Only by forcing his lungs to fill up entirely was he able to manage a leaden step forward. With a mighty exhale, he finished his sentence, “…Fine. I’m fine.” He hoped he could fool himself into believing it.

Calming down enough to fully take in his surroundings, Jak’s attention was grabbed by an enormous machine directly in front of him. A single spiked wheel, nearly as tall as himself and a good fifteen feet wide, dominated its appearance. A red turret with two double barrel guns just barely peeked over the top, highlighting how ridiculously oversized the wheel was by comparison.

Jak eyed the machine warily, but it remained motionless.

“Seems safe,” Daxter offered, though he didn’t sound like he meant it.

Even excluding the machine, the room was far from welcoming. The lighting was low and yellow. Every surface consisted of dark metal, cold and unnatural. Split into levels, the higher and further of the two was lined in blinking computer consoles. Their flashing buttons and indicators cast a strange blue glow on the walls. Past them stood a door, and to the immediate left of the entrance yawned a wide hallway.

Remembering the schematics Torn had drilled him on, Jak unholstered his pistol and jogged to the left. Though he still buzzed with almost crippling anxiety the patrols were much too tight for dawdling. He had scarcely exited the room when the deafening roar of a motor cracked like lightning.

Jak and Daxter turned in horror as the computer announced, “Unauthorized use of fortress door. Activating security tank.”

The deadly machine proceeded to roll towards them, its guns taking aim, and Jak bolted down the hallway.

Daxter wailed, “Not safe! Not safe at all! Step on the gas!!”

Jak yelled back as he dodged a flaming bullet, “What do you think I’m doing?!”

He barreled around a corner, never looking back. The cacophony behind him was a constant reminder that the tank remained hot on his heels, relentless. Every few seconds it would fire a volley, narrowly missing its target.

“Try shooting at it at least!” Daxter demanded.

“Right!” Jak violently waved his pistol. “like this thing’s gonna be any good at disabling that!”

Rounding another turn, he was faced with a massive grate. A small door to the side would allow him to pass and leave the tank behind. He would’ve breathed a sigh of relief if he wasn’t panting from exertion. He slipped through and sprinted toward the next bend in the path, but before he cleared it there was a deafening crash and squeal of metal. Daring a look over his shoulder, he saw that the tank had torn through the grate like it was tissue paper.

That was the least of his problems it turned out. Around the bend awaited a gauntlet of four sentry guns. The nearest tower was rotating forward, its red laser sight slicing toward Jak’s knees.

Cursing, the teenager dove over the beam and rolled under the next. He just managed to weave his way past the third when the tank opened fire, forcing him to spin to the side and right into the fourth laser. The corresponding sentry turned its massive gun on the intruders and fired.

Jak twisted away, but not fast enough. Scorching heat grazed his right thigh. He didn’t attempt to inspect it. He barely even registered any pain. His entire focus was on getting away from the tank. He charged out of the range of the sentries and entered a large warehouse. Stacks and stacks of crates divided it up into corridors, some big and some small. At last, terrain he might be able to use to his advantage. At the first opportunity, he tumbled through a narrow gap into a parallel corridor. Rather than taking the long way around the tank smashed through, just as it had with the grate. Jak proceeded to zig and zag through every tight space he could find. Without fail the tank precisely followed his path, but as it did the debris from the crates gradually piled up in front of its monstrous wheel. Eventually, even the wider corridors couldn’t provide enough room for the detritus to fall away, and the tank’s progress began to slow.

Safely out of the line of fire for now, Jak made it to the far end of the warehouse and found the exit, a sliding door. He nearly collided with it in his desperation to get out, fumbling to scan his security pass. At last, the door slid open, and he stumbled through.

Jak entered yet another hallway, this one small and claustrophobic. He leaned against the wall, panting, grateful to finally be rid of the tank.

“This is ridiculous,” Daxter gasped, his breathing also heavy, “Who guards a fortress with a machine that trashes the place? The upkeep’s gotta be through the roof!”

“Well,” Jak replied, checking his pistol with shaky hands, “The Baron doesn’t seem to be one for practical design.”

“It’s that small prick of his again,” Daxter grumbled venomously.

Just then Jak heard something, and he held up a hand to silence the ottsel. He jogged down the hallway and peered around the bend. His stomach leapt into his throat. A patrol of four Krimzon Guards was marching their way. He examined his watch, crestfallen. In his mad dash to escape the tank he was ahead of schedule, and if he wasn’t careful he could wind up taking on the entire fortress. Hoping to find a place to hide, he ran toward the other end of the hallway. As soon as he rounded the corner he halted mid-step. He stood face to face with another patrol of four.

For a split second, they all stood there, utterly baffled, the only sound a small, terrified noise from Daxter. Then Jak rushed them before they had a chance to raise their weapons. He shot one guard in the face and slammed another against the wall, dazing him. A well-aimed knee to the groin disabled the third, and he was about to fire on the fourth when his entire body went completely rigid. Pain arced through him, his muscles spasming as his vision exploded with blue sparks. He would have cried out if he had the ability to do so. Then it stopped, and he fell to his knees. Daxter hung limply from his shoulder perch, groaning.

“I need backup at the south entrance to Warehouse D,” said a voice behind him. In his scuffle with the second patrol, he had failed to notice the first rushing to join the fray. If backup arrived…

Jak managed to twist and shoot the guard radioing for help, but another immediately fired his long taser rifle. Again he and Daxter were gripped in violent currents of blue eco, and this time he dropped his pistol.

They were done for, neutralized and defenseless within the bowels of the fortress. Countless guards must be descending on their location. They would lock him up again.

Red mist seeped over Jak’s vision as he growled, his voice barely recognizable, “You’ll never take me alive!”

He faded into darkness.

It wasn’t until he was standing in some sort of industrial room that the mist cleared and Jak was himself. Gasping, he clutched his head and nearly doubled over as purple rays of dark eco pulsed over his skin.

Daxter, fully recovered from their tasering, hopped from one shoulder to the other in an effort to dodge the dangerous substance. “Warn me before you go berserk next time!”

Jak looked up at the panic in his friend’s voice and was surprised to see him spattered with blood. The diminutive animal was shaken, his eyes bulging slightly. Jak’s hands were even more grisly, slick as they were with red. How many guards had he killed? He murmured, “How… how long was I—”

“Too long!” Daxter interrupted as he sidestepped another lingering dark eco ray. This was the first time he rode on the monster’s shoulder, and he plainly hoped he never would again.

With a pang of guilt, Jak apologized, “I’m sorry, Dax.”

“Yeah, well,” Daxter muttered, running a trembling paw through his ears, “Ya bought us some time at least.”

Jak looked all around. Totally disoriented from his transformation, he no longer had any sense of their location within the fortress. “...Where are we?”

Daxter shrugged. “Looks like some kinda factory.”

Indeed, large conveyor belts lined the walls, some climbing to a higher floor. Willing his foggy mind to recall the details of the schematics, Jak remembered there being a small eco refinery beneath the ammo dump. Perhaps if he rode the conveyor belts up…

He didn’t know if it was just luck or some part of his berserker form paying attention, but Jak soon found himself striding into their destination. The ammo dump was enormous, the air hot and stuffy. Bright red light fixtures illuminated barrels upon barrels of munitions stacked against the walls, all stamped with the Baron’s insignia. In the center of the room stood a gargantuan warhead surrounded by a host of cooling system towers.

Jak was wondering how on earth he would go about blowing up the payload when a clanking sound below caught his attention. He and Daxter lay down on their bellies and looked through a barred grate in the floor.

Two Krimzon Guards stood next to stacked barrels of eco. They intently stared at a huge ventilation pipe. Bars had once horizontally crossed the pipe’s gaping maw, but most of them were missing. What remained had been broken and scattered in a crooked mess on the floor. To Jak’s shock, a pair of Metal Head brutes peered over the scrap pile.

One of the two guards below barked, “These barrels are the latest shipment of eco. The Baron says take them and get out!”

The brutes growled, their skull gems glowing a menacing yellow, and the guards lifted their rifles defensively. Still growling, the Metal Heads crawled towards the barrels. They hefted them over their armored backs and carried them away. Only when they melted into the shadows of the pipe did the guards leave.

Jak, utterly confused, whispered to Daxter, “Metal Heads in the city? Why are the guards giving them eco?”

He struggled to wrap his mind around the implications of such dangerous facts when a mechanical roar sounded to his right. Rolling and leaping to his feet, he watched as another security tank bore down on them.

“Shit!” Jak exclaimed as he broke into a run and looked for cover.

“Now what?!” Daxter yelled.

“I don’t know! We’ll just have to figure something—”

He was cut off when a scorching bullet tore a deep flesh wound through his right shoulder. He grunted and stumbled, almost getting shot again in the process. Lurching behind the explosives, he gripped his injury. He’d move slower now, making it easier for the security tank to lock on. I’m a sitting duck…

Jak’s eyes widened as a plan dawned on him. He ran into the open and stood in front of one of the cooling system towers.

“HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND??” Daxter screamed in panic.

“I’ve got an idea!” Jak yelled as the tank locked on. He jumped aside just as the machine fired, causing the tower behind him to blow up in a shower of shrapnel and flames.

“Warning. Missile cooling system damaged,” the computer calmly stated.

Success at hand, Jak repeated his gambit again and again as the computer’s warning grew more dire.  When the last of the cooling towers was dispatched, a siren blared. “Danger. Warhead detonation imminent. Evacuating area.”

Daxter howled unintelligibly as Jak continued dodging tank fire. His eyes darted around the room until he noticed a window open in the far wall. Steeling himself for a final sprint, Jak rushed for it and vaulted out into the night air just as the warhead exploded. The blast propelled him forward onto a corrugated roof. He bounced off with a clang and fell one story, then a second before crash landing on the cracked pavement below.

Jak lay sprawled on the hard ground without moving for a few moments, his vision blurry and his ears ringing from the explosion. He pushed himself up on his elbows, gritting his teeth as his shoulder seared in pain. All he could think is that he had to get far away from the fortress or else risk capture.

Daxter groaned beside him in a crumpled pile and rolled his eyes open. “This place has too much excitement… We need to move back to the country!”

And with that, the absurdity of their entire situation came into sharp relief, and Jak broke into a half-manic frenzy of laughter. He fell back on the pavement and gripped his sides as he guffawed into the chilly evening air.

“You’re gonna laugh now?” Daxter demanded, flabbergasted this would happen after days of his friend barely even cracking a smile.

Indeed, Jak laughed so hard he could scarcely breathe. Every contraction of his diaphragm aggravated his wounds, but that did nothing to quell his amusement. He laughed on and on, heedless of the world around him before he at last subsided into a weak coughing fit. He grasped his injured shoulder with a pained moan, his cheeks and abs burning from use, but he didn’t mind. Despite everything, he felt somehow clearer than he had in years.

With great difficulty, the pair stood and staggered over to the alley where the stolen zoomer was parked. The young renegade was beginning to wonder if every mission would put him through this much abuse when Daxter exclaimed in his ear, “Jak! Lookit your hand!”

Jak nearly leapt out of his skin. His left hand was coated not just in the red blood of the soldiers but a black liquid that flashed violet in the light. The same substance seeped from his injured shoulder, just as it did from the corpse he first shared his cell with. Utterly horrified, he whispered, “Dark eco…”

“Freeze!” a voice yelled behind the pair, “This area is under lockdown. Produce your documentation immediately!”

Without even blinking, Jak turned and shot the unsuspecting guard point blank in the face. Fresh adrenaline coursing through his veins, he hopped onto the stolen zoomer and raced through the neon bathed streets as though he was pursued by the minions of hell itself.

 


 

Keira studied tonight’s dense tome, A History of Precursor Technology , her eyelids growing heavy. Maybe the next page would have what she was looking for. Or perhaps the one after that. Or… She nodded off and immediately started back awake.

Hoping that a change of position would prove helpful, she sat up straight on the lumpy couch, surveying her surroundings as she did so. In contrast to the well-illuminated lounge, most of the garage lights were off, a reminder of the late hour. It was nearing midnight, and she had been fruitlessly researching all evening. She stared down at the coffee table before her. It was littered with blueprints and sketches of a large machine, not unlike an oversized zoomer. One that could travel through time.

It didn’t matter how accustomed she became to life in Haven City or how committed she was to the Underground’s fight against Baron Praxis. In her heart of hearts, Keira desperately wanted to return to Sandover Village, even if she had to do it alone. With no sign of her father, Jak, or Daxter in two years, she believed they had ended up in different times or locations. She prayed they weren’t dead, wherever they were.

Keira’s mouth twisted in apprehension. Alone or not, there was still the matter of the Metal Head invasion. If she returned to the exact moment she left they would be swarming the village, destroying and killing as they went. How could she possibly hope to survive? Perhaps she could travel back farther and stop herself from ever activating the accursed Precursor Ring in the first place, but she had no idea what would happen then. She would be fundamentally altering the future. Would Haven City ever be built? Would Tess, Torn, Vivian, and Ryker, people she cared about, ever be born? Would Keira herself, now also a product of this future, cease to exist like a snuffed flame?

She shook her head, banishing her current line of thinking. She had trod it well already, and no amount of reasoning would provide her with the answers. All she knew was that, no matter the circumstances, she had to try.

Keira examined her blueprints as she cracked her neck. She was certain she had reconstructed the plans for the rift rider without error, but that meant there was a problem. Two in fact. Unique Precursor artifacts she remembered with such perfect clarity she was able to draw them down to the smallest detail. She was unable, however, to find a single record of their existence. Even the museum, with its sizeable Precursor exhibit and supposedly knowledgeable curators, was of no help.

She involuntarily shivered, pushing the thought that they may not be in this time far from her mind. There was always more research to do. Just ten more minutes, she thought to herself, yawning and stretching her arms above her head.

“Hey, Violet.”

Keira snapped out of her stretch in violent surprise. “River!”

The racer stood just outside the lounge, craning her neck to examine the table full of drawings. “Didn’t mean to scare you,” she apologized as she took a step closer, “What are you working on?”

Keira didn’t know what to say. There was no way she could tell the truth, but no smooth lie presented itself. Every second she failed to answer she grew more suspicious.

River continued with a wry smile, “Some kind of vehicle? Looks slow.”

Keira forced herself to sit back, feigning nonchalance. “Nothing special. Just an after hours project. What are you still doing here? You should be resting up for tomorrow’s race! Four more weeks and all that.”

Ignoring the hint, River went to take a seat on the couch. “I forgot my lucky gloves.”

“I’ll never understand why everyone in this damn business is so superstitious,” Keira said as she stood, hoping to draw River’s attention away from the table.

The racer didn’t look up as she responded, “Probably has something to do with the chances of dying horribly.”

Keira’s glance sharpened. “You’re not worried about tomorrow, are you?”

“Not more than usual,” River replied with a shrug, her eyes still glued to the blueprints. If she ever felt nervous before a race she never showed it.

“Good,” Keira said as she impatiently tapped her fist against her thigh. When River still made no move to leave she announced, “Well, I was about to call it a day and head upstairs, so—”

“Ooh, what’s the Heart of Mar doing here?”

Keira blinked. “What?”

River pointed at an artifact sketch, this one depicting a large ruby set in Precursor metal.

“You know what that is?” Keira asked, dumbfounded.

“The Heart of Mar,” River repeated.

Keira stared at her as if to demand how she knew.

“I was a real history buff when I was younger. Read everything about Mar I could get my hands on.” The racer elaborated unprompted, “After he founded Haven City he married Terra, who had long been his companion in the war against the Metal Heads. The Heart of Mar was crafted by the Precursors and his wedding gift to her. It probably would’ve been an heirloom to be passed down through the generations since, but Terra died giving birth. The child survived, allowing the dynasty to continue, but Mar was heartbroken and never married again.”

Keira blinked again. Is that why she had no luck in her research? She had been scouring every book on the Precursors she could find when apparently she should have been reading up on Mar. “That’s really sad,” she said, her voice a hair too intense.

River, still caught up in the story, didn’t seem to notice. “Right? I used to think it was romantic when I was younger, but now it’s just depressing.”

“So what happened to the Heart of Mar?”

“No one knows for sure, but legend has it he took it and encased it in stone.”

Keira tried not to look disappointed. If all she had to go on was some vague legend she could spend years searching for the artifact.

The two women sat in silence for a few moments before River baldly addressed the elephant in the room, her hand sweeping the length of the table, “How is it you have a detailed sketch of the Heart of Mar but you don’t know what it is? What is all this?”

Keira stared her down, her mouth a firm line. She would not tell the truth. She couldn’t. And as the unanswered questions hung between them she remembered being in River’s position. For many months she too had worked for teammates who wouldn’t reveal the details of their double lives, even though they couldn’t hide them from her entirely. Back then she wasn’t able to understand why, but then she learned the hard way. She would do everything in her power to keep River from learning the same lesson.

At last Keira responded, “Nothing you would be asking me about if you hadn’t wandered in here so late.”

River’s brown eyes blazed brightly, and then she at last relented. “Whatever. I got my gloves, so I can’t complain.”

The racer stood and walked toward the exit.

Keira winced and called after her, “Rest up!”

“Yeah, yeah,” River grumbled without looking back.

Chapter Text

The air was cool, and visibility was low. Jak had no idea where he was or where he was going as he warily trudged through the murk. He felt as though he had been walking for ages, searching for something he didn’t know. Then a door shimmered into view like a mirage in a desert, and he broke into a run. He was within ten paces when he saw the door was thick and heavy with a single barred window, and he realized his mistake. Skidding to a stop, he twisted around and launched himself in the opposite direction, but it was too late. Four grimy walls surrounded him. He stood within his tiny cell in the Krimzon Guard Fortress.

A small whimper escaped his ashen lips. This couldn’t be happening. It mustn’t. He went to pound on the door and call for help, but when he opened his mouth words escaped him. He tried to say something, anything, but it was as pointless as attempting to pin down a cloud. Instead, he rammed the door with his shoulder, his eyes bulging in desperation. Again and again, he collided with the unyielding metal, heedless of the needles of pain shooting down his arm. Every fiber of his being commanded him to do so.

Just before the fourth impact, the door flung open wide, and he sailed through into a black abyss. He flailed and spiraled, helpless to stop his plummeting descent into the darkness. The further he went the faster he spun, and nausea soon pulsed in his belly. The rushing air mercilessly whipped his watering eyes, and his head was fit to burst with disorientation. He would pass out if his fall continued unabated.

Without warning his body slammed into a surface as hard as a rock, and he felt his consciousness splatter and extend outward like the innards of an overripe melon dropped from a skyscraper. He could see himself from every direction, laying helplessly restrained on a steel chair. All was still for a perilous few moments, a terrible reprieve from what was to come. Then the surrounding darkness exploded violet, fractured by countless rays of dark eco. As they arced into his limp form he was pulled along with them, denied the sick luxury of watching his own torture in place of experiencing it. His awareness reconstituted within the brutalized prison of his flesh, and the old agony penetrated him like an iron maiden. He screamed long and loud, snaking electricity sizzling down his throat till his esophagus burst with black liquid.

Jak gasped awake, his nostrils flaring. Half wild with the fear and pain of his nightmare, he leapt to his feet and whirled this way and that without really seeing anything. The panic shrouding him was too thick and too real, but as the seconds ticked by the tattoo of his heartbeat slowed, and the beaded sweat on his brow cooled his burning skin. He realized where it was he stood, on the roof of the condemned building he now called home. He stared not at a roiling hellscape of dark eco but the dull grey of an overcast sky. He was safe. Slumping to his knees, he managed a weak sigh.

Even though sleep was a fraught and draining activity, Jak had little desire to get up. He sincerely doubted anything would make it worth his while. Not after last night.

He had the sense to carry a bandage roll in his pack and was able to dress his wounds before reporting back to Underground Headquarters. As a result debriefing with Torn managed to go by without incident. The ex-KG commander seemed caught off guard to see them, as though he hadn’t expected them to survive. He listened to their recounting of events, absent of any mention of Jak’s transformation, without asking too many probing questions. Most important of all, he didn’t discover Jak’s strange blood.

And so boy and ottsel were free to grab a med kit from the infirmary and escape to the privacy of Daxter’s place. It was there they received a shock almost worse than bleeding dark eco. The medkit, as was standard, included a squishy package of green eco gel. But when they tried using it to heal Jak’s shoulder he instead suffered incredible pain, reminiscent of the agony of dark eco injections.

Jak had always been a gifted eco channeler. Whether green, red, blue, yellow, or even light he had a natural affinity for it, and Samos had nurtured his abilities since before he could remember. The story went that when he was about age four, the sage happened upon him manipulating green eco in the lab. He played with lime balls of energy like he would a shiny toy, tossing them about the room and giggling in delight when they caused the potted plants to grow and take on a life of their own. He apparently made quite a mess of things in the process—something that he and Daxter would purposely or inadvertently do again and again over the years. As he grew older his knack for channeling became ever more powerful and important. It was central to defeating Gol and Maia. Central to his identity.

Never, on the other hand, had he been capable of interacting with dark eco. Now it seemed the tables were turned. Intentionally or not, he could summon dark eco powers as a twisted berserker. As a result, he could no longer channel other types, and it felt like yet another nail in the coffin of who he used to be. Other than his friendship with Daxter, what did he have left?

Jak’s tired eyes rolled to his bandaged right shoulder. He had been forced to resort to less effective methods of treating his wound and so would have to wait for it to heal on its own. With an irritated sigh, he gripped the bandage and slowly peeled it back to find… nothing.

Jak sat bolt upright, blinking at his pristine skin. He probed the site with his fingers to be absolutely sure, and to his utter shock, he felt no pain whatsoever. He kicked off his ratty blankets to inspect his burned thigh and found it too was healed. There were no abrasions, no bruises, nothing. There wasn’t a single mark left on his body from the harrowing night before.

 


 

Jak and Daxter descended the HQ steps and found Torn examining a stack of papers.

“Do you ever leave this place?” Daxter demanded, his tone accusatory, “Ever since we joined up it’s like your feet are glued to the spot!”

Torn didn’t look up as he responded, “Running the day to day operations of a rebellion isn’t exactly a nine to five type of job.”

“Too bad, you strike me as the type that would be a real hoot around the water cooler.”

“What did you do before you joined the Underground anyway?” Jak asked.

That got Torn’s attention. He looked up, one hairless brow raised.

“What, is that on a need-to-know basis?” Jak challenged the older man with his one of his favorite phrases.

The silence dragged on just long enough that Jak began to think he wouldn’t get an answer when Torn broke eye contact and simply said, “I was the commander of the Krimzon Guard.”

“Really?” Jak blurted in surprise.

“Well, that explains the face ink, eh, Tattooed Wonder?” Daxter said with a taunting grin.

“What made you quit?” Jak pressed.

Torn recaptured Jak’s gaze and held it like a vise, his pale eyes blazing with righteous fury. A world of regret could be glimpsed within, ever turning and exerting its gravitational pull on his moral compass. He took a deep breath, reigning himself in and extinguishing any sign of his inner turmoil. At last, he responded, his gruff tenor deceptively calm, “Everything.” And with that, he returned to perusing his papers.

Considering it a dismissal, the younger man took a few steps toward the exit.

“Hold it. I’m not done with you.”

Jak turned to face his superior, crossing his arms impatiently.

“One of our suppliers needs his payment delivered—a bag of eco ore,” the ex-KG commander passed his subordinate a heavy sack, continuing, “Take this and drive it to the Hip Hog Heaven Saloon in South Town. Ask for Krew—he'll be there. And don't let the Baron's patrols stop you.”

“Alright,” Jak muttered as he shouldered the bag, its lumpy contents biting into his back.

Torn held up a hacked security card to get them through the city checkpoint. “When you get there, pump Krew for information. He's wired into the city and may know what the Baron is up to.”

Daxter puffed out his chest. “You can count on us!”

“Are you still here?” Torn growled.

As the duo walked up and out into the alley, Jak couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever learn more about the cryptic strategist’s past. Given the current quality of their working relationship, the chances seemed very slim indeed. He loaded their charge into the waiting zoomer and took off straight away. With Daxter’s directions, they were able to travel from the Slums to the Industrial Zone. The adjoining checkpoint was busy, giving Jak plenty of time to look through. Beyond the quivering blue eco wall, the walkways and ramps above acted like a metal and concrete canopy that limited what light could reach the dark streets below. It was a dense warren of activity, illuminated largely by the headlights of zoomers and buzzing red lamps, and as Jak took it all in an icy rivulet of recollection trickled down his spine. He had been there before. Only once, but he would never forget that day for it was his first in Haven City.

He was thrown enough by the memories that he aroused the suspicions of the guards on duty, and he soon found himself engaged in a chase through the artificial jungle of the Industrial Zone. Unlike the Slums to the north, these technologically enhanced streets held nasty surprises like pop-up turrets. It was made all the more stressful by Jak’s ignorance of the district’s layout, and he narrowly avoided crashing while following Daxter’s frantic navigation.

However, it had been a highly educational week for the young renegade, and his post-jailbreak experiences behind the wheel were beginning to pay off. Though only narrowly, he was able to lose their pursuers and speed into South Town unharmed.

In a relieving change of pace from the claustrophobia of the previous district, South Town was dominated by a large port. Though it was very much for business and not pleasure, the smelly murk of its polluted waters churned up by boxy barges and tankers, its wide open space remained a welcome sight. It was the first area within the city walls where Jak could take a deep breath without a countering twinge of tension. Though he was still hurrying to ensure the KG remained off his tail, he felt a little lighter as he sped out over the water.

The Hip Hog Heaven Saloon was not hard to find. Its facade was dominated by an enormous statue of the titular swine perched atop gaudy neon, and as a port-side establishment, it could easily be seen from a long distance.

After parking and hoisting up his eco ore delivery, Jak hurried under the purple neon sign. He barely crossed the threshold when he stopped to gawk at the interior with what must be obvious inexperience. He had never been inside a bar before, and he wondered if all such establishments in Haven City looked this seedy.

The Hip Hog was dimly lit and lined in dark booths. Despite it being morning, a few shady customers sat in shrouds of cigarette smoke, drinks clutched in their grizzled hands. Most of them wore guns on their hips. The booths surrounded a small boxing ring with a stripper pole mounted in its center, and a Whack-a-Metal-Head game jutted out beside the door. The bar itself lined the back wall and was tended by a gaunt man with a mustache. Countless Metal Head trophies and paintings of an extremely obese man clad in green hung about the room.

Jak wrinkled his nose as he strode deeper into the watering hole.

Daxter said, shining with determination, “Let me handle this, Jak. Watch my finesse and style.”

“Don't forget to ask about—”

“Everything's cool.” Daxter waved him off. “Nobody panic.”

The ottsel waddled straight to the back of bar toward one of the most intimidating men Jak had ever seen. He was enormous not only in height but in bulk, and he wore heavy armor that glinted a dusty silver in the dim lights of the saloon. The pauldrons were fashioned from Metal Head skulls, two vicious spikes each raking up above lifeless yellow eyes. If the armor’s apparent weight and his bulging brown biceps weren’t enough to indicate his strength, he easily carried a rifle so large it stood butt to barrel up to his shoulder.

“Hey, big guy!” Daxter said as he blithely walked through the man’s powerful legs. Then he recoiled in revulsion.

The man in the paintings loomed before him, and the pictures didn’t do him justice. Layers upon layers of stinking fat rolled out from his middle, straining against the confines of a stained peacock suit. His enormous frame was supported by a hover chair, below which his uselessly small legs dangled like fleshy wind chimes. Gold rings bejeweled his sausage fingers, and his right eye was coated in the milky film of blindness. The man wheezed open-mouthed like a sick animal, revealing a smattering of yellow, crooked teeth, and he incessantly fluttered a paper fan adorned with a flame motif. It helped to spread his pungent stench, a smell not unlike soiled dairy.

Daxter rearranged his disgusted expression into one of cool confidence and cleared his throat. “You Krew? Well, we shook the heat, and your shipment's in primo condition.”

Krew responded in a labored voice, “That's good, eh, because a cargo of rare eco ore is worth more than ten of your lives! Hmmm, and of course I'd be forced to collect… slowly.” He chortled sadistically as he floated toward Jak and proceeded to circle the teenager like a vulture. Though he seemed unimpressed, his beady gaze was unsettling. “The Underground will take anyone with a pulse these days.”

Daxter clambered back onto Jak’s shoulder, prompting the ganglord to study him as well.

“And what do we have here? The Shadow's mascot of the month?” Krew reached out and stroked the ottsel’s face, causing him to freeze in fear and loathing. “Ooh, soft! Sig, this fur would go well with my silk suits, eh?”

The armored man looked at his boss in acknowledgment, a scarlet lens where his right eye should have been, but said nothing.

Daxter cleared his throat again, this time more loudly. “Listen, uh, tons of fun, anyone can see that you, uh… and I have the real juice in this burg. We're both players, right? We're both looking for a piece of the action, right?”

Jak covered his face with his palm, losing patience with Daxter’s supposed finesse.

The ottsel fumbled along, “I think we can do business... right?”

“We did you a favor,” Jak interrupted, “now it's your turn. Why is the Baron giving eco to Metal Heads?

Krew flew in close to Jak’s face, pointing a stubby finger at his nose. His breath was hot and rancid as he cried, “Questions like that could get a person killed, eh! And you bringing my payment like a good delivery boy hardly qualifies as a ‘favor.’ ”

Jak ground his teeth together, fuming, his fingers twitching by his holstered gun.

Krew’s lips parted in a hideous smile, clearly amused by the young man’s fury. “You certainly are an angry fellow, eh? I wonder if you know how to put it to good use.”

Jak’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Are you any good with that toy?” He jerked three jiggling chins at Jak’s pistol.

“He just took out an ammo dump in the KG Fortress without breaking a sweat,” Daxter cut in, “of course he’s a good shot!”

“I doubt that very much, but perhaps a little test is in order. Sig,” he said the name as though it were a command.

The armored man obediently walked forward, his big boots thudding with every step and his tremendous rifle gripped in just one hand. Jak tensed. Certain that Sig’s approach promised violence, he raised his fists defensively. To his surprise, he was instead presented with a gun. Though it was much smaller than Sig’s, it was still a good size. A red eco magazine glowed atop the barrel, and Jak studied it with naked fascination.

Krew resumed his circling and slipped into the mode of a slimy salesman. “Ever thought about being a wastelander, hmm?”

“Can't say that I have,” Jak murmured, still engrossed by the gun.

“Wastelanders find items for me outside the city walls, eh. Any artifact or weapon worth having comes through my hands. Work for me and I'll throw some of the sweeter items your way, hmm? Starting with that baby.”

Jak raised his brows at the obese ganglord. Though he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to work for the green blimp, he was admittedly itching to try out the firearm he held. He clarified, “So you want us to find something for you?”

Krew turned to his underling. “Sig, did you ever get yourself an escort?”

“Not since Gilda’s boys popped off Lazer.”

“How about El Capitan here?”

Sig shrugged, his armor clanking in protest.

Tenting his chubby fingers, Krew addressed the Underground fighter, “Sig needs someone to watch his back while he tracks Metal Heads at the pumping station. Let’s consider it a trial run. What do you say, Jak?”

“Kill Metal Heads, get toys…” Jak considered the situation. Torn had said to ply Krew for information, and while gaining employment surely wasn’t what he meant it seemed like the only viable option. What better way to learn illicit things than to work for one of Haven City’s biggest ganglords?

Jak made his decision. “Sounds good to me.”

 


 

Keira examined her trophy shelf, a pensive expression on her face. Cups and racers and more cast in a variety of metals graced the shelves, gleaming in the lights of the garage. Each represented a placing win this season, enough that her team had a chance at clinching the championship.

With some effort, she hefted a new trophy on the end of the line. This one was shaped like an air racer, its material iron grey. The vehicle was mounted at an angle giving the impression that it was zooming over the pedestal.

Keira sighed and wished that River had stuck around long enough to see it placed. Just like the starshine, it was tradition, but she was still miffed by the previous evening’s events and left the stadium as soon as she could take a shot and change. The mechanic felt a pang of regret. She liked River, and it brought her no pleasure to lie about her identity or the rift rider. But there was no helping the situation. Hopefully, the racer would get used to it.

Pulling back her shoulders and standing tall, Keira turned on her heel and walked through the bay doors. Some fresh air would do her good. She passed under the arches to the outside, taking stock of the weather as she went. The evening breeze was balmy if a little humid, the thick cloud cover overhead helping to trap in moisture. Not exactly a gorgeous night, but pleasant enough for a stroll. She trotted down the stadium steps and crossed the plaza, making her way toward the canal. She kept a brisk pace even though she had no time limit or destination. Despite her best intentions, the further she went the more agitated she became.

Since her mission as a spy within the stadium had lasted these past five months, the majority of her time living in Main Town had been spent working with River. Even so, she never had to look very hard to trigger older memories. Before she even realized it her feet had carried as far as Zoomer Zone, the shop where she first met Vivian. She slowed to a stop, allowing herself to scan every inch of the sporty storefront. As she did she remembered how intimidating their chance encounter was. How different would her situation be if it had never happened?

A heavy sigh passed Keira’s lips, and she resumed walking. Nearly everything in this part of the city still fell in the shadow of her brief stay with Vivian and Ryker, never allowing her the luxury of forgetting them, but at least it wasn’t as painful as it used to be. Even though she still missed them, so much that she sometimes wished she never knew them at all, it felt like a lifetime ago. Before the rift felt like an eternity.

She idly examined her surroundings until her eyes fell on a familiar sign—The Finest Baked Goods in Haven City! Though she recognized the words, the storefront itself was dramatically different. In place of one small window, there were three large ones, revealing a significantly larger bakery within. A colorful awning shaded the door, and several bistro tables and chairs sat outside for dining al fresco. Keira’s initial ignorance as to the rarity and value of Precursor orbs had evidently allowed the shopkeeper to make a swanky expansion.

The sight of the bakery brought on even more memories of her first day in Haven City. Her gut twisted as she remembered unbidden her sexual assault and lethal self-defense. She could almost taste the Krimzon Guard’s blood in her mouth, feel the cold, wet storm drain yawning around her as terror gripped her weeping body. She had sobbed Jak’s name over and over again as though there was any chance she would be saved by her hero.

Keira convulsed, physically sickened by the traumatic memories, and forced herself back into the present. She trudged away from the bakery, pressing her attention on the conversations of those around her, but she barely caught a coherent sentence. Her mind was as sharp as mush, unable to focus or self-soothe. This was turning into a miserable day.

Keira’s ears pricked up, and she stopped walking. A single thread rose above the din of the street. She looked for the source and realized with a grimace it was one of the Baron’s loudspeakers, booming out his propaganda for all to hear.

“…looking for a rebel fugitive who has caused the city considerable damage of late. This man is armed and extremely dangerous and can somehow change into a monstrous creature! We have reports he is working with the Metal Heads to subvert your city and your safety. Report all sightings immediately!”

Usually, wanted criminals were members of the Underground. As the former commander of the Krimzon Guard and current head of Underground operations, Torn was in heavy rotation. More often than not, however, Keira had no way of knowing for sure if the loudspeaker blared about her comrades or common crooks. All information in service of the fight for the city was tightly controlled to protect against information leaks, only shared when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, a compromised agent could endanger the entire operation.

Her interest piqued by a man who could merit this much attention from the Baron, she bent to examine the loudspeaker’s base. It was plastered with a horde of overlapping wanted posters, crinkled by shoddy application and smudged by water damage. Within moments she picked out the criminal in question, and though the grainy image was difficult to make out her lips parted. She saw an image of not a man, but a nightmare.

A creature with ghostly skin and lethal claws stood snarling in a fortress hallway, surrounded by the defaced bodies of three Krimzon Guards. It hunched like an animal, brandishing its claws with a sick look of pleasure. Blood spattered the floor and creature alike, but the gore wasn’t the most disconcerting thing about the image. Keira found herself dreadfully mesmerized by its eyes. They were as alien and soulless as black marbles.

Beneath the image she read not a name but a number—51007 —and beneath that a list of offenses: escaping from prison, resisting arrest, vandalism, theft, seditious conduct, assault, murder .

She raised her blue eyebrows and looked at the picture again. That’s one hell of a fugitive… she thought, and shivers ran down her spine. Something about the monster intensely disturbed her, so much so that she had yet to notice a different version of the same poster. It was mostly covered, its mugshots obscured. All that was visible was the top of his head. Though the image was in grayscale, the hair was light with darker roots. Frowning, she reached to peel back the overlapping poster.

“Recognize him?”

Keira stood ramrod straight, startled by a voice behind her. Turning, she saw none other than Erol, Commander of the Krimzon Guard, staring down at her from his custom HellCat zoomer. His mouth was set in a humorless line, his chin imperiously raised. He looked angry, hardly surprising given he had just lost this week’s race.

“I don’t,” Keira said in a measured tone that belied how she felt. She had never talked with Erol before.

“Pity,” he growled, “We’ve been trying to recapture him for a week now.”

“I’ll be sure to report anything suspicious,” she lied.

Erol looked Keira up and down, his scrutiny invasive enough that she had to stifle a shiver. “You’re Violet.”

“Yes.”

“That racer of yours has been giving me more trouble than I’m used to.”

“River’s amazing at what she does,” Keira said with an assertive nod.

He cocked his head, his blaze of red hair swaying with the movement. “You must be as well. Her air racer is almost as finely tuned as mine.”

“More so,” Keira boldly stated as she flushed with a wave of adrenaline. What she said was true, but she was being reckless. Erol was not known for his patience.

His yellow eyes narrowed to dangerous slits, glittering like twin topaz daggers. He dismounted his zoomer and slowly closed the distance between them, every inch a predator. Keira stood her ground even as he leaned into her personal space.

“Spirited, are we?” She could feel his breath tickling her ear. “Maybe I should make you my mechanic.”

“Not this season,” she spat back.

Erol straightened up and glared down his nose at her. “Be careful, Violet. There are five races to go before I’m crowned Champion again, and this is a dangerous sport. You never know when accidents might happen.” He flashed an awful grin, the streetlight sparkling on his too white teeth.

His threat stole any capacity for retort Keira had. She might start trembling if she wasn’t trying so hard to avoid giving him the satisfaction of intimidating her. Her fists clenched tightly, her nails biting deep into her palms.

Erol chuckled as though he could see right through her. He smoothly swung back up on his HellCat zoomer and drove off in a burst of flames.

Chapter Text

Jak descended the Underground stairs, more than a little annoyed with Torn for calling him back to HQ so urgently. His last couple jobs—destroying Metal Head eggs at the strip mine and collecting money for Krew—had left him feeling frustrated and useless. He really was no more important than a nameless grunt, and he rarely had any opportunities to directly hurt the Baron and his forces. He grew more antsy by the day, and surely whatever Torn wanted wasn’t going to be helpful.

While his suspicion seemed confirmed by the brief of rescuing one of the ex-KG commander’s old guard comrades out at the pumping station, its delivery piqued Jak’s curiosity. Ever since they met, Torn had been entirely consistent. He was always irascible, utterly transparent in his dislike of Daxter in particular, but for all his prickliness there was a calm and consistent iron will. He was unflappable when it came to the demands of his difficult position, confident in the power of his meticulous planning, qualities which Jak couldn’t help but respect. But today was different. Not only was his temper extra short. There was desperation in his pale eyes, a note of panic in his gruff voice. He even went so far as to outfit his subordinate with a yellow eco powered blaster mod, an upgrade that would provide significantly more range and precision than the scatter gun.

Jak wanted to see what kind of person could rattle Torn’s cage so fiercely. All he knew is that she was an invaluable ally to the Underground and that there had been no word from her patrol. Given the pumping station’s increased Metal Head activity, a trend Jak had observed firsthand with Sig, this was ample cause for concern. Even so, he marveled at how upset his superior was.

In short order, they were off. Though the streets were congested with midday pedestrians and traffic they made good time, swiftly navigating their way to the crooked boardwalks of the Water Slums and out into the half-wild environs of the pumping station. Despite Torn’s concerns, there were no Metal Heads to be seen today. The only hostile creatures they encountered were amphibious glubs, common and easily avoidable denizens of the salt marshes surrounding much of the city.

Able to wend their way through the metal scaffolding and sandy cliffs of the area unopposed, Jak and Daxter engaged in snippets of relaxed conversation. They talked about little of substance, but neither minded. The mood was light and companionable, much like it used to be when they traversed the wilderness around Sandover Village—though of course one of them was mute at the time. The sense of nostalgia allowed Jak to forget for a few minutes the current circumstances of his life. He felt free to laugh at his friend’s jokes and enjoy the rugged seaside stretching before them. He breathed deeply as he climbed to the top of a steep rock face, savoring the scent of the salty wind and the feel of the rough granite beneath his fingers.

“Woah! Check that out!” Daxter exclaimed.

The outburst was surprising enough that Jak nearly lost his footing and tumbled backward. He shot the ottsel a chiding scowl, but Daxter was unfazed and insistently pointed at a jumble of ferns.

Jak took a step closer and realized the plants concealed the wreckage of an old zoomer. He parted the fronds for a better look, frowning. The vehicle was entirely coated in rust, its frame bent at odd angles from crashing here long ago. It’s one remaining tail flap was shaped like the fin of a spiny fish, and the mangled remains of propeller blades jutted out of its nose and belly.

“No way that’s from the patrol we were sent to find, right?”

Jak shook his head. “Look at the corrosion. It’s been there for a long time…” He shivered as an old memory came into sharp focus. “It looks a lot like the A-Grav, doesn’t it?”

“Hey, you’re right! It’s not…” Daxter trailed off.

“I don’t think so,” Jak answered the unfinished question, “Keira’s had a stripe along the body there.”

“An A-Grav around here. I thought it was one of a kind. Do you s’pose it means anything?”

“I don’t know…” Jak murmured, unable to make sense of the implications.

“Wild,” Daxter said with a wistful tone, “I bet Keira would love to see this rust bucket. Hell, she’d love seeing all the zoomers in this place.”

Jak had never considered it, but Daxter was absolutely right. Regardless of how rough Haven City was, there was no doubt Keira would be enthralled by its technology. Retrieving his communicator from his belt, Jak studied the device. Though it’s design was sleeker and more compact, it wasn’t totally dissimilar to the one Keira invented. How excited would she be to take it apart and learn all about its inner workings? How brightly would her eyes shine?

Jak abruptly put the communicator away and clenched and unclenched his fist once, twice. His insides empty and aching, he turned away from the old wreck.

Thinking of Keira was strange. For as long as he could remember her presence was a welcome constant, a friend in his tiny village. More than a friend. He had always carried a torch for her. He would daydream about her and feel flutterflies in his belly. As they grew older he came to dream about her in the night as well. He believed he was in love with her. Then he was imprisoned, and everything changed. He thought of her every day, more desperately than he ever had, but the dark eco injections polluted his every memory and scarred his heart.

It had been two weeks since he escaped the Krimzon Guard Fortress. Even though much of his time was spent obsessing over the Baron, even though he was driven by rage more than ever, even though he felt irreparably broken, he thought of her every day still. He felt the hollow place in his chest where the ardent flames of his affection once burned, now a fragile ember nearly submerged in ash. There was a part of him that longed for the warmth of his phantom emotions, but he didn’t know how to unlock them. Perhaps seeing her again was the key to rekindling all he once felt and more. Daxter was the only soul he felt remotely like himself with. If he reunited with Keira would he recover another piece of who he used to be?

As he had done countless times, he tried to summon a picture of her in his mind’s eye. The details were stubbornly hazy, as though she stood behind thick, warped glass. He was unable to make out something as simple as the color of her eyes. They were green, he knew, but he couldn’t remember the precise shade. Stifling a growl of frustration, he banished her from his thoughts as he always did. Scrambling up a final rocky ledge, he wondered if this vicious cycle would ever end.

At the top, the path opened up into a dirt clearing ringed by abundant ferns and trees. The only activity came from insects buzzing through the fragrant air. Otherwise, the area was eerily quiet. There wasn’t even a breeze to rustle the plant life.

Jak cautiously advanced, morph gun at the ready. Within ten paces he caught sight of a KG HellCat cruiser hovering nearby. He crept toward the large vehicle, scanning for guards as he went.

Daxter was too distracted to pay any heed to their surroundings. All his attention was focused on the cloud of bugs that had formed around his head. He leapt off his shoulder perch and scurried in a circle, his long feet kicking up dirt as he went. The cloud followed. With an angry huff, the ottsel clapped his paws together in rapid succession, laying waste to his tiny pursuers.

“Would you stop that?” Jak admonished in a low voice, “You’re giving away our position!”

“What am I supposed to do, let ‘em eat me alive?” Daxter waved his little paws around his head in a vain effort to dissuade the bugs from approaching, complaining, “Ehhh, what the heck are we doing risking our lives to rescue some old Krimzon Guard hag anyway? She’s probably got more facial hair than me!”

Jak gasped in surprise when an arm slipped around his neck and tightened into a vise-like chokehold. Soft flesh pressed into his shoulder blades, a hard gun into his temple. A smoky voice growled, “Who the hell are you two?”

It was a woman’s body Jak felt. He was appalled when heat surged into his cheeks.

Daxter confirmed her attractiveness by beginning his customary string of pick-up lines, “Mmm, I do love a woman in uniform! Wanna bark some orders at me?” The diminutive animal paused to pantomime a crocadog and woof. “I’m your soldier on the front lines of loooove! Waiter, foxhole for two!”

An eco bullet blasted into the ground between Daxter’s feet, sending an eruption of dirt into his terrified face. He fell over, his orange fur standing on end.

Gun still pointed at the ottsel, the woman threatened, “Keep talking and I’ll raise your voice by a couple of octaves.”

Daxter stared back with wide eyes, his mouth firmly shut.

“Easy!” Jak exclaimed, his voice thin from the chokehold, “Torn asked us to help you!”

“Torn did?” she demanded, “Why?”

“Metal Heads,” he sputtered.

With an irritated sigh, she released Jak, allowing him to stagger forward and cough. Eyes watering, he looked back at one of the most gorgeous women he had ever seen. She was unmistakably a member of the Krimzon Guard. She wore the slim fighting leathers of an officer, predominantly navy with red accents, and her face was adorned with the customary blue tattoos of a soldier. Even her hair, dreadlocked and just past shoulder length, was a brilliant scarlet. These were not the details that Jak dwelled on. Instead, he noticed her pleasantly swelling hips, her slim waist, and her full breasts. Her shape was the very definition of an hourglass figure, and she had a fiercely beautiful face to match.

Mentally slapping himself out of it, Jak massaged his neck, remembering the strength of her grip. He was simultaneously flustered and intimidated.

The woman glowered at him, sizing him up. Then her emerald eyes flickered with recognition. “You… you recently escaped from the fortress.”

“How do you know that?” Jak blurted in response.

“I’m an officer in the Krimzon Guard. It’s my business to know. Prisoner 51007, I recall.”

“Jak,” he corrected, bristling.

Her expression was unmoved, her red lips ever so slightly pursed. She didn't seem impressed in the slightest. “Well, Jak , I don't need help,” something behind him caught her attention, and she continued, “but you might. We’ve got company.”

Without waiting for a response she rushed toward the cliff at the clearing entrance, taking aim with her pistol. A swarm of Metal Heads was dropping onto the dirt with a thud.

Daxter climbed back onto Jak’s shoulder, intently watching her engage with the enemies. “What a woman!”

Jak simply nodded as the KG officer felled two Metal Heads with grim accuracy. He shouldered his new blaster and charged into battle, joining her. The world devolved into a slow-motion blur of alloy, blood, and eco fire. There were eight foes still standing, five juice goons and three spyder gunners. Jak felt like an outside observer in his own body as he steadily dispatched foe after foe. He watched the butt of his gun plunge up into a goon’s chin and heard the crushing of metal and bone with total clarity.

As the creature crumpled to the ground a flash of red caught Jak’s eye, and he looked over to where the woman was currently occupied with two enemies. She made quick work of them, shooting one right between the eyes as she kicked the other’s skull in. Her booted foot was splashed a sickly turquoise, the steaming liquid reflecting a quiver of yellow as the unfortunate creature’s skull gem popped out. Her skills were clearly formidable, and something about her pulled Jak in like a magnet.

Their attackers were shortly reduced to a pile of carcasses. No sooner had the last body hit the ground than the woman holstered her weapon and turned toward her vehicle.

In an effort to make her stay, Daxter resumed his inept lady killer routine. “Watching me take care of those Metal Heads was, ah…pretty exciting, wasn’t it, sugar?”

She nimbly jumped into the HellCat cruiser, ignoring him, and fired up the ignition. A gust of hot air billowed from the engines, blowing the ottsel’s slight frame backward. He walked in place against the roaring wind, yelling, “Hey, sweet stripes, gimme them digits so I can look you up sometime! We’ll party hard, big city style!”

“That’s it?” Jak asked, “You’re just going to leave without saying anything?”

“That's the idea,” she yelled back.

“Alright then.” The disappointment Jak felt was far more profound than he would have anticipated.

The woman stopped scrutinizing the dash long enough to glance up at him. She gripped the wheel as though she were about to fly off, but then she shouted, “Tell Torn Baron Praxis is planning something big. I think it has to do with that symbol.”

She pointed at a stone shaft that rose from the ground at an awkward slant. An emblem of two interlocked drops, their circular heads distinct shapes from their curved tails, was carved on top.

“What is it?” Jak called over the din of the cruiser.

“It’s the seal of the House of Mar, the founder of Haven City. We’re being sent out on suicide missions to locate artifacts from the time of his rule. If curiosity’s worth dying for, you can ask the blind old soothsayer in the Bazaar named Onin. She might know something about all this.”

“The Bazaar hasn’t exactly been easy to get into these days,” Daxter griped.

She reached for her belt. “Here’s my Bazaar access security pass.” She tossed Jak not the usual card but a far more advanced electronic device, complete with a picture ID. He quickly scanned the information, his spirits lifting.

“Your name’s Ashelin, huh?” His voice was triumphant, as though learning her name was in some way a victory.

“We’re even now.” She pulled back on the controls and veered up over the trees, turning back towards the city.

Jak stared after the receding HellCat, unresolved tension lingering inside him like a cord pulled taut. For the first time in what seemed like forever, he felt the burn of desire, and he hoped he would see Ashelin again.

 


 

Keira strolled into the Hip Hog Heaven Saloon and made a beeline for the bar in the back. As she went she caught sight of Tess behind the counter and waved. She slid into a stool, and her friend sidled over.

“Welcome, Violet ,” the blonde said in a chipper voice, too excited by half to engage with Keira’s false identity, “How’s my favorite mechanic doing?”

“Just fine, Tess ,” Keira mimicked her emphasis, hoping she would take the hint and act casual.

The bartender’s only response was a cheeky wink.

After rolling her eyes, Keira spared a cursory glance around the establishment. Though it was late morning, many of the tables were occupied, and the air hummed with the buzz of conversation and music. “Is this place ever empty?”

“Never completely. Every hour has its regulars. Can I get you anything?”

“Just water.”

Both women fell silent as a scuffle broke out. Two patrons engaged in a drunken fist fight, but it didn’t last long. Soon they were ejected by the bouncer, and everyone’s attention returned to their beverages.

Keira wrinkled her nose as she swiveled on the stool. “I don’t know how you stand it. Why couldn't Torn find a different sleazy bar for you to spy on?”

Tess placed the requested glass of water down, replying, “Might be because most sleazy bars aren’t run by one of the city’s top ganglords.”

Keira grimaced at the mention of Krew. “About that, where is he anyway?” Though it was the last thing she wanted, she had come to the Hip Hog to visit the infamous man. His connections might prove useful in finding the Precursor artifacts she needed to finish the rift rider.

“In his office,” the bartender answered, jerking her thumb at the double wide door set in the back wall, “but he should be along shortly.”

“He’s not killing someone, is he?”

“We’ll have to see. He and Sig went in there with some two-bit underling five minutes ago. If just the pair of them come back out then the third never will.”

“Bastard…” Keira muttered.

Rather than dwell on the ugliness of the situation, Tess changed the subject, “How many races to go? Four?”

“Five including tonight,” Keira responded, her countenance weary, “I’m looking forward to the end of the season. This whole thing is getting too stressful.”

“Is River still giving you the cold shoulder?”

“No, she’s calmed down. At this point, I’m much more worried about something bad happening on the track. I can’t shake what Erol said last week...”

Their conversation was interrupted when a handsome man sidled up. Keira took a sip of her water and stole a furtive glance at him. He casually leaned his well-muscled frame against the bar. A rugged dusting of stubble graced his strong jaw, and he beamed like a lizacat that had just lapped up a bowl of rich cream. Most noticeable of all, a shock of vivid purple hair fell around his eyes.

Keira unintentionally gulped, causing herself to choke and splutter. The man paid her no mind, his gaze glued on the bartender. “I’d like another whiskey soda when you have a moment,” he requested, his deep voice a smooth rumble.

Tess leaned over in turn and ran a teasing finger along his dark cheek as she purred, “Right away.”

She set about preparing his order, and the man turned his eyes to Keira. They were a warm hazel, and she found herself mesmerized.

“Having a nice day?” he asked, cool as a cucumber.

“Uh… yeah. Good thing the weather’s… you know… nice.” Keira mentally kicked herself for sounding so lame and stared at her water. She flushed, doubly ashamed for daring to hydrate in a bar where the patrons drank liquor no matter the hour. Surely she must seem so childish.

“Alright then,” the man said with a chuckle, clearly amused.

Keira couldn't have been more grateful when Tess returned to deliver his order. “One whiskey soda.” She smoothly placed the highball on the counter, ice clinking, her hand on one hip.

“Thanks.” He took a sip, never breaking eye contact until he returned to his booth.

Tess watched him go with a dreamy sigh. “Doesn't he just ooze sex?”

Keira’s flush deepened as she nodded in agreement. “Why do I get the feeling you know him outside of work?”

“Probably because he spent the night at my place. We almost broke the bed.” The blonde’s honey brown eyes glazed over as she remembered the tryst, red lips parted in a satisfied grin.

Keira gaped at her shamelessness. “You’re incredible. How you can both follow orders and enjoy… that ,” she waved a hand over her shoulder as she unsuccessfully willed her blush to fade away, “is beyond me.”

“What, just because I’m in the Underground doesn't mean I’m a nun.” Tess shrugged, totally unruffled. “And you’re one to talk. You obviously like him too.”

Keira straightened up indignantly. “I do not!”

“You agree he oozes sex though.”

“So?”

Tess held up an open palm as if to say her point was proven.

“So that's not the same thing! I can acknowledge how hot a guy is without wanting to jump his bones!”

Tess stared her down, clearly unconvinced there was any real difference.

Miffed, Keira snorted and tossed her waist-length viridian tresses.

“Look, I’m not suggesting you're going to act on it, and it's not like you’re going to offend me or anything. My relationship with the guy is strictly casual,” Tess explained, smoothing her hands along the bar counter in illustration, “but if you stammering like an idiot is any indication then the thought obviously crossed your mind.”

“Why are we friends again?” the mechanic asked in an acid voice.

“Ooh, it’s because I’m just so darn loveable!” Tess squealed, thoroughly enjoying needling the younger woman.

Keira sat in silence, reflecting on the exchange. Though her friend was clearly not bothered, she felt guilty for what she had said. “You’re right. I shouldn't be touchy about someone in this damn city enjoying themselves.”

“Not to worry. How long has it been anyway?”

“ ‘How long has it been?’ ”

“Since you enjoyed yourself.”

Keira cast her eyes downward and was briefly transported. For just a moment she was back in the dark garage, her body intertwined with Ryker’s on the old lounge couch. She remembered how good it felt, however fleetingly, and the very cells of her neglected flesh seemed to vibrate in confirmation. Then the noise of the Hip Hog jostled her back to the present. She at last responded without looking up from her nearly empty glass, “...You know how long,”

Tess sighed, this time with concern. “That was well over a year ago. Wouldn't it be good to move on and, you know… try with someone else?”

“Sure… maybe… if I could find someone.”

Little did Tess know that the younger woman’s thoughts had turned to a specific someone. She remembered the starlit night on the cliffs overlooking Sandover Village, the only time there was anything approaching physical consummation of the connection she shared with Jak. All she had to look back on was one kiss. One sweet, innocent kiss. But even now, after all this time, she imagined what it would be like to make love with him. She couldn't stop a small part of herself from clinging to the idea. Sometimes she would lie in bed at night, burning with desire, and think of Jak. Other times she would think of Ryker. Always she was left feeling empty because they were both gone.

Keira’s mouth twisted in a rueful smile, and she drained the last of her water.

Tess softly asked, “Can I get you something stronger?”

“No, thanks. I need to keep my wits about me.”

As if on cue the door to the back office slid open, and out came a heavily armored man and the most obese person Keira had ever seen. When no one else followed, Tess subtly motioned across her neck with a raking thumb.

Swallowing nervously, Keira feigned confidence as the green-garbed Krew floated over. He cast a large shadow on the bar, and his fan fluttered incessantly as a grotesque smile spread across his lumpy face. “Violet, I presume?” he wheezed.

“The one and only,” Keira said with a nod.

“You know, I make it my business to be well acquainted with NYFE Racing. Congratulations on your driver. She’s got a chance at winning it all, eh?”

“More than a chance,” she retorted, “River’s the best racer the league’s seen in years.”

“Ooh, feisty,” Krew tittered, the fingers of his free hand wiggling in excitement, “Be careful where you spit that fire. The last time someone posed a serious challenge to Erol he failed to complete the season and the garage was raided by the Krimzon Guard.”

Keira struggled to maintain an even expression, and her fingers tightened on the edge of the counter.

“Of course, if some unfortunate accident should happen I’m sure I could supply you with a good driver,” he said, narrowing his beady gaze, “So long as you still have your garage that is.”

“Thanks, but that won’t be necessary,” she dismissed the offer, dreading to think what kind of driver he would deem acceptable, “and I’m not here to talk about racing. Word is you deal in rare artifacts.”

“That I do, for the right price. And what did you have in mind, pet?”

Keira’s hand twitched, desiring nothing more than to strangle the mound of lard. Instead, she calmly reached into her belt pouch and handed him a piece of paper. He unfolded it with stubby, bejeweled fingers, revealing two sketches.

“The big ruby is the Heart of Mar, but I’m not sure about the other one,” she explained, “Both are definitely Precursor in origin.”

Krew studied the drawings, and he began to float in a lazy circle around the bar top. “Hmm… I’ve heard of the Heart of Mar before. It’s legendary amongst jewel collectors, a regular holy grail, ey? The other’s a mystery. I can, of course, keep my lovely eyes peeled,” he paused to chortle, an awful, throaty sound that caused every layer of stinking fat to jiggle, “but what, pray tell, does the manager and mechanic of a NYFE team want with such rarities?”

Keira held up a Precursor orb in answer, and the ganglord’s face lit up as he greedily snatched it.

“Yes indeed,” he confirmed with a wheeze, “I’ll be watching out for these artifacts. I’ll be watching your driver as well.”

“Great,” she abruptly stood, “then I’ll expect to hear from you.”

“Lovely doing business with you, Violet.” Krew leered, baring a paltry handful of yellowed teeth,

Suppressing a shiver, Keira nodded.

 


 

Huge crowds flocked to the stadium as the skies began to darken, the great lights high above shining like a beacon. With every week their excitement built upon itself for every week the Championship drew closer. For the first time in two years, it was a question who would win everything, an incendiary prospect since Erol was hardly a hero of the people. The narratives around the favored racers intensified as audience engagement deepened, and tonight’s spectacle only fueled that cycle. They roared ever louder with each qualifying heat, and by the time the race was upon them the air crackled as though it were electrified.

It made Keira nervous, though she did her best to quell her anxieties as she and River stood flanking their air racer on the docking bridge. At least she had more than enough to distract herself between the last minute adjustments she made and discussing the coming race.

“How’s the competition tonight?” River asked, compulsively straightening first her jacket and then her protective gear.

“Well, I don’t know how Mag managed to qualify. He was driving like he was asleep at the controls, but it looks like Dorian’s on fire tonight. And Erol, of course, is Erol.” The two women simultaneously glanced over their shoulders at the Champion, engaged in his own final check-in with his mechanic. Feeling their eyes, he looked up, his scowl flaring pugnacious yellow. Then he flashed them an awful, white as snow grin.

Keira returned to her work, her flesh horripilating. Erol’s threat replayed with such clarity that he might as well have been whispering it in her ear.

River, on the other hand, remained engaged in the staredown. She refused to look away first. “Mark my words, I can take them all.”

“Hopefully without any barrel rolls?”

Erol’s attention shifted to his mechanic, and River smirked triumphantly. “No promises.”

“By the way,” Keira straightened, wiping her greasy hands on a rag draping from her back pocket, “I forgot to mention that I got us a little something special.”

“Oh yeah?” The racer’s face perked up with fresh excitement. She loved surprises.

“I’ve got a bottle of Nova Brothers waiting back in the garage.”

“Nova… that’s the fancy stuff only rich people and criminals can get their mitts on! What’s the occasion?”

“Tonight’s your twentieth race,” Keira announced.

River’s blue brows knit together, puzzled. “My twentieth? Why celebrate that? This sort of thing usually works in increments of twenty-five you know.”

“Because there’re only twenty-four races in a season, and who knows if we’ll both be back next year. Besides, odds being what they are twenty’s nothing to sneeze at!”

“Fair point,” River conceded. Her azure locks bobbed back and forth as she shook her head in awe.  “How did you get it?”

“I have my ways.” In truth, Keira never would have been able to without Tess’ help. The exclusive spirit was always distilled in small batches, and most bottles would be snatched up by the city’s elite. The clever blonde was able to make use of Krew’s connections to nab one herself.

A computerized female voice crackled over the stadium’s loudspeakers. “Attention all drivers: the race is about to begin.”

Keira dusted off River’s white-striped purple shoulder guard, just as she once saw Vivian do to Ryker’s. “Go get this over with so we can crack it open! You don’t even have to place first under the circumstances.”

“Caveat not necessary,” the racer declared, puffing up her chest, “I intend to win big tonight!” She lowered her mask and gave a confident thumbs up.

Keira returned the gesture and left for the sky box. Now there was little she could do but wait, and she felt her nerves swell unabated. She listened as the proud and ponderous anthem of Haven City played and watched as the racers took a leisurely lap around the course, waving to the hungry crowd as they went. Even within the enclosure of the sky box, the air smelled of fried food, sweat, and combustion. She wondered how River perceived this ocean of stimulation. Down on the track, she would have no buffer, no separation from the sensory assault of the stadium. It could be thrilling, terrifying, or both.

As the racers took their positions, the crowd settled into a kind of barely contained quiet. They waited with bated breath for the starting indicator to float into position and count down the start of the race. The hovering machine assumed its station at the front of the line, its four lights dormant. Then, just like clockwork, each circular bulb lit up as an accompanying beep blared over the speakers.

The final buzzer sounded, and the eight racers were off in a burst of eco flame, tearing toward the first corner with blinding speed. They wove amongst each other, mere inches from colliding, gradually sorting themselves. Before long they divided into two groups. River battled for first in the front along with Erol, Mag, and Dorian. All eyes were on her and the latter as only they had a real shot at dethroning the five-time Grand Champion. By the end of the first lap, Mag was lagging behind and Erol was in the lead.

For the time being, however, his advantage was trivial. Over the course of the second lap, the three front-runners passed each other numerous times, boosting and power sliding for any edge they could get. At one point River was sandwiched between Dorian and Erol, and the two converged, forcing her to back off. She nearly lost control of her vehicle in the process, and it cost her enough time that Mag was able to catch up and pass her.

The third lap belonged to the titanic struggle between second and first. Dorian and Erol clashed again and again, recklessly risking life and limb as they did so. They were so focused on each other that they failed to realize they were losing ground. Mag was creeping up from behind.

As they entered their fourth lap, Dorian veered into Erol in a desperate attempt to knock him out of the race, but the KG Commander saw it coming. In a brilliant bait and switch, he waited until the last possible second to evade, giving Dorian no time to recover. The unfortunate soul flew straight past his target into the wall, ricocheting and floundering just as Mag attempted to pass by. They smashed into one another with enough force that their fragile air racers crumpled and burst into a smoking mess of shrapnel, rending the life from their bodies.

The roar of the crowd was deafening as blood spilled on the track, and the carnage spread further with each racer that passed. It was a nauseating sight, but Keira didn’t dare look away. She dimly realized the sky box was unusually quiet in contrast to the stands below. Barely a soul breathed. Like her, everyone stood at the windows, utterly engrossed by the drama of the race. Though six drivers remained, the top two were all that mattered. Only River could hope to overtake Erol, and she had her work cut out for her.

In her most impressive driving of the season, she pulled away from the pack and caught up with the leader before he could cross the checkered line. It was a glorious show of skill, a thing of beauty. She truly was the best racer the league had seen since Ryker, and Erol struggled mightily to maintain his lead. As they entered the fifth and final lap it didn’t appear he would last.

Boosting, River pulled even with the KG commander. When she started to inch past, he veered his vehicle into hers, and the stands erupted with gladiatorial bloodlust. They ground into each other, sparks flying. The next turn would see them circling the large pit in the middle of the course, and Erol was forcing River toward the outside. If she didn’t disengage she would careen off the track.

Keira watched intently, her panic rising as they entered the turn. Why wasn’t River pulling back? On the jumbotron above she could see the driver yanking on the controls without breaking free, and in a wave of horror, she realized River was stuck.

The next few seconds passed in a terrifying blur, Keira powerless to do anything but bear witness. River remained entangled with Erol until it was too late. When at last she wrenched free she launched into thin air and collided with the far wall of the pit, disappearing in a blazing explosion.

Chapter Text

Keira blinked awake, bleary-eyed and disoriented. Still groggy with the haze of her dreams, she slowly came into full awareness of where and when she was. She lay in her bed, the covers twisted from tossing and turning. The sound of dripping water drifted out of her bathroom. On the wall hung the old Axle’s Garage sign, it’s turquoise and yellow paint chipped. A shiny line down its center was a permanent reminder of how she found it after the KG raid, broken in half. Her eyes roved over its imperfections as they did most mornings, further grounding her into the present. Though the window shade was drawn on the other side of the apartment, she could tell by the light spilling through that it was a gray, ugly morning. Only with great reluctance did she eventually arise, spurred on by her groaning stomach. She had eaten little the last two days, but no amount of food would fill her up. She felt hollow not just with hunger but the gnawing emptiness of grief.

River was dead.

That harsh reality had left Keira free falling, unable to function or work. She cocooned herself within the safety of her garage, not seeing or talking with anyone, even Tess. Though she attempted to keep busy with her projects, little progress was made. Most of her time was spent doing nothing at all.

Of course, she knew this might happen. NYFE Racing was so dangerous that a fatal crash was always a real possibility, and the last time she shared this garage with a team gunning for the Championship it ended badly. Even so, nothing could have prepared her for the loss of her driver and friend.

Keira’s motions were mechanical as she set about preparing herself some breakfast in her tiny kitchen. Without sufficient drive or energy, she took the path of least resistance and toasted a slice of bread. As she spread peanut butter over its flaky surface, she slipped into replaying the awful chain of events leading up to the explosion. She had done so ad nauseum ever since it happened, searching for something, anything she could have done differently. Surely if she had done her job better, tuned the air racer just right, River would still be alive.

She took a seat at the one little table and chair in her apartment and took a bite of her peanut butter toast, barely tasting it. What would she do now? Driverless, her Championship prospects were slim at best. Finding a viable replacement this late in the season would be nigh on impossible. Most likely all she would be able to do was continue to gather intel for the Underground as best she could, keeping her eyes and ears peeled at the remaining four races.

That left Keira with one other goal: rebuilding the rift rider, a plan as fraught as it was uncertain. Completing construction was far from guaranteed, and the temporal consequences were unimaginable. What would she find if she traveled back through time? Would she be able to rebuild the family she had lost?

Her interest in her meager meal waning, Keira dropped her toast back on the plate, sending crumbs scattering across the laminate surface of the table. As she watched them spread her attention followed through across the kitchen, and she caught sight of a bottle perched on top of her compact refrigerator. It was filled with clear liquor, and its label read Nova Brothers in ornate, gold letters. The starshine had sat there, unopened, ever since the race, gathering dust and Keira’s resentment. It seemed now to taunt her, and her shoulders slumped as she was overcome by a wave hopelessness. No matter what she did or how hard she tried, she came no closer to finding those she lost or saving those she found. What was the point of it all if she always wound up alone?

She stood, pushing back her chair with such zeal it almost toppled over, and proceeded to pace from one end of the apartment to the other. It was the only way to bear how small and powerless she felt.

On her third lap, Keira’s green gaze alighted again on the old Axle’s Garage sign, and her restless feet stilled. She couldn’t help but think of Vivian’s grit and Ryker’s passion and wonder what they would do in her situation. Images of them standing before her swam into her vision, their visages stalwart and encouraging. It was so startlingly vivid that her eyes, though dry, burned as if brimming with tears.

She knew then that it was time to stop torturing herself. River was dead, and no amount of what if scenarios would bring her back. Nor would she want Keira to mope around forever. She could almost hear the scrappy racer’s voice telling her to buck up and move forward. Were their positions reversed River wouldn’t give up. Vivian and Ryker wouldn’t give up.

Neither would she.

 


 

The mechanic finished her breakfast and hopped into her cramped bathroom for a quick shower. Though her heart was still heavy, for the first time in two days she felt the drive to accomplish something. But what exactly would she do? She had more than enough materials on hand to start construction on the rift rider, but none of it would matter if she couldn’t locate the two Precursor artifacts she needed. Putting all her faith in the underhanded Krew seemed far from a winning strategy, so perhaps she should cast a wider net. Where to start...

Keira finished her final rinse and turned off the water, careful to fully disengage it so the leaky shower head wouldn’t drip. As she toweled off she puzzled over her dilemma. She had explored what legal avenues she could, so surely there must be some other illicit dealer she could tap. Yet short of asking Krew himself she had no idea how to locate such a person. Her Underground compatriots likely would, but she couldn’t ask them without arousing suspicion, and the rift rider must remain a secret. She wracked her brain, certain she was forgetting someone. Then her hands slowed as the answer came into focus, and she realized she knew exactly who to go to—one of the Underground’s most valuable informants.

She proceeded to dry herself with renewed vigor, and before long she was dressed and out the door, starting her custom zoomer’s engine with grim conviction. As promised by the light through her window, it was a cold, overcast day. The bitter air whipping past chilled her to the bone, aided by the way her still slightly damp hair sapped the warmth of her scalp, but she didn’t care. Nothing would stop her from accomplishing her goal.

Keira cut through the city center and East Bazaar before entering the Industrial Zone. Once there she wended her way to the south side of the district and cast her tired eyes about for the right ramp to take. Everything around here always looked the same, and she never could shake the feeling that she’d overshoot her destination. Soon enough, she spotted the correct one and, laying off the accelerator, pulled up in front of the Haven Municipal Power Station. It was a very nondescript place, walled in the same dark grey metal as most of the Industrial Zone. Its round footprint was relatively small, but it towered several stories high, great pipes snaking up its sides.

Keira parked next to the entrance and lowered her goggles, allowing herself a deep breath. She pasted a neutral expression on her face as she sidled up to knock briskly on the door. She knew from experience it was never left unlocked. A camera mounted above the threshold focused on her, emitting a soft whir, and she stared up at it expectantly. When nothing happened she tapped her foot several times. Losing patience, she banged a fist on the thick metal, yelling, “Alright, Vin, open up!”

The door at last slid open, and she strode inside. After the harsh midday light outside, her eyes took a moment to adjust to the relative gloom of the station.

Amid a sea of glowing blue monitors a small, wiry foreman stood twitching in front of a console. He wore a wrinkled white shirt rolled up to the elbows, a baggy pair of brown trousers held up by suspenders, and fingerless gloves worn thin at the palm from extensive use. Irregular tufts of white hair sprang out of his head like haphazard patches of grass, and countless worry lines webbed his bony face. His eyes were completely obscured by thick goggles, and his brows seemed perpetually knit together in an expression of anxiety. His head, hands, and feet all seemed far too big for his gangly appendages; the only other part of his body with much meat on it was a pot belly that strained against the confines of his shirt. All in all, he looked like a nervous, shriveled up pear.

“A little slow on the draw there, eh, Vin?”

“Keira!” Vin exclaimed, looking as though his skin was the only thing keeping him from flying in all directions, “Sorry about that. I thought you were a Metal Head for a second.”

“How’s that?” she asked as she walked up to him, “I look nothing like one.”

“I keep seeing things! I’ve been having an awful week!”

Keira didn’t doubt it as the jittery man jerked back to face the console and began clacking away at the keys.

“Metal Heads keep attacking our mining operations, and they had me cornered like an animal a few days back. I would’ve been a goner if it wasn’t for some of your guys!”

She raised her blue brows at him. “Oh?” It wasn’t often she heard of the movements of other Underground agents.

Entirely missing what had piqued her interest, the foreman continued complaining, “And to make matters worse our eco reserves are still redlining. If this keeps up the shield walls will fail before we know it!”

“How long do you think we have?” Her tone was genuinely concerned now. The shield walls were the only thing keeping the Metal Heads from invading the city.

“I can’t say for sure. If the Baron secures the strip mine we’d be saved, but if he doesn’t...” he paused as a tremor ran through his spindly body, “it could be a matter of months.”

Keira chewed on her lip. Vin was given to exaggerating risky situations, but no one was more familiar with the eco grid that powered everything in the city. If he believed the shield walls were in real danger of failing then he was not to be taken lightly.

“A-anyhow,” Vin said, drawing a shaky breath, “What can I do for you? Need another blackout?”

“No, nothing like that. I wanted to ask you about Precursor artifacts.”

‘Precursor artifacts’?” he repeated, askance.

“I’m looking to get my hands on some,” she said, nodding patiently, “And I don’t mean your run of the mill gears or power cells, I’m talking one of a kind items.”

“Wh-why are you asking me? I never touch ‘em! Too many ways they can kill you!”

“Yeah, but I bet you know the best sources,” Keira allowed a honeyed note to slip into her voice, “No one’s better than you when it comes to information.”

Vin ran a hand down the back of his neck, a rare, bashful smile on his face. “You really think so?”

“Absolutely!” she affirmed, trying her best to look encouraging.

“W-well when you put it like that … Precursor artifacts are always flowing through the black market. You know Krew; he has a reputation for dealing in them, but the single best source is Gilda the Collector.”

“ ‘Gilda the Collector,’ ” she echoed, the words unfamiliar on her tongue.

“She’s obsessed with all things Precursor. She’s rumored to have a huge private collection,” Vin returned to the console keyboard and resumed clacking away, his nerves rising, “But I wouldn’t go anywhere near her if I were you. You’d have to infiltrate her criminal syndicate.”

“Really? I’ve never heard of her operation before.”

“That’s because she runs a tight ship. Her public face is managing an exclusive club in Main Town, High Society, and all of Haven’s finest go there. Between that, covering her tracks, and the regime’s corruption she’s untouchable.”

“Alright. Gilda. Main Town. High Society,” Keira said, memorizing the details. She turned on her heel, making for the exit. “Thanks for the info!”

“Wait a minute,” Vin stopped her, frowning, “What do you need these artifacts for?”

“Top secret Underground business,” she shot back, a warning edge to her tone, “Nothing you need to know about.”

Vin’s throat bobbed as he swallowed.

“Can I trust you’ll keep this between us?”

“Of course!” he quickly replied, ever the pushover, “My lips are sealed!”

“Good. Later, Vin,” she said with a wave and resumed her departure.

 


 

Having received a call from Krew, Jak and Daxter found themselves entering the obese ganglord’s neon den of iniquity for the third time that week. Though the ottsel was carefree as always, Jak was on edge. His determination to get at the Baron any way he could held firm, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was growing overly familiar with Haven’s seedy underbelly along the way. The boy he used to be certainly wouldn’t engage with criminals so easily.

As soon as the thought crossed Jak’s mind, his face twisted in fury and he balled his fists so tightly his nails dug deep into his gloved palms. It was painful, but he didn’t care. Anything was better than compulsive comparisons to the past. The old Jak was dead, and so his only recourse was to move toward his vengeance, one step at a time.

Given that it was the middle of the afternoon, the saloon was virtually empty. Only one booth seated any patrons, a shifty-looking man and woman who were bent in low conversation over their drinks.

“Hey, rookies,” Sig called from the bar, his massive rifle resting across the top. With his tall frame and bulky armor, he appeared comically large in comparison to the narrow stool upon which he sat. Since Krew was nowhere in sight, Jak went to join the wastelander.

“Sig! My main man,” Daxter confidently addressed him, fist extended for a bump, “How’s it hangin’? Peace Maker still keeping the peace?”

The formidable man raised a skeptical brow, the light glinting off his ominous red lens as his one peridot eye darted to the mighty firearm on the counter. A Metal Head skull was mounted over the barrel, and the magazine glowed violet with dark eco. Though it was slow to fire, requiring a lengthy charging period in preparation for a single round, the Peace Maker’s destructive power was an awesome sight to behold—far more potent than either of Jak’s morph gun mods. When they hunted Metal Heads at the pumping station it was more than capable of eradicating high-level spyder gunners in one hit from fifty yards out.

Sig humored Daxter and returned his gesture. Tiny knuckles rebounded off thick fingers, and the ottsel was so pleased with himself that his toothy grin swallowed most of his face.

“What’s the boss got you in for?” Sig asked, his deep voice rumbling melodically.

“No idea, but it better not be goin’ back to the sewers. I don’t care if we cleared out the security turrets, I still can’t forget the stench!”

“A sewer gig? That’s a raw deal,” Sig gestured at a bottle and shot glass by his elbow, asking, “How about a round of starshine? On me.”

Daxter’s expression lit up a second time, and he eagerly looked to his friend for approval.

“No, we’re just here to see Krew,” Jak rejected the invitation, once again casting a searching glance about the room, and the ottsel’s enthusiasm withered.

“The boss’ll be a minute,” Sig pointed out, nodding at the extra large door to Krew’s office, “Come on, have a seat! After taking a job like that you deserve a drink.”

Without waiting for confirmation the armored man reached behind the bar to retrieve two additional glasses. His affable demeanor was so disarming that Jak found himself sliding onto an adjacent bar stool.

Daxter hopped onto the counter, his large eyes twinkling with excitement as the tiny glasses were filled to the brim with amber liquid. “You bet we deserve a drink! Have I mentioned how bad the smell was?”

All three of them raised their glasses, the diminutive animal using both paws.

“To the bottom!” Sig declared and downed his starshine in one gulp.

The teenagers followed suit to their immediate discomfort. Jak violently coughed, and Daxter said with a thin voice, eyes watering, “Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff!”

“What’s wrong, cherries, booze too strong for ya?” Sig asked, totally unfazed by the alcoholic burn.

“Eh, he’ll be fine,” Daxter answered as though Jak were the only one struggling, yet he clutched his inflamed throat.

For his part, Jak felt embarrassed that his inexperience was showing. Recovering enough to speak, he defended himself with a white lie, “It’s been a while since I’ve had any.”

“Sure, if by ‘a while’ you mean ne—” Daxter was cut off when Jak elbowed him into silence.

Sig watched the exchange, clearly amused. “How old are you two anyway?”

“Nineteen,” Daxter asserted, confident that such an innocuous detail would stand unopposed.

Sig chuckled and stared into his empty shot glass. “Just nineteen, huh? I’d say that’s young to be in this line of work, but I was already a wastelander at that age. Spargus makes you grow up fast.”

Before there was a chance to ask where or what Spargus was, the door to the storage room behind the bar opened, and a blonde woman stepped out with what must be a heavy crate of bottles. She placed it on the floor with a thud, its cargo clinking, and shook out her strained hands.

Eager as ever to make a pass, Daxter pasted his best approximation of a dashing grin on his furry face. “Hi, sugarplum,” he purred, already starting to form his words more loosely thanks to the starshine coursing through his small frame, “You new here? Well, whatcha got that's, uh, hot , and... wait…”

Daxter frowned at the woman, and at first, Jak had no idea why. Then he too noticed her pale hair, her red lips, her rolled up jean shorts, and he remembered finding her in the alley the night they had escaped the Krimzon Guard Fortress and joined the Underground.

“I've seen you before,” Daxter said, raising a slightly curled index finger as though he was about to point accusingly, “You're wi—”

“That’s right,” she interrupted, “I think I remember bumping into you in the city center. Small world, isn’t it?”

Though she smiled sweetly, there was a steely undertone to her voice that stopped the ottsel from revealing where they really met. It occurred to Jak that she was likely doing undercover work for the Underground.

“Let me know if this bad boy bothers you, Tess,” Sig offered, glaring at Daxter, “and I’ll throw him out faster than you can say ‘boom, baby.’ ”

“Thanks, Siggy,” Tess cooed as she sashayed back into the storage room, pausing just long enough to give Jak a conspiratorial wink. Somehow he got the feeling that no one else could call Krew’s biggest muscle “Siggy” and get away with it.

Shaking his head, the man in question fixed his green and red gaze on the young renegade, who had been watching the proceedings without a word. “You seem like you’re on the quiet side.”

“Jak’s never been much of a talker,” Daxter editorialized.

“And he never stops talking,” Jak shot back.

Sig chuckled again. “A perfect pair then. You dough boys seem like you’ve known each other a good long while.”

“Yep,” Daxter affirmed, drunkenly gesticulating, “been besht buds our whoooole lives!”

Jak nodded in agreement. The small movement was enough to stir his awareness of a strange feeling in his head, and he glowered at the nearby bottle of starshine.

“What’s got you cooking, chili pepper?”

Sig’s question caught Jak totally off guard, and he blinked at the dark man in confusion.

“It’s not just that you don’t say much. You’re usually scowling like the world’s out to get you.”

“Yeah, well,” Jak mumbled, his irritation rising as his inhibitions lowered, “it is. Ever since I got to this shithole city and the Baron threw me behind bars.” A visceral memory flashed in his mind’s eye, briefly overtaking his senses, and he convulsed.

Sig leaned back in surprise. “You escaped from the fortress?”

Jak closed his eyes, willing his rearing heart to calm down. “How do you know I didn’t finish serving my time?”

“Because no one ever does.”

Before Jak could respond, his long ears perked up at the sound of an opening door and armored footsteps. Two Krimzon Guard soldiers stalked out of Krew’s office, followed by the establishment owner himself. He floated toward the bar, casting a huge, round shadow on the trio. Jak wrinkled his nose, wishing as always that he could be in the same vicinity as the green-clothed blimp without smelling him.

“The Baron sent his goons to harass me as usual, eh,” Krew griped, glaring after the guards’ retreating backs, “Health violations, back taxes! Everyone wants a piece of me. Ah well…”

“Lucky for you, there'sh plenty to go around,” Daxter noted, one eye half closed.

“Where’s Jinx?” Krew asked Sig, ignoring the ottsel.

“Hasn’t shown yet.” The wastelander shrugged. “He’s probably passed out in an alley somewhere.”

The ganglord grumbled curses under his breath. “Then find him so he can remove that blasted Krimzon Guard listening equipment in the Port! I've got a new project going, and I don't need anyone snooping around my shipments.”

Grunting in resignation, Sig pushed back from the bar, grabbed his rifle, and plodded away.

Daxter hiccuped and giggled. “What’d ya order, donut hole, a diet plan?”

Krew sniffed, and the fluttering of his fan intensified. “Let's just say, if everything goes as planned, I'm going to corner the market in Metal Head trophies.

“Now then let’s get down to business, shall we? I have a proposition for you, Jak. Racing is the biggest sport in the city. Erol is the undisputed Grand Champion. He’s crazy and dangerous on the track,” he paused long enough to chortle in admiration, “My kind of guy. Only a fool would dare race against him, eh! And that’s where you two come in.”

The enormous man produced a sheaf of papers and tossed a shiny card at Jak with a snap of his blubbery wrist. “A client of mine is looking for a fast driver for her racing team. That security pass will get you into Main Town. And here’s your contract with just a few... trifles for me. I’ve, ah, already signed your name to save time, mmmmmmmm.”

Krew tossed the papers aside, and Daxter scurried over to pick them up. He began reading with remarkable speed and clarity despite his slurred speech, “We the racers hereby agree to give Krew all proceeds from race earnings, endorshement fees, broadcast royalties, syndications residuals, vehicle shponsorships, mall appearance fees...”

“What is this?” Jak demanded, gripping the security pass tightly.

“Business as usual, my boy,” Krew replied with an insidious leer.

Daxter continued reading in the background, “...collectible card asshets, fasht-food tie-ins, use of likeness rightsh, talk show deals, clothing lines…”

“Just because we work for you that doesn’t mean you own us,” emboldened by liquid courage, Jak pressed on, “We're not doing anything until you tell us why Metal Heads are trading with the Baron's forces!”

Krew swung through the air like a tetherball, advancing on Jak till he was mere inches from the young man’s face. He spat through yellowed teeth, “I should have had you both knee-capped, eh!”

“...all print rightsh including book, novella, comic, pamphlet, tickertape, neon sign and bathroom graffiti designs,” Daxter halted, taking an enormous breath, before he turned the page and resumed reading at a breakneck pace, “toy rights, shoe lines, mood ringsh…”

“All I know,” Krew growled, “is that the Baron cut a desperate deal with the Metal Head leader. Metal Heads need eco, so the Baron supplies them with regular shipments. In return, the Metal Heads agreed to attack the city just enough to satisfy the Baron's continued rule.”

“Yeah, but how long can that deal last?” Jak asked, wondering if there was any bridge too far for Praxis.

Daxter broke his friend’s train of thought when he cried, “GAME RIGHTS?!”

“Well, the Baron is running short on eco, eh?” Krew explained, now circling the bar, “And the Metal Heads are short on patience! Baron Praxis needs this war to keep in power. Otherwise, the city would put the true ruler on the throne, wherever that little brat is...” The ganglord squeezed his chubby fingers into sweaty fists as though he wanted nothing more than to strangle the heir himself.

“…vitamin endorsements, city kickbacksh, movie deals, and, of courshe , all death and dishmemberment accident insurance claims,” Daxter at last finished reading the perverse document, swaying where he stood.

Jak gave Krew a look that suggested he wondered how the arms dealer’s brain managed to work.

A sadistic laugh burbled in Krew’s throat. “We can work out the tiny details later. If you can get from here to Violet’s garage in the stadium in ten minutes, my client said that she would consider letting you drive for her team. Make me proud, mmmm.”

Chapter Text

The relative peace of the garage was broken when Keira’s communicator rang. She frowned at the device. Since no calls were expected, she was suspicious of anyone who could possibly be trying to reach her. Maybe it was Tess hoping to rouse her back to the land of the living. She cautiously answered, “Violet here.”

“Violet, my girl,” a familiar wheeze rose out of the tinny speaker, “it’s Krew.”

“Well this is a surprise,” she said, wrinkling her nose as though she could smell his foul breath, “To what do I owe the honor of your call? Found any of the artifacts I requested?”

“Not yet,” he answered, his malicious smile audible, “I see the last race didn’t go so well for you, eh?”

Keira stiffened, her nostrils flaring.

“As luck would have it I recently hired a new employee with a gift for getaway driving. He’d be a natural on the race track.”

“Oh?” She was shaking with anger. She couldn’t believe what the greedy ganglord was about to propose.

“I just sent him your way. As a good faith demonstration, he should be there in, oh... under eight minutes now. Do be sure to get back to me when you sign him.”

Her free hand balled into a fist. “How can you be bringing this up when River just died three days ago?!”

“Because time is money, pet. Next week’s race will be here before you know it.”

“I never said I would sign one of your drivers!” she countered.

“Just think about it while he’s en route, eh?”

Before Keira could respond Krew ended the connection in a staticky click. She stared at her communicator for several moments before throwing it on the lumpy old couch with all the strength she could muster. The mechanic resumed her work without a word, and for a time she succeeded in emptying her mind. So absorbed was she in her task that she jumped in surprise when a series of knocks sounded on one of the great bay doors.

 


 

“Ah, hello?” Jak called through the door, “Krew said someone was looking for a race driver.”

He was beginning to wonder if anyone was there when a small intercom to the left buzzed to life.

“I’m busy right now,” a female voice announced from the other side.

Following her example, he punched a button in the panel and spoke into the receiver, “Are you Violet?”

“I am,” she impatiently confirmed. There was something familiar about her voice. And attractive. “You must be Krew’s new errand boy.”

Jak was stung by the tart label he had received. “...I wouldn’t put it that way.”

With an irritated sigh, Violet continued, “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, you did get here fast. But I’m not interested in any new drivers right now, and I’ve got work to do.”

Feeling strangely uninhibited, his voice deepened to a more manly pitch. “Is there anything we can do?” Surely he wouldn’t be so bold if not for the shot of starshine.

Daxter, still swaying from his own raised blood alcohol levels, silently cheered Jak on with a tiny pumping fist.

Violet, however, grew even more agitated. “No! I’m… ah… working on a… ah… secret vehicle project!”

Though her voice remained indescribably alluring, Jak was beginning to get annoyed. “Okay, sorry.”

A pregnant silence followed. Jak waited for the prickly woman to speak first, long enough that he was about to walk away when she at last threw him a bone. “Listen, if you really want to be helpful, try taking my prototype JET-board out on the stadium course. I could use the data.”

“Then maybe you’ll sign us to your team?”

Though Jak waited, there was no further response. Violet was apparently done talking to him for the time being. He was about to set off when he noticed the strange look Daxter was giving him.

“What?”

“ ‘Is there anything we can do?’ ” the ottsel repeated his earlier words, mimicking his deep voice.

“Oh, come on...” Jak protested.

“That’s the first time I’ve sheen you flirt in years!” The drunken Daxter was absolutely thrilled and began to yell, “Yo, Violet! You’ve got yourshelf a hot hunk o’ man cake waiting outside yer door!”

The young renegade hurried away from the garage, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. Still, he couldn’t help but wish she had opened the door so he could see what kind of face might match such an intriguing voice.

 


 

Keira paused her work to wipe the sweat and grease from her brow. Though she had been doing her best to think of nothing in particular—most especially how she was going to gain an audience with Gilda the Collector—the beginning stages of the rift rider’s assembly were progressing nicely. The partially completed frame of the bulky vehicle loomed before her. Wide enough to seat four, it devoured much of the lounge’s real estate. Between that and the parts littering the area in a disarrayed maze of metal, getting around was difficult. She didn’t mind at all, content as she was to simply stand and take in her handiwork. Assuming she could find the artifacts, the rift rider would soon be back in business. She would be able to go home.

Keira’s smile faltered. If she left chances were she would do so alone. Of course, she still held out hope that her companions were alive, but so much time had passed… She had grown used to their absence, and finding them again seemed more like a fantasy than a real possibility. The rhythms of her life had shifted, and she had changed so much since the day they entered the rift. Perhaps she was the only one who had traveled through time, but even so... Would leaving be the same as admitting that she never expected to find them? Would she have to accept once and for all that she truly would never see Jak, Daxter, or her father again?

A monitor in the right wall beeped and flashed, and Keira snapped out of her reverie. Clearing her head with a shake, she went to investigate.

The JET-board was a project for the Underground, but she had to admit she also built it for fun. The stadium course provided a perfect opportunity for not only honing the design but blowing off steam. She had set up a medal system on the basis of her own score range, and since she was the inventor she naturally scored quite high.

The console was reporting an update to the database. To Keira’s surprise, Krew’s lackey had managed to get the silver medal on his first try. She perused the rest of his data, gleaning valuable insight as to how she could further adjust her invention. She questioned if it was really worth it.

The mechanic heaved a mighty sigh as she reached for a blowtorch, knowing he would come back in a few minutes. She had expected to find Krew’s underling repellant. Instead, he was remarkably inoffensive. She would even go so far as to call him attractive. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about his voice moved her. The sensation was not unlike encountering an apparition in a dream only to be certain she had met him in her waking life… It was unsettling, to say the least.

A knock, this one gentler than the first, heralded his return. His voice buzzed through the speaker in a self-assured manner, “We beat the stadium challenge.”

Clearly, she was supposed to be impressed. Keira walked over to the panel, rolling her eyes even as she continued to feel drawn in. “Great. People do get lucky.”

“So how about you open the door and talk to us?”

He’s hitting on me, she realized, a relatively rare experience for her. She was incensed by her resulting blush. “Listen, don’t you have someone to collect money from or beat up or something?”

“...You don’t like us do you?”

What’s with him and all the ‘us’s and ‘we’s? she thought to herself before answering, “You work for that slimeball Krew. What’s not to like?”

He was silent long enough that she began to wonder if he had left. “Does your team have a shot at winning the Championship?”

That brought her up short. Her team had indeed been poised to overtake Erol’s in total points for the season. River’s explosive crash flared in her mind’s eye, bringing with it a stab of grief. She clenched her jaw, and admitted through grinding teeth, “Maybe.”

“Isn’t it true the City Champion gets to tour the palace?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I need that prize.”

“A friendly visit I gather?” she sarcastically inquired.

His voice hardened, brandishing a dangerous edge. “Yeah, I’m a real fan of the Baron.”

Apparently not… Keira hesitated, seeing an out but not sure if she wanted to take it. At the thought of him finally leaving, she made her decision. “Okay. I’ll help you out if you stop bothering me. I saw an old maintenance elevator at the base of one of the palace support towers. That might take you up to the palace if you can find a way to turn on the elevator’s power.”

“Any advice on how I can do that?”

“Nope,” Keira retorted, “You’re on your own from here.” Just then she was seized by a strong desire to open the door. For no reason at all, she wanted to hear his voice without distortion and see the body it belonged to. Disturbed by her feelings, she gripped her arms tight, squeezing her elbows into her sides.

The last she heard of him was the receding sound of his footsteps. Exhaling in relief, she returned to her work on the rift rider.

Chapter Text

Keira wasn’t used to this. The missions she had gone on for the Underground most often involved her mechanical acumen, occasionally her skill with a gun. Never did they involve putting on a blush satin dress and a full face of makeup so she could infiltrate a criminal syndicate.

She stood across the street from the glimmering entrance to High Society, Haven City’s most exclusive club. The name was emblazoned in delicate white neon letters above lustrous brass doors, and tall, lateral screens glowed like pillars of cerise light. The facade screamed conspicuous consumption, a clear sign that someone like her had no business there. She had hoped she might be able to breeze right in, but there was a bouncer guarding a velvet rope. His eyes were veiled by opaque black sunglasses, and his well-tailored suit didn’t hide the intimidating bulk of his well-muscled body.

Keira raised her chin high and walked right up to him. She said as though she owned the place, “Let me pass.”

He answered simply in a deep bass, “No.”

Her chin lifted even more. “Do you know who I am?”

“Someone who’s not on the list.” He tapped a clipboard he clutched in one massive hand.

“There must be some mistake. I’m Violet Leigh,” she stated as she covertly held up a Precursor orb, “and I have an appointment with Gilda.”

The bouncer stared at her, his eyes unreadable behind his sunglasses. Keira had to refrain from fidgeting as the seconds ticked by. She was beginning to think she’d have to try another tack when he raised two thick fingers to an earpiece she hadn’t realized was there. He paused as though he were receiving instructions, then bowed to unclip the velvet rope.

“Thank you,” Keira said with exaggerated manners, inclining her head delicately.

The bouncer didn’t so much as twitch in response.

Wasting no more time, she strutted across the threshold. Alright, piece of cake. Now all I have to do is… Her train of thought slowed to a complete halt.

Keira wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but clearly, it wasn’t the opulent interior she stepped into. She stood in a two-story foyer, its tall walls lined with dark wood panels and intricate medallions stained to a high gloss. Gold leaf accented the panels and flecked the marbled floor, shimmering in the warm glow of an enormous crystal chandelier. But no detail was more dominating than the grand staircase dividing the room, its treads run with rich red velvet.

To the left and right were large arches that led to equally impressive lounges. And the people—Keira had never seen so many furs and jewels and silks. Men in smart suits, women in sumptuous gowns, all of them dripping in finery. They carried themselves with such poise, she almost missed the undercurrent of snobbery. These were unimaginably wealthy people, ones who profited and prospered under Baron Praxis’ rule. The glitterati of Haven City.

Keira’s gawking was interrupted when she was flanked by two men. Their attire matched the bouncer outside, and they were just as physically imposing. “Come with me,” one commanded.

A nauseating jolt of adrenaline stabbed her belly. Hoping they would take her to Gilda and not some back room that people like her would walk into but never leave, she nodded and followed the two men. She was led up the grand staircase, past many more extravagant rooms teeming with esteemed guests of the club, to a plush elevator.

Keira wasn’t sure how many stories she rode up, but it was long enough for her nerves to well and truly catch up with her. She could hardly believe what she doing. Here she was, brazenly invading a world she knew very little about. The only thing she was sure of was that even a single mistake could have very dangerous consequences.

The elevator doors slid open with a soft whir, and Keira stepped out with jellied knees. Before her sprawled a colossal office, the air perfumed with posh notes of mahogany and lily of the valley. The room’s finishes were as exceptional as everything else she had seen. All its furnishings—ornate bookshelves, extra long sofas, a protracted coffee table, a chez lounge—seemed to flow toward the desk centered in front of a bank of windows in the far wall. And behind the desk sat the most elegant woman she had ever seen.

Gilda wore a shimmering black gown and fur wrap of purest white. She was older, her figure fleshy and voluptuous, and her gloriously wavy copper hair shot through with silver. Precious gems sparkled on her ears, wrists, and throat, and her ruby red lips pursed around a slender cigarette holder. She motioned to the chair opposite her desk, the lamplight dancing on her bejeweled fingers.

Keira silently obeyed. As she walked the length of the office floor, she drew close enough to see the piercing brown of the mobster’s eyes. There was something about them that she couldn’t quite shake off, and she felt disoriented as she took her seat. The cushy chair beckoned her to lean back and sink in, but she perched ramrod straight on the edge.

Gilda studied her with imperious gravitas, robbing her of the ability to speak. She began to feel deeply out of place, and she self-consciously tugged on the shiny fabric of her dress. Perhaps she should have invested in something fancier.

Several bodyguards stood around the office, one at the ready behind her boss’ shoulder. She wore the same tailored suit as the rest, and as she slid a hand into one pocket, her jacket hiking up enough to reveal a pistol on her hip. Keira gulped. The message was not lost on her.

“You do know how to make an entrance.” Gilda broke the silence so suddenly that Keira nearly jumped at the sound.

“Do I?” She somehow managed to sound calm and collected.

Gilda’s husky voice dripped like honey as she continued, “When I heard there was an underdressed waif with the gall to bribe her way into my club not with credits but Precursor orbs, I just couldn’t resist learning more. Violet was it?”

Keira stiffly nodded, again unable to speak under the weight of the ganglady’s burnished eyes.

Gilda raised a perfectly painted brow, her lips ever so slightly curling in cold amusement, and then something flickered in her gaze. She frowned and said in a slow, quiet tone, “I’ve seen you before.”

The mechanic’s entire body flared with buzzing alarm.

“You were that girl Vivian was so anxious to shield.”

“I…” Keira was utterly beside herself. She grasped at wisps of memory, trying to pin down any reference point for how Gilda could make such a connection. Then she remembered a day early in her time in Haven. Vivian had always instructed her to go out into the city, stay behind the curtain, take a break upstairs, be anywhere other than in plain sight when there were visitors in the garage. She remembered the one time she failed to follow this advice, and a glamorous redhead had walked through the bay doors.

Keira didn’t believe it even as she realized the same woman sat across the desk from her now. “You knew Vivian.”

“Indeed I did. She was my niece.”

And with that Keira understood what had been nagging at her about the woman’s eyes. It was recognition, for they closely resembled Vivian’s own intense brown gaze. “She never told me about you,” she murmured.

Gilda snorted, “Of course not. Like her father before her, she wanted little to do with me. The family business was too…” she waved her hand about the immaculate office, “distasteful. Naturally, her strict moral compass led her to join the Underground after Praxis’ coup d’etat. And that eventually got her killed.”

Keira sucked in a sharp breath. She had always assumed the worst had followed when Vivian and Ryker were imprisoned, but she had never received confirmation. Did this mean…

“Yes, girl,” Gilda said as though reading Keira’s mind, “Vivian died in the Krimzon Guard Fortress.” Her eyes blazed with dark fire, the only indication of the fury burning inside.

Keira felt her throat close up with grief, and not just for the late manager. If Vivian was dead, it was likely that Ryker was too. She stared at her lap and forced herself to swallow, to reign in the emotions that threatened to break her composure entirely.

“I suppose you’re in the Underground too.”

Keira’s nostrils flared, her spine awash with fresh fear. She was in way over her head. She had lost all control of this conversation as soon as she sat down, and her situation was getting more dire with every word. She looked up, praying her face was a neutral mask. “What if I am?” she asked with a bravado she didn’t feel.

Gilda rolled her eyes as she took a long drag off her cigarette. “Relax,” she breathed out the word with curling plumes of smoke, “You were an associate of my dear Vivian, and Praxis is responsible for her demise. I have no desire to compromise your situation.”

The viridian-haired girl allowed herself a small sigh of relief.

Gilda drummed her long red nails on the desk. “What is it you want?” It was more command than question.

Keira cleared her throat and said in a firm voice, “I hear you’re the woman to talk to about Precursor artifacts.”

“You hear right. While there are some,” she disdainfully sniffed, “others who claim to possess the rarest artifacts, no one can rival my private collection. You’re interested in the Precursors, are you?”

“I am,” Keira said with a nod, “and I’m hoping you might be able to help me find something specific.”

Gilda didn’t respond, but her eyes glittered expectantly.

“There are two artifacts I need, but my research has only gotten me so far. One of them is the Heart of Mar. Do you know it?”

“I do. It’s well known to those with a love of jewels,” she said as she idly examined an especially large gemstone perched on one of her rings.

“Do you know where it is?”

“I do not.” Gilda almost sounded sorry, though Keira guessed it was for selfish reasons. “Nor have I ever known anyone who does. There’s a theory that it was encased in a statue, but no such work of art has ever been confirmed.”

Trying not to show her disappointment, Keira continued, “The other artifact I haven’t found in any books.” She removed a piece of paper from her purse and, unfolding it, placed it on the desk.

Gilda delicately picked up the paper and, slipping gold-rimmed spectacles on her nose, examined it at some length. Her long lashes flicked up. “You drew this?”

“I did.”

“From memory?”

“My father had a picture of it.”

Gilda’s eyes narrowed, but if she saw through the lie she didn’t say so. Instead, she dropped the paper and abruptly stood. She floated over to a nearby bookshelf and ran a polished nail along the spines until she found the volume she wanted. With a snap of her fingers, a bodyguard retrieved it, and with some difficulty. It was a thick, heavy tome, and when it was deposited on the desk with a thud it belched a cloud of dust.

Gilda resumed her seat and proceeded to leaf through the musty pages. “If I’m not mistaken,” she purred, her eyes darting across the ink, “you drew… this.” Her index finger jabbed the entry she had been looking for, and she turned the book toward the younger woman.

Keira leaned forward and saw an illustration much like her sketch. She read, “ ‘The Time Map. A legendary and powerful Precursor artifact said to open gates to other worlds’ ...that’s all?”

“So it seems. Usually little is known about the oldest and rarest artifacts.”

“Do you know where it is?”

The older woman paused, her mouth pursing slightly. “I may know something of its whereabouts.”

“Could you help me get it?”

“That’s quite a request,” Gilda cooed, and her red lips parted in a wicked smile, “If I possessed the Time Map, I wouldn’t just give it to you. Not without getting something in return.”

Keira warily asked, “What do you want?”

“What can you give me?”

The young woman didn’t know how to answer her. “Vivian was my friend. Isn’t that worth something?”

“It most certainly is not,” Gilda declared, “I may have a soft spot for Vivian, but your association with her isn’t sufficient payment for a one-of-a-kind Precursor artifact.”

Keira winced. “If it’s money you want—”

“You could never afford it,” Gilda interrupted her, authoritatively pointing with her cigarette holder, “My price would be somewhere north of… oh… five million credits. Or one thousand Precursor orbs. Take your pick.”

Keira felt sick. She had nothing approaching either sum. “There has to be something else…”

“Darling, I traffic in money, artifacts, and information. If you have none of those to offer me, then we’re done here.”

The two bodyguards who had escorted Keira upstairs reappeared at the sides of her chair. She slowly stood, her mind racing for something, anything, that she could give as payment. But she had nothing.

“Since you’re a friend of the family and I’m feeling generous, you’re welcome to contact me should you think of something.” The ganglady delicately held out a golden business card.

Keira paused, then took a step forward to claim it.

 


 

Jak stumbled back as he was buffeted by an enormous gust of wind. Even though the edge was a solid five feet away on either side, an intense wave of vertigo swept over him. The air moved in powerful and unpredictable surges towards the setting sun, and that combined with the incredible height of the support cable made him feel as flimsy as a sheet of paper that could easily blow away. Only sheer willpower kept him from collapsing to his knees and gripping the metal paneling beneath his feet. Daxter, who clung to Jak’s shoulder guard as though he would die if he didn’t, clearly shared the sentiment.

“Afraid of heights, Dax?”

“Who the hell wouldn’t be a hundred stories in the air?!”

“Just try not to think about it.” The shaky teenager said it as much for himself as his friend.

The ottsel’s only response was to close his eyes and clutch his perch so tightly his tiny arms quaked from the effort. In a small way, his discomfort lessened Jak’s, providing him with the courage to move forward a few steps. No ill event occurred, so he cautiously walked over to the edge.

The drop down to the city below was the very definition of dizzying. Zoomers navigated the streets like minuscule bugs marching around grains of sand, and the people were so small they could only be seen by squinting. Jak was nearly overwhelmed by the sight. He carefully shuffled back to the center of the platform, breathing deeply in an effort to keep calm. Though part of him dearly wanted to return to the safety of the street far below, his only option was to proceed forward. The palace was waiting. Raising his arms slightly for balance, he began crossing the support cable.  

Vin, being the inconvenient genius that he was, had been able to reactivate the old B-Zone power grid that supported the access elevator but only if Jak switched on five power boxes, each one guarded by motion-sensing turbo cannons. Not only was the job difficult, but it was also yet another obstacle between him and the Baron. Jak growled in frustration as he realized he would encounter even more all along the support cable.

Heat tiles that could fry him to an airborne crisp riddled the path along with turrets, rotating spike rings, electrified rotor assemblies, collapsible platforms, and still more turrets. Reaching the palace meant engaging in a high wind dance that was deadly as it was tiring, and to make matters worse it was beginning to rain.

Jak ran into trouble when he encountered the third rotor assembly. The panels forming the haphazard path across wound precariously down the side of the cable just where the blue eco laced blades turned. As he descended the rain grew torrential, and he slid his goggles into place hoping for better visibility. The world turned red through the lenses, and raging rivulets flowed across his line of sight. He stepped down to the next panel, swiping the water off. As soon as his foot touched down, a hair-raising clanking sounded below. Reacting instantly, Jak launched himself into the air just as the platform gave way. He twisted around, narrowly clearing the blades, every hair on his body crackling with the nip of near electrocution. With no time to plan the jump properly, he only planted one foot on the waiting panel. The other plunged down into empty space, taking the rest of his body with it, and for one stomach-churning moment, he thought he would fall to his death. He threw his hands forward and attempted to grip the panel, but the rain made it slippery. He scrabbled for purchase as he slid back, only just managing to clutch the beveled edge before it was too late. Gasping as adrenaline thundered through his veins, he somehow managed to pull himself up and roll into a shaky sprawl. Gulping great breaths of air and sputtering on rainwater, he took a brief respite before he dared continue.

By the time Jak reached the palace, he was soaked to the bone, and his legs quivered as though his bones has softened. At least the rain had marginally let up. He pushed back his goggles and glared at the sopping ball of orange fur cemented to his left shoulder. “Hey, Dax, you can let go now.”

“Are we on the ground?”

“No, we’re on top of the palace.”

The ottsel didn’t budge.

“Look, you can’t even complain. You’re not the one who had to cross that damn thing.” He waved a hand back at the support cable.

At last cracking an irritated eyeball, Daxter mumbled, “Believe me, Big Guy, that makes it that much scarier.”

Jak might’ve rolled his eyes if not for the muffled voices below drawing his attention. Spotting a skylight, boy and ottsel laid down on their bellies and peered inside.

A huge, ostentatious throne room in varying shades of crimson yawned beneath them. The Baron and Erol, both seeming particularly tense, stood in front of a vibrating holographic projection. It was the first time Jak had seen either of them since his last night in prison, and within moments his pulse intensified to a savage tattoo, his rage bubbling up like boiling acid. Red seeped into the periphery of his vision, tempting him to take leave of his senses and crash through the skylight then and there. His fists tightened painfully as he struggled to maintain control of himself.

Praxis said, sounding as though he was at the end of his rope, “I’ve told you, I’ll have more eco by week’s end. We’ll transport it directly to your nest as promised.”

The hologram, heavily distorted but clearly a head of some sort, swayed slightly as though shaking from side to side. It spoke in a deep, unearthly voice, “ A deal is of no value if you can’t deliver, my dear Baron. I grow impatient with your puny gestures. Give me the agreed upon eco soon, or the deal is off, and your precious city will pay the price!

The hologram flickered and disappeared, a fact for which Jak couldn’t have been more grateful. Though he couldn’t begin to explain it, the disembodied head struck him with a profound and primal fear so dominating he was unconsciously holding his breath. At least he no longer felt so strongly compelled to blindly attack.

Erol stomped the glassy marble floor, growling in frustration, “He’s toying with us! Let me lead an assault on the nest before it’s too late. I can take him!”

“No! No one has ever penetrated the Metal Head Nest. You know that. I’ve seen what comes of such foolish plans.” The Baron indicated the metal half of his face. “No! Strength is their weakness. We play helpless… We train them to eat from our hands, and then… Move forward with the plan! Tell Ashelin to up her patrols. I want that tomb found!”

Erol looked at the shiny tiles beneath his boots, concealing his expression. “But your daughter has not been… agreeable.”

The Baron made an exasperated noise, and his voice took on a chilling new dimension. “I’ll see to that problem. One way or another…”

Jak whispered to Daxter, stunned, “Ashelin is the Baron’s daughter?”

Praxis flared up again, “And find that child! If you spent half as much time looking for that little brat as you do racing your little zoomers, we would have pinned his royal ass to a wall long ago!”

To Jak’s horror, Daxter’s head nodded backward, mouth open in preparation for a mighty sneeze. Luckily the ottsel contained himself, rubbing his small, black nose vigorously.

Erol bowed his head slightly. “As you wish. With enough persuasion, I’m sure our spy will—”

Daxter sneezed with explosive force, leaving a snotty blotch on the glass to be slowly washed away by the rain.

“What was that?”

Jak grabbed the diminutive animal by the muzzle and rolled out of sight, hoping he had done so fast enough to avoid detection. “Well done, buddy,” he whispered with a glare.

Daxter shrugged sheepishly and would have said something if it weren’t for the hand covering his mouth.

After a brief spell, Jak dared a last look into the skylight, just in time to see the Baron and Erol sweep out of the throne room. They were still conversing, though at too low a volume to hear.

“Did they see us?” Daxter asked in a low voice.

“I don’t think so… It’s not like they were in a huge hurry.”

“So what now?”

Jak pushed up to his feet, a determined expression on his wet face. “We find a way inside.”

“Why not call it quits for tonight? We saw them talking with the Metal Head leader and everything!”

“We’re not leaving before I get to the Baron.”

“...Watching him through the window doesn’t count?”

“Of course not!” Jak was beginning to lose patience. “You more than anyone should know I have to—”

They were interrupted when a mechanical woosh erupted from somewhere down below, and something large and long flew up with remarkable speed. Lightning crashed, and a mech resembling a giant squid loomed over them. Tentacles tipped in crescent blades hung down from its red body, bespectacled in yellow headlights that resembled vicious Metal Head eyes. Dual cannon and missile launcher barrels gleamed in the rain, reflecting the blazing discharge of twin booster engine arms. Illuminated by the cockpit’s console, the Baron leered through the glass.

Jak’s fury returned with a vengeance, instantly gripping him like a red-hot vise, and he planted his feet in a wide, defiant stance as he shouldered his blaster.

Praxis’ half metal face twisted in a malicious grin, and he yelled above the roar of his mech, “So, we have a rat in the walls, do we? A rat and his boy it seems!”

“Hey!” Daxter cried, tired as always of being identified as a rodent.

“Back for a few more dark eco treatments?”

Jak yelled back, his voice thick with rage, “Only if you’re the one strapped to the table!”

“Such anger! It’s really quite unhealthy, you know.”

“Oh, shove it up your ass!” Daxter followed up his insult with a rude gesture.

“Well allow me to put you both out of your misery!” The Baron guffawed as he opened fire.

A lethal battle of water and flame ensued. Jak rolled, jumped, and ducked away from volley after volley, only occasionally having a chance to get a shot in himself. The mech was fully protected by shields that dimly quivered with chartreuse light whenever they took a hit, and Jak devoted a great deal of energy to wearing them down before he could even start inflicting damage. Little black streaks soon littered his clothes where eco fire passed close enough to singe the fabric, and rivers of rain and sweat were running down his body. Though he was vaguely aware of how draining the confrontation was, he didn’t care. He felt his desire for revenge burning in his belly, a black flame stoking a furnace.

“Getting tired already, 51007?” Praxis taunted as he fired another round.

Yelling a frustrated battle cry, Jak just barely managed to dodge and get in a clean shot. One of the tentacles exploded, causing the mech to flounder in the air and shoot sparks. Praxis cursed, wrestling with the controls, and retreated to a different area of the roof. Confident that he had done some real damage, Jak reloaded and ran after the Baron. Yet as soon as he reached the next open expanse the mech appeared before him with a fully recharged shield.

“Did you really think it would be that easy?” The Baron punched a button in the cockpit and launched a barrage of heat-seeking missiles up in wild corkscrew patterns. Within moments they redirected toward their target with lethal accuracy.

Again Jak was forced to hit and run for what seemed like an eternity, and again he was miraculously indefatigable, subsisting on his rage. After wearing down the shields a second time, he shot off two more tentacles, and the mech reacted even more violently than it had before. It whirled and spun uncontrollably as the Baron swung out of sight around the curvature of the palace.

Jak gave chase, growling in consternation, and found himself on a large balcony. The Baron hovered overhead, laughing maniacally. Though his mech belched great plumes of smoke, he had stolen just enough time to once again recharge his defenses. At the rate they were going he need only outlast his opponent. Jak’s fury couldn’t sustain him forever, and Praxis knew it.

“You cannot defeat me, boy!” he yelled, as he let loose his most lethal weapon yet. The smoking mech spewed forth a swirling storm of flame twisters. It was all Jak could do avoid being burned alive, but his efforts weren’t good enough. Daxter yelped in terror, his tail on fire, and Jak frantically clapped his hands over the blaze to starve it of oxygen. He just managed to douse the flames when Praxis charged like a raging bull.

Jak couldn’t dodge this time. The mech hit him like a freight train, knocking the wind out of his lungs and sending his morph gun flying over the edge. With him helplessly pinned against the cockpit, the Baron accelerated toward the nearest wall. He could hear Daxter wailing in his ear and feel the velocity with which he hurtled toward a crushing death. He could see Praxis’ one good eye, boring into him with victorious bloodlust, and he knew it was all over.

A surging red tsunami swamped Jak, and he watched, detached, as his body moved in ways he didn’t think possible. He raised a corpse-white hand, claws as long and dark as obsidian daggers, and slashed at the cockpit. Great gashes punctured the glass, showering the Baron with tiny shards. The mech veered away from its collision course with the wall, and the berserker safely touched down on the roof.

Daxter called Jak’s name, but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t be heard through the fog of transformation, and the entirety of the beast’s attention was focused on his opponent.

Praxis launched another firestorm, but the monster wove through with ease. As soon as he was within range he vaulted forward, a halo of crackling purple surging around his body. He released tremendous and terrible energy as he slammed into his prey, detonating like a dark eco bomb. The mech exploded in a great ball of flame and shrapnel as the monster leapt to safety and landed in a feral crouch. Black tentacles and red plating crashed all around him, splashing and squealing in the rain, and a rapturous shiver traveled down his spine at the thought of at last vanquishing his nemesis.

Daxter, unable to resist being swept up in the moment, whooped, “Yeah! In your half-metal face, you megalomaniac!”

But he had spoken too soon. The mech’s naked cockpit, now without tentacles, weapons, or thrusters but otherwise intact, wobbled back into view. The defeated Baron seethed within, his armored shoulders bunched up around ears. “The dark powers I gave you can’t protect you forever! Since I made you I can destroy you! We’ll meet again soon.”

The small pod flew off in retreat, but the berserker wouldn’t allow it. Bristling into action, he sprinted toward the balcony’s vertiginous edge.

“Jak, what are ya doing??” Daxter screamed in panic as his deranged friend took a running leap into thin air, “JAAAAAAAAAK!!!”

The monster landed on the cockpit once more, making it dip and sway like a cork bobbing in a raging maelstrom. Unable to maintain altitude, they plummeted toward the Slums below.

“YOU'RE INSANE!!” Praxis roared as the dark beast gained just enough of a foothold to rain blows upon what was left of the mech, a storm to rival the one blowing all around them. He slashed and tore at everything he could reach, crunching metal and shattering glass. The deluge pelted combatants and ottsel alike as the Baron struggled to steer. A black-clawed hand swiped into the cockpit, and he barely jerked out of harm’s way. The pod swerved and crashed through a neon billboard in a tremendous burst of sparks. Totally out of control now, it bounced and rolled off a rooftop, jettisoning Jak and Daxter over the edge.

Chapter Text

Torn and Kor were engaged in a tense discussion when the door slid open, and Jak and Daxter limped into Headquarters. Despite their obvious injuries, the ex-KG commander had no care for their physical well being as he barked, “The city is on high alert! What the hell did you two do?”

“Us?!” Daxter replied, placing his paws on his furry chest in a gesture of shocked innocence, “Nothing. We've been... ah... sightseeing, right Jak?”

“Really?!” Torn demanded, “Then why are the Krimzon Guard looking for ‘a dangerous young man with light hair, blue tunic, and a rabid orange RAT on his shoulder’?”

“Ahh... Could be anyone. Orange is the new black this season.” Daxter flashed a toothy grin, which only served to needle Torn further.

“Look,” Jak broke in, his voice strained, “we climbed up to the Baron's palace, and... we tripped a few alarms.”

“Oh, right... that too.”

Torn was appalled. “What? I didn't authorize a strike on the—”

“Hey, we kicked the Baron's ass,” Jak interrupted, “but I think he escaped.”

“You ‘think’?!” The auburn-haired man jabbed a forceful finger toward the exit. “Is that why an entire neighborhood is on lockdown? Because the Baron ‘escaped’ into the South Slums?? An unidentified flying object crashed earlier!”

“Is he dead?”

Torn stormed around the table and roughly gripped the young renegade by the collar. “Dammit, Jak, you’re going to give me a straight answer!”

“Is he DEAD?!”

Torn’s eyes narrowed as he stared down his insolent subordinate. Jak blazed with vengeful rage, like so many recruits before him, and despite the older man’s own anger it struck a sympathetic chord within his breast. Praxis had done so much damage over the years he couldn’t help but respect the righteous fury of those wronged. And so he relented, releasing his hold, and stalked away. “No. The Krimzon Guard are good at stopping the spread of information, but they're not that good.”

Jak’s jaw and brow tensed so tight they quivered before the last vestiges of his energy drained away. He dropped his head, his entire frame sagging. “I fought with the Baron. He was in some sort of flying machine with tentacles. I… disabled it. When he tried to retreat I jumped on, and we crashed.”

Torn allowed himself the weariest of sighs, splaying a hand across his face to rub his aching temples. “Let me get this straight. You led a one-man assault against the Baron. You somehow disabled his squid mech, a war machine that should outclass you in every way. He retreated, and you ‘jumped on’?”

Jak curtly nodded.

“From the palace?”

Jak nodded again.

Torn stared at him as though he had grown a second head. “Do you have a death wish?”

“...AND we overheard a secret meeting with the leader of the Metal Heads!” Daxter interjected.

At last, Kor spoke up, “You saw the Metal Head leader?”

“No, he was on some communicator,” Jak explained, “but we heard him talking with Baron Praxis.”

Daxter continued, “The Baron is bribing the Metal Heads with eco!”

Kor stroked his beard and scoffed disdainfully. “It will never be enough.”

“But the Baron's gonna double cross 'em!”

“Is that so? Well, our good Baron's wonderful 'charm' must have angered someone, because there's word from the Wasteland that Metal Head armies are on the move again!”

“Then we’re running out of time,” Torn muttered bitterly.

Remembering the evening’s other revelation, Jak rounded on him with fresh vigor. “Why didn't you tell me Ashelin was Praxis' daughter? What's your connection with her?”

“That doesn’t concern you.”

“Like hell it doesn’t! If I’m going to put my life on the line for her again I at least want to know why I’m doing it!”

“She’s an old guard comrade. That’s all you need to know.” Torn’s tone warned him to stop pressing the matter.

But Jak continued, spurred on by his growing attraction to the alluring officer, “ ‘Comrade’ my ass! The way you act it’s like you’re in love with her or something!”

“That's none of your business!”

“Indeed,” Kor mumbled, his thoughts plainly elsewhere, “Well, I must collect the child and bid you goodnight.” He turned and toddled up the stairs, his staff clacking the whole way.

 


 

Given just how perilous their confrontation with the Baron was, it was a miracle Daxter and Jak were alive. The former got off relatively easily with a number of scrapes and a burned tail, and of course his injuries were easily attended to with green eco. The latter wasn’t quite so lucky. His body was littered with contusions, his ankle was sprained, and three of his ribs were broken, but just as he had with his ammo dump injuries he recovered with lightning speed. Within a matter of days, he was fully healed.

Unfortunately, his power struggle with Torn was far from over. When he returned to Headquarters for a new mission the Underground strategist had a trap waiting.

And so it was that Jak found himself returning to the wrecked remains of Dead Town, new morph gun in hand after losing his atop the palace. He stepped out into the late afternoon sun, squinting, and Daxter lifted a gloved paw as a shield. The angle was just right for getting in their eyes. Still, it was certainly a better time of day to traverse the treacherous salt marsh than the dead of night. There was something almost beautiful about the ghostly ruins when awash in gold.

“I can't believe this used to be part of the city!”

Jak glanced back at the speaker, a gangly sixteen-year-old with jet black hair and a naive face. He gaped at the desolate landscape before them, amazed.

Lil, one of the veteran fighters they had met upon enlisting with the Underground, joined the trio. “Metal Head hordes are nothing to sneeze at,” she addressed the boy in a smoky voice, “I hope you’re ready for your first real fight, Nic.”

“Of course!” the boy said, donning a serious expression, “It’s time to put my training to the test!”

Jak rolled his eyes. “Let’s just get a move on.”

Nic was one of several fresh-faced new recruits galvanized into service by Jak's splashy antics. Despite his age and inexperience, the Underground couldn't afford to turn away able and willing bodies. Torn handed him off to Jak for “training,” though he suspected it was really the commander’s way of putting a leash around his neck. Further complicating matters was Lil’s presence. He felt as though he was babysitting and being babysat at the same time.

Daxter, on the other hand, was didn’t mind at all. He was happily taking the opportunity to chatter away with the sociable Nic. “...And that’s when I had the Baron right where I wanted him! The pouring rain couldn’t mask the smoke billowing from his damaged squid mech. Thunder crashed, splitting the dark with a deafening crack!”

“What did you do next?” Nic asked with a smile.

Daxter continued, his voice teeming with drama, “The Baron started to retreat, but there was no getting away from Orange Lightning! Coiling up like a spring, I sprinted for the edge and landed on the mech with a flying leap!” he hesitated, “...Jak followed of course. With his help, I pummeled the cockpit until the glass shattered! I was about to wring the Baron’s neck when we crashed in the Slums and were thrown off. Mark my words! The Baron won’t be messing around with us anytime soon! Right, Jak?”

“Right,” Jak responded absently. He was barely listening to the conversation, a half-formed image of Ashelin floating unbidden through his mind.

“That’s amazing!” Nic sighed, his hazel eyes shining with admiration.

Feeling as though he were being watched, Jak looked over. To his surprise, the boy wasn’t staring at Daxter, the supposed hero of the story, but at him. Flustered, he focused on the path ahead. He was both grateful that Nic was smart enough to realize who was really driving the action and uncomfortable with the attention.

As the only one who had previously been to the so-called Sacred Site, Lil led the party forward, moving with care through the marsh. She made her way to a large island crowned in old walls, making to scale them, when a dozen Metal Head stingers sprang out of the damp ground and blocked their path. Though small, they weren’t to be trifled with. The eight-legged creatures could move with surprising speed, and once within range, they would strike with their viciously spiked tails. Even so, the seasoned Lil wielded her large rifle with all the concern of someone swatting a fly, in stark contrast to the frantic manner in which Nic fired his scatter gun. Jak added to their firepower with his blaster, and the foes were vanquished in seconds.

The group resumed traveling through the ruins. The adrenaline of the attack soon subsided, and the youngest among them was still full of questions.

“Lil, is it true you were there when Dead Town was destroyed?” Nic asked, emboldened by his successful contribution to their defense.

She trudged on without looking back. “Yes.”

After an overly long silence, he pressed, “What was it like?”

“Exactly like you’ve heard, I’m sure,” she said, her husky voice oddly detached, “Years ago Metal Heads broke through the old city wall. We fought them, but then the Baron pulled back and left everyone outside the inner wall to die.”

“Yeesh, that’s cold!” Daxter noted, “How did you make it out then?”

“The Shadow stopped the assault somehow. It’s like he reacted with the Sacred Site… I’m not sure how to describe it… like a ripple of green. When it hit the Metal Head horde they fell back.”

Unable to help himself, Jak joined in the conversation. “You know the Shadow personally?”

Lil nodded, but when she didn't immediately say anything Nic rushed in to fill the gap, “Is it true that he’s seven feet tall and has a robotic leg?”

The older woman smirked and enigmatically responded, “I’m sure he’d find such a description amusing.”

“I also heard he’s got tattoos all over his body, one for every man in the Baron’s regime he’s killed, and all of his teeth are gold.”

Even Daxter, serial spinner of tall tales, thought the teenager was taking it too far. “Are we talking about the leader of the Underground or a cyborg pirate?”

“Suffice it to say,” Lil pronounced, her voice slightly raised, “the Shadow is a great man. He’s sacrificed a great deal for this city.” And with that, the topic was closed.

As the group entered the remnants of a large building with a vaulted ceiling, Jak stared at the ground, wondering what kind of person would have the ability to turn the tide against a Metal Head invasion. Perhaps he’d finally get to meet him and find out. Torn had dangled the possibility during the mission brief. Aside from revenge against Baron Praxis, it was the only goal he had been working toward.

Jak’s reverie was broken when a flaming ball of dark eco flew by with a hair-raising crackle. He ducked behind a pillar and was about to steal a glimpse of their attacker when he saw Nic still standing out in the open, rooted to the spot. Without a moment’s hesitation, he bolted back and tackled the boy, sending them both rolling just as more dark eco exploded behind them.

Jak snatched him by the collar and dragged him into the relative safety of another pillar, chastising, “If there's cover then take it!”

Nic stared back, his eyes bulging slightly, and nodded.

Feeling a small pang of regret for being so gruff, Jak turned away from the terrified teenager and leaned out just far enough to get a look at what they were dealing with.

The Metal Head was tall and spindly, its long blue tail lashing through the air with excitement. It clutched a vicious spear, a sling of sorts dangling from the blade’s neck. A ghostly orb the same pale yellow as its skull gem nestled in the sling, and it hopped back and forth with great speed, swinging its weapon in a tight circle. Its continuous movement only halted long enough to hurl another dark eco projectile.

Jak jerked back into hiding behind the pillar, then leaned out to get a shot off with his blaster. The Metal Head leapt aside. He called over to Lil, “What is that thing?”

“A sling blaster,” she yelled back, her voice muffled by the dark eco. She got off a couple shots, but still, their foe dodged them with ease. “We need an automatic weapon!”

“Jak, what about that new thing-a-ma-jig Torn gave you?” Daxter pointed out a little too loud and a little too close to his friend’s ear. Jak winced as he remembered their mission brief included a new mod for his morph gun, the Vulcan Fury, powered by blue eco. He swapped it in and, waiting for another violet projectile to whizz by, leaned out for a few test shots. He held down the trigger and quickly realized the mod far surpassed his expectations. The rate of fire gradually increased to blinding speeds, the rapid recoil distorting Daxter’s yells of surprise. Within a few hops, the sling blaster was caught in the line of fire, it’s body grotesquely jerking back and forth with each new wound. Jak released the trigger, his hands and arms tingling, and the Metal Head fell to the ground in a bloody heap.

Jak exhaled in relief, but his respite was broken when Lil started firing. With the group pinned down by the sling blaster, they failed to realize they were being ambushed. Grunts, juice goons, centurions, and stingers, numbering nearly twenty, were closing in from both of the room’s entrances. Some were even crawling through the windows, long devoid of glass.

Utter chaos ensued. Jak swung out from the pillar, firing in a wide arc. He wove about the room, somersaulting from one foe to the next. More than once he was brought up short by a near hit from an enemy, forcing him to counterattack in close quarters. A nearby centurion attempted to stagger him with a shield bash, but he dipped into the opening and brought the butt of his gun down on its head with tremendous force. Its skull gem popped out with a sickening squelch, joining a growing number scattered about the floor. He was dimly aware of Lil fighting her way through the throng with acrobatic alacrity. Even Nic was managing to hold his own, cleaning up stragglers with his scatter gun. Within minutes, the room was littered with corpses lying in glistening pools of turquoise, and the Underground fighters looked on panting. All had scraped through with nothing worse than surface wounds. Jak managed to remain unbloodied, a fact for which he was most grateful. The last thing he needed was to arouse suspicion.

Nic took a ragged breath, his tense posture relaxing slightly. “That wasn't so bad!”

Without warning another stinger leapt up from the bodies, going straight for Nic’s face with its razor-sharp tail. Just as quickly Jak shot it down, spraying the boy with blue blood.

“I spoke too soon,” Nic said as he shakily wiped his cheek. He looked at his rescuer, his eyes huge. “Thanks.”

Jak nodded in acknowledgment, still breathing heavily.

“We’re in the clear,” Lil stated as she rolled her shoulders back and cracked her neck, “Let’s keep moving. The Sacred Site is just ahead.”

Without waiting for confirmation, she turned and picked her way through the Metal Heads.

 


 

Though it wasn’t race day, Mar Memorial Stadium was buzzing with activity. Once a week the track was open to the public for officially sanctioned scouting sessions. It couldn’t be helped given the dangerous nature of the sport, but neither was it an effective stopgap. Those who tried out were rarely skilled enough, and as the pool of active racers dwindled over the course of a season, disqualified by serious and often lethal injuries, the deficit was only mildly offset by the occasional replacement. Keira and Tess sat in the stands, watching the smallest group of hopefuls yet aiming to prove themselves. Only three racers sped around the track.

“You’d think more people would try out for this,” Tess mused as she leaned back in a languorous stretch, “The possible earnings are ridiculous.”

Keira, sagging far enough forward that her chin rested on the seat in front of her, heaved a mighty sigh. “Yeah, but what good is money if you’re not around to spend it? NYFE is so dangerous that most people don’t bother. Especially rich ones.”

Tess solemnly nodded. The three men driving below wore shabby clothes, almost certainly an indication they hailed from the Slums. The overwhelming majority of drivers, whether in the league or trying out, were poor citizens trying to turn their fortunes around.

“It’s even worse this close to the championship,” Keira explained, “With so few races to go and the rankings virtually set it’s even harder to win big. The stakes are so high it scares off potential replacements.”

“So what are the chances you’ll sign one of these guys?”

“Not good. None of them can hold a candle to River.” As she said the name, Keira’s mouth twisted in an effort to keep her emotions from rising. “They’d get creamed in a real race.”

The bartender looked at her sad friend with compassion. “...Have you been holding up ok?”

“Oh… yeah...”

Not satisfied with the mechanic’s response, Tess pressed, “Have you been sleeping better at least?”

“Yes, Mom,” Keira retorted, “You worry too much.” In reality, there was plenty to be concerned about.

The rift rider construction was proceeding swiftly since Keira was pouring all her time into it. The involving work helped to keep her grief at bay, but her anxiety was growing. Soon the rift rider would be complete minus the Heart of Mar and the Time Map, and then she’d be faced with the very real possibility that neither artifact could be found. The latter might be within reach with Gilda’s connections, but the days since their meeting had come and gone with Keira no closer to coming up with a payment to satisfy the rapacious ganglady. If only she could think of something Gilda wanted...

Making a sound of disgust, the agitated young woman sat back, rubbing her chin where the seat had dug in and left an impression. “This is hopeless. We might as well head back to the garage.”

The two women started to make their way out of the stands.

“Are things somewhat reasonable at the Hip Hog?” Keira asked.

Tess gave an irritable toss of her flaxen hair. “The flow of information has been really slow lately, so I haven’t been doing much other than making drinks for scumbags. At least it’s always fun when Sig throws out the rowdier ones.”

“No more purple-haired sex god to help pass the time?”

“No, lately I’ve been enjoying the company of a brunette,” she replied with a sensuous smile.

Keira shook her head, amazed as ever at her friend’s carnal exploits. “What about Krew? I’m sure he’s as slimy as always.”

“Ugh, worse. He’s been in a good mood since last night’s race, and whenever Krew’s happy he pays way too much attention to me.”

“What was so great about the race?”

“He successfully bet against some two-bit mafioso who’s been nipping at his fat heels. Financially ruined the guy too, so his operation’s pretty much toast.”

“Wait a second,” Keira murmured as the kernel of an idea popped in her mind, “Krew bets on races...”

“Well, yeah, he runs one of the biggest gambling rings in the city.”

“...and he has rivals.”

“Of course he does! It’s not like he’s the only criminal mastermind in Haven.”

Keira’s emerald eyes widened as the wheels in her head began to turn faster. “Hey, Tess,” she said.

Her friend responded with a pleasant, “Hmm?”

“...Does Krew know Gilda the Collector?”

“Oh yeah, they hate each other!” Tess responded, fanning out her fingers for emphasis, “They’re always clashing over this territory and that treasure.”

“Really… One more question then... Do you have access to Krew’s books?”

That got Tess’ attention. She turned her scrutinizing gaze on Keira, deliberately blinking for emphasis.

 


 

Jak raced back to the Underground in a daze, barely conscious of his surroundings. Daxter clung to his shoulder perch, his mouth uncharacteristically tight-lipped. Neither knew what to make of what they had just witnessed.

They followed Lil for just fifty yards before rounding a corner and stopping dead in their tracks. An ancient island rose out of the muck before them, atop which sat the scarred ruins of a two-story hut. Remnants of stone walls stood in irregular sections, the straw roof long since rotted away. The broken supports of a windmill stood naked and bladeless. Though it was damaged beyond repair and untold years had obviously passed there was no mistaking it. It was Samos’ hut.

Unable to mask their shock, Jak and Daxter immediately raised the suspicions of their fellow fighters. The latter in particular struggled to be discreet as incoherent questions tumbled from his slack jaw. In a rare display of self-awareness, he managed to quiet down just as fast, and Lil and Nic hadn't pressed them.

There was only one conclusion that made a lick of sense, and it defied all sense of reason. Dead Town was the future of Sandover Village. Their village. And that meant this horrible place was their world. In some small part of his heart, a part he wouldn't acknowledge in the face of Haven’s reality, Jak hoped that he would find his way back to the life he had. But seeing the crumbling abode of the Sage of Green Eco utterly shattered any belief that he would ever make it back home.

His home was gone.

“Where are Lil and Nic?”

Jak snapped out of his reverie and found himself standing inside Headquarters. Torn glared at him expectantly, clearly impatient for an answer to such a simple a question.

“Uh…” Jak fumbled through a response, his arms crossed defensively, “They took a separate zoomer, and… I like to drive fast.”

Torn’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment the younger man was convinced he was about to be grilled for his odd behavior. After an agonizing pause, the commander said, “The Shadow has decided it's time to meet you.”

“About time!” Daxter exclaimed, just a hair overzealous as though he were scrambling to paper over the strained atmosphere, “What do you have to do around this place to get noticed?”

With a light shake of his head, Jak brought himself fully into the present moment. His highest priority was getting answers, but he had to play it close to the vest. Torn was hardly an open source of information. He asked, endeavoring to keep a level tone, “Why is that place in the old ruins so important to you?”

“There's a powerful energy force at the old house. The Metal Heads are drawn to it.”

“No kidding?” Jak continued, muttering to himself, “We used to know the guy that lived there.”

Torn was about to demand what exactly he meant when the door to the armory slid open and the clip-clop of heavy wooden shoes sounded.

“So, you're the new recruits who keep getting into trouble.”

“You?!” Daxter screeched in alarm.

The blood drained from Jak’s face. Standing before them was none other than Samos the Sage, replete with his tall sandals and crowning log. But something was unmistakably off, something more than his garments otherwise being no different from the average citizen of Haven. It was his jade skin, so much more taut and smooth, and his full head of bushy dark green locks, merely shot through with silver. His legs were slightly less knobby, his stubby fingers mildly less gnarled. It was as though he was twenty years younger.

He said as though nothing was amiss, “You’ve already been with us for some time, but allow me to officially welcome you to our humble Underground movement. I am known as the Shadow, but you may call me Samos. And you are?”

“Oh don't give us that I’m-so-innocent-I’ve-never-met-you-before act!” Daxter yelled, indignant, before turning to his taller partner, “Sheesh, Jak, we went through all that to meet his holiness, ol' log on the head, Grandpa Green?!

The Shadow stared at the duo, nonplussed.

Jak, unable to process what he was seeing, stepped forward in desperate appeal. “Don't you know who we are?”

“Sorry, kid, never seen you before… and I never forget a face, especially one that ugly.” The green man jerked his chin at Daxter.

The ottsel threw his paws up and groused, “So it begins…”

“How is this possible?” Jak asked, feeling as though he might topple over, “We came through the rift with you... into the…” At the incredulous faces of his audience, he realized how crazy he would sound if he brought up time travel, and he reluctantly sealed his lips.

“Yeah!” Daxter barreled on, oblivious, “You used to look older than dirt and uglier than a knotted stump. What gives? Did you get a little nip and tuck while we were—”

Jak clamped a hand around Daxter’s mouth, an uncomfortable smile on his face. “You know, forget we said anything. We must’ve mistaken you for someone else!”

Torn exchanged a meaningful look with the Shadow, his glare suggesting he wanted nothing more than to throw the subordinates out.

The older man shook his head and proceeded to dismiss the topic outright, “Listen, boys, I don't know what kind of twigs you've been chewing on, but I don't have time for this! We've got a Baron to overthrow, a child heir to protect, an invasion of Metal Heads to stop, and a city to save. I'd say the schedule's pretty full! Besides, I haven't gone through any rifts. I hate teleporting!”

Daxter pointedly raised an eyebrow at Jak, as if to imply how clearly this sounded like the Samos they knew all too well.

The Shadow continued, “Right, now I want you boys to escort the kid—”

“If you’ll excuse the interruption, sir, I hardly think we can rely on these two right now. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to investigate this situation first?” Torn said, alarmed enough by the whole scene to break rank.

“I don't think we can afford to be too careful given how tenuous…” the Shadow trailed off as he and Torn turned their backs to the room, arguing in hushed voices. Jak, too lost in his own thoughts, didn't try to listen. He was utterly overwhelmed by the day’s revelations, and he couldn't feel more lost. There was only one thing he could take comfort in. Moments ago he would have struggled to clearly picture Samos’ distinct appearance, but as soon as he saw the little man he felt a gray area in his mind flood with color. The sensation was like that of remembering a fragment of a dream, triggered by some action or sight. Though it hadn't immediately sunk in, the same thing happened when he saw the ruined hut. Now he could envision Sandover Village in vivid detail.

Jak raised his hand and stared at it. Although the dark eco blurred his memories into an ambiguous haze, it hadn’t done so permanently. Whenever he saw someone or something from his past, another piece fell into place. A vague image of a girl with a wrench in hand melted in and out of his consciousness, and he coiled his calloused fingers into a tight fist.

At last the two men turned around, Torn scowling and the Shadow clasping his hands behind his back authoritatively.

“As I was saying,” Samos began again.

How long before Jak had all the pieces?

Chapter Text

The Bazaar was quite unlike any other district Jak had seen. It was comprised of two discrete sections, cut in half by the Baron’s ostentatious palace but otherwise very much of a piece. The buildings here were made of pale plaster and relatively squat, most not taller than two stories. Their slanted roofs were capped by bleached blue tiles and wreathed in sagging awnings, their vibrant colors long since faded by the sun. The air, fragrant with the aroma of street food and spices, carried the lively chatter of the densest throngs Haven had to offer, and all for one purpose: shopping. From morning till night the dust of the winding thoroughfares was churned up by pedestrians visiting the countless rough-hewn stalls arrayed with produce, curios, and trinkets. The vendors jockeyed for attention, constantly working the crowd and haggling with customers. The vast market was so lively it was almost possible to forget the omnipresence of patrolling Krimzon Guards or the palace looming above.

When Jak drove into the Eastern Bazaar it was the second time he had done so that day. Though the sun had long since set the foot traffic was still high under the glow of paper lanterns and neon signs. Navigating the congested streets with any efficiency was therefore difficult as he made a habit of drifting in and out of the designated zoomer hover zone. Spotting an opening in the mass of bodies below, he dipped to pass a significantly larger and slower vehicle. The driver angrily yelled after them, his words unintelligible and fast receding.

Daxter shook his fist and yelled right back, “Same to you, grandpa!” The ottsel tightly gripped Jak’s shoulder guard, his orange fur bristling with irritation. “Sheesh! What is with people today? Everyone's walking around like they're on crazy pills.”

“Must be something in the water,” Jak responded. Tired out by the afternoon’s exploits, his interest in conversing was low.

“And speaking of grandpas, boy am I glad we haven't seen ol’ green today. Two years later and he still drives me nuts.”

“Don't you think ’young green’ would be more fitting?”

“Old or young, he’s still a pain in my ass!”

Despite himself, Jak laughed. “I guess some things never change.”

If it weren't for the mystery of his age, Jak might share some of his friend’s lack of patience with the Shadow. After working in the Underground for weeks without meeting him, the duo saw the cantankerous little man far more frequently than Torn. They had received several daily missions in a row directly from Samos, but at least the grind came with the assurance that they were still trusted. Along the way, they became privy to new information.

A couple days back Kor’s young charge was in need of an escort. Having not seen the child since the night of breaking out of the fortress Jak had nearly forgotten he existed, but it turned out there was good reason for the Underground to take an interest in his welfare. Despite his unassuming appearance, the red amulet he wore around his neck was the same seal from the pumping station, the insignia of Mar’s royal line that had ruled Haven for generations before Praxis came to power. This could mean he was the true heir to the city, the son of the deposed king.

Jak was amazed the geriatric Kor ever managed to effectively shepherd the kid. They were scarcely out of sight of the Underground alley when they were spotted and set upon by Krimzon Guards. Clearly locating the child was as high a priority for Praxis’ regime as protecting him was for the Underground.

With any luck, Jak would soon learn something else of value. Today was the day he finally had the opportunity to investigate the mysterious Onin, and it had required far more effort than anticipated. He and Daxter set off for the Bazaar first thing in the morning, but the sun was approaching its zenith by the time they at last located her. Finding the old soothsayer would’ve been nigh impossible without the tip from Ashelin.

“Zoomer!” Daxter shrieked, jolting Jak’s attention back to the present. He veered just in time to avoid colliding with another vehicle, narrowly missing a fruit stand as he did so.

The ottsel sagged onto his perch with jellied limbs. “Where's your brain at, big guy?

Jak didn’t respond, his mind’s eye still absorbed with the beautiful KG officer. Even though he had only met her once, and she was plainly indifferent to him, his interest was undiminished. Indeed, the more he thought about her the more agitated he became. The seed of her was planted in the long fallow grounds of his fantasies, and he ached to touch her as he had never touched anyone else. He shook his head, hoping to banish the bewitching redhead from his thoughts.

Thankfully a fresh distraction was at hand in the form of their destination. Jak parked his zoomer in a cramped square dominated by a large tent of buff canvas, a misshapen skull painted over the entrance. Daxter leapt to the ground as his significantly taller companion hoisted a small bag over his shoulder, and the pair marched into the fire lit interior. A thick wall of smoke waited beyond the tent flap. The diminutive animal was spared the worst of it thanks to his short stature, but Jak coughed and waved a gloved hand in front of his nose in a futile effort to clear the fumes.

Daxter exclaimed in disgust, “Woof! Think you can tone down the patchouli stink?”

“Forget it, rat boy! Incense goes with the—RRRAWRK—territory.”

Jak blinked at the speaker, a moody moncaw, with watery eyes. He was just over two feet tall, about the same size as Daxter, and robed in vivid blue, red, and yellow feathers. He carried his long, slender tail high, the end curled into a tight spiral, and a perpetual scowl graced his simian face.

“Whatever, Pecker,” Jak said as he proffered the bag, “We brought what you asked for—three artifacts from the Mountain Temple.”

Pecker swiped the bag from his outstretched hand and unceremoniously rummaged through its contents. He removed a gear, a crystal cluster, and a miraculously intact lens, squawking in surprise, “I can't believe you actually got these old things!”

“With the amount of information you gave us I can’t believe it either. The Mountain Temple’s a colossal pain in the ass.”

“Yes, yes,” the colorful creature muttered as he examined each relic in turn, “what Precursor ruins aren’t?”

His inspection concluded, he vigorously flapped his wings and flew toward the back of the tent, perching atop the wide, bowl-like brim of a green hat worn by the oldest woman Jak had ever seen. She sat hunched on the floor, her deflated bosom sagging to her waist and her gaunt legs folded over one another with surprising flexibility. Her figure seemed all the more skeletal for the loose folds of her clothing and the dozens of oversized bangles jangling on her wrists and ankles. A frayed red silk scarf embroidered with gold wrapped about her head and shoulders, framing her ancient, wrinkled face. Her eyes, though heavily lidded and blind, radiated tranquility, in stark contrast to her tetchy companion. She clapped her hands together and began signing, blue sparkles swirling about her fingers like miniature galaxies.

“Onin thanks you for finding the artifacts,” Pecker translated.

“She better!” Daxter cut in, “I singed my tail getting that stupid lens!”

“So what do these gizmos have to do with Mar’s Tomb anyway?” Jak inquired, his voice gruff. After spending all day on what felt like a totally arbitrary fetch quest he was impatient to hear any shred of coherent information. They had scarcely met the strange old woman when she divined that they sought answers about the Tomb of Mar, and not another word was said on the subject before they were sent off to the Mountain Temple to the northwest of the city. It was the first Jak had ever heard of the royal crypt, but it was logical to assume it was the same one he overheard the Baron and Erol discussing in the palace. He sensed that it was the key to understanding their plans.

“Onin says she will search the timelines for answers about these sacred relics. In other words, who knows? I don’t. Be patient!” The contentious interpreter snatched a bag of birdseed off a nearby table and stuffed a wingful in his large mouth, muffling his words. “Whenever she goes on about this sort of thing she can be at it for days.”

Jak crossed his arms, clearly not satisfied with that answer.

“I’ll call you when she has something other than psychic nonsense to say.” Pecker swallowed and motioned for them to leave, but when Onin continued to gesture, her milky eyes crinkling with excitement, he added, “And one more thing, you will soon experience an important encounter.”

“ ‘An important encounter’?” Jak echoed.

“Something about your soul will be touched, blah blah blah,” The moncaw shrugged and munched on more seeds, looking as though he couldn’t possibly care less. Clearly, he was jaded to such vague prognostications.

Daxter, on the other hand, had no such patience. “What the heck is that supposed to mean, featherweight?”

“About as much as your mother to your father, tiny tail!” Pecker retorted, spraying half-masticated shell fragments.

“Listen, you over-stuffed, over-yappin', feather dusty mouthpiece fo—”

“Just tell us what she said already,” Jak interrupted, his own irritation rising, and Daxter grumbled further insults under his breath.

“You want to hear her stupid woo crap? Fine, here you go!” Pecker set aside his snack and settled back on his vermilion haunches. Then he cleared his throat and theatrically swept his wing toward the middle distance, speaking with all the mocking ponderance of a crusty sage, “Your soul will be touched by a kindred spirit, one with whom your destiny is intertwined. The road to victory is paved by both your powers, but beware the fingers of darkness for their reach is long. Tread lightly. There are as many possible futures as stars in the sky.”

Finished with her auguries, Onin’s hands fell to rest gently on her bony knees. Jak and Daxter blinked and shared a mystified, sidelong glance.

“There,” Pecker declared, “Now I bet you just wish I had left it at blah blah blah!”

Onin smiled, her papery jowls lifting off her chin.

“Well, thanks for the fortune cookie, lady,” Daxter said, his words dripping with sarcasm.

“Yes, yes, welcome to my life,” Pecker responded with an eye roll, “Now scram! You're cutting into my siesta time.”

And with that, he waved them out the door.

Jak ducked out into the neon-infused square, breathing deeply as he did so. If he continued to visit Onin he was in serious danger of being put off incense for life.

“What a weird old bag,” Daxter complained, “And that friggin’ feathered moron! Boy does he cheese me off!”

“You don’t say?” Jak asked, a mischievous grin curling his lips.

“Whoever was unlucky enough to give birth to that idiot definitely had the right idea naming him ‘Pecker.’ What a pain in the ass!”

“I bet he never thinks he's the problem either.”

“Yeah! He’s probably always complainin’ about other people! Some folks just have no self-awareness.”

Jak stifled a snicker, amused by how oblivious Daxter was to the obvious comparison with himself. The blonde was about to tease his friend further when a flash of scarlet caught his eye. Striding through the teeming street and speaking into her communicator with great seriousness of purpose was none other than Ashelin. She rounded a corner and disappeared.

Without thinking, Jak followed and called her name as soon as he was within earshot.

She whirled toward him, belligerent and beautiful. “Get out of here,” she flatly commanded, “I don’t have time for this right now.”

“What’s got you all hot and bothered, sweet stripes?” Daxter asked. He was forced to flail his arms for balance when Jak angrily shrugged his shoulder.

The redhead merely rolled her eyes and turned on her heel, weaving away through the crowd.

“Wait,” Jak demanded, and he fell in step beside her, “what’s going on?”

“Krimzon Guard business.” She was scanning the dark skies, still hurrying forward.

A voice buzzed from her communicator, “The tanker is still losing altitude over the East Bazaar. Impact is imminent!”

“I’m going to need backup at—”

She was interrupted when a large ship burst through a nearby rooftop and crashed into the street in a cascade of dust, tiles, and eco barrels. The onlookers roiled into a mighty panic.

“Clear the area!” Ashelin roared, “This section is under lockdown!”

The chaos was so fierce that anyone knocked down would be in danger of getting trampled. The KG officer swiftly knelt and pulled up an elderly man who had tripped, and Jak immediately followed suit with another civilian. The pair did what they could to aid and direct the fleeing people when the sound of wrenching metal ground the air in two. The tank’s manhole was punched clean off, and out crawled a well-muscled grunt, its blue skin reflecting green in the light of the paper lanterns. It dropped to the sandy pavement with a guttural growl, its four yellow eyes wide with aggression, and a stream of its fellow grunts and juice goons followed.

“A Metal Head sneak attack!” Daxter cried.

“Damn!” Ashelin cursed even as the crowd began to thin. There was no sign of another Krimzon Guard. She charged forward as she radioed for backup, opening fire on the encroaching foes.

Jak moved to help her, but he barely unholstered his morph gun when a bolt of electricity arced past his face. Leaping to the side, he unloaded round after round into the offending juice goon’s round stomach till the beast fell to the ground, dropping its conductive staff with a sizzle.

Despite Ashelin’s hostility, they once again made a good team. Jak couldn’t help but feel a bond of sorts as they fought side by side. There was a kind of rhythm they slipped into with ease, allowing them to efficiently weave around the battlefield. They made short work of the threat with nary a casualty, even though these Metal Heads were much better organized than those at the pumping station. They fluidly navigated even close calls, and before it was over each helped the other through a narrow scrape.

Ashelin surveyed the Metal Head corpses. The only movement came from spreading pools of turquoise blood. “We got ‘em all,” she announced. Though they were victorious something about her manner was strangely hollow.

“What the hell was that all about?” Jak asked as he wiped the sweat off his brow.

She didn’t answer as she padded up to the cabin of the smoking wreckage and peered inside. From her grimace, it was safe to assume the occupant was dead.

“This is one of Vin’s eco tankers.” She motioned over her shoulder as she trudged back. “They’re always coming and going from the wasteland, but the clearance transmission sounded fishy. The driver was scared.”

Jak studied her downcast visage and realized for the first time that she cared. Unlike Erol or her father, Baron Praxis, she actually cared about the residents of Haven City.

Feeling him watching her, Ashelin looked up. Her emerald eyes held his in a level stare, boring into him with such raw intensity that a nervous tempest swirled in his belly.

“Tell me a secret...”

Jak stiffened at the familiar voice, a wisp of memory transporting him back in time. He was on a cliff overlooking the ocean, stars shining above, gazing into eyes the same shade of green.

“Seeing ghosts, Jak?” the KG officer asked, breaking the spell.

Dazed by the vision, Jak shook his head. Though it seemed like the least important detail, he realized then that Ashelin’s eyes were the same color as Keira’s, the very hue he had been unable to recall. It was utterly coincidental, yet a guilty splash of shame cooled his heated brain.

He clenched and unclenched his fist, flaring with righteous indignation. What was there to feel bad about? The daughter of the Sage of Green Eco was long gone from his life, and even as his memories of Samos and Sandover Village were coming into sharp relief she remained hazy. It made no matter that what fragmented memories he retained tugged at him, stirring forgotten emotions. There was no guarantee he would ever see her again, whereas Ashelin was a real flesh and blood woman in the here and now.

Not that she's remotely in reach either, Jak thought to himself with a frustrated sigh. “Something like that,” he at last responded.

Ashelin gave an impatient toss of her scarlet dreadlocks and holstered her gun. “The Metal Heads are getting bolder every day. It’s almost like they’re testing our defenses, like probing attacks. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

And with that she walked away, once again busying herself with her communicator.

“Yeah,” Jak muttered after her receding silhouette, “you’re welcome.”

 


 

Keira willed herself into the here and now, deeply breathing in and out, and became acutely aware of her each of her senses in the process. The sun’s golden rays bounced off the rusty scrap surrounding her as the day waned into evening. A gentle gust of wind played through her viridian tresses and caressed her skin, carrying with it the aroma of rust and earth, and her tongue tingled with the taste of each new scent. The sounds of the ever bustling city were distant, the resulting quiet a blessing.

She inhaled, her intense focus bringing the entire world to a temporary stop, like a dewdrop coming to rest on the tip of a blade of grass. Then she pulled the trigger in rapid succession, emptying her gun’s revolving chambers. Muffled reports ricocheted around the scrapyard as lime green light punctured hole after hole in her makeshift target, an old propaganda poster of Baron Praxis.

She exhaled, squinting at the poster. Though she had missed her intended mark, the Baron’s one eye, every shot had landed on his face, shredding it nearly beyond all recognition. Surely a bullseye wasn’t far off.

To Keira’s eminent relief she had managed to talk Tess into snooping on Krew’s NYFE Racing bets. It wasn’t easy to do so without revealing the rift rider, but their friendship was suitably strong that, even without knowing all the details, trust was enough.

Next, she retrieved Gilda’s business card and made her pitch. Armed with the information gathered by Tess and her already formidable power behind the scenes, the ganglady would be able to rig the game against her biggest rival. If all went according to plan she would weaken if not outright cripple Krew by the end of the season, cementing herself as the true ruler of Haven City’s criminal underworld in the process. To Keira’s delight, the glamorous mobster agreed.

The Time Map was officially within reach.

Keira reloaded, a wave of giddiness sweeping over her. She could scarcely believe her scheme was working. Now all that stood between her and completing the rift rider was finding the Heart of Mar. Though it was a significant obstacle and not the last one she would face before opening the rift gate, there would be more than enough time to worry later. Now she allowed herself to feel victorious and bask in the certainty that her goal was more than just a dream.

She studied the ruined poster, brimming with confidence. The Baron stared back, his imperious cruelty plain to see even when riddled with holes. A beat later she took aim and fired one shot, fluid and purposeful as an ocean current, and obliterated his eye in a burst of singed confetti.

“Dead center,” she said, her chest swelling with pride. She glanced to her right as though someone was standing there. He was tall and lean, his chestnut hair ruffling in the breeze.

“Not bad, huh?”

She paused, taking a moment to imagine how he would react. No doubt he’d whistle and teasingly praise her in that singsong voice of his. She could so easily picture his golden eyes glowing with delight at how much she had progressed. Would he take her in his arms, wrapping her in the warm embrace she hadn’t felt in so long? Her toes tingled, and the corner of her mouth twitched.

Never mind that, she chided herself.

She was about to prep a fresh target when her communicator buzzed with an incoming call. She frowned at the vibrating device. It was hours before her scheduled check-in with Torn.

“Yes?” she answered.

“Keira,” the Underground strategist said, the tinny speaker rendering his already gravelly tenor with the clarity of sandpaper, “Hanging in there I imagine.”

“Like always. Just getting in a little shooting practice.”

“Good,” Torn replied approvingly, “I’m glad you’re staying sharp because you might need it. I need you to report to Headquarters.”

Keira lowered her gun towards the dirt, intrigued. Since being assigned to Mar Memorial Stadium she had only been called back to HQ a handful of times, and usually to fix something mundane. This was the first time Torn had mentioned her marksmanship. “Not just another maintenance visit then?”

“We’ll see. With any luck, all that will be necessary is your mechanical skill.”

She responded in a droll tone, “So maintenance.”

Though he didn't say anything, Keira imagined him rolling his eyes.

“What’s the brief?” she asked though she knew she wouldn’t get an answer.

“I’ll tell you when you get here. Report at 1800 hours.” Torn signed off, ending the call in a staticky click.

Keira looked at her watch. 5:08 now… she read. With a decisive nod, she gathered up her things and swiftly strode toward her parked zoomer. She’d have to hurry back to the stadium for her toolkit and a quick bite to eat if she was going to make it in time.

Chapter Text

“You’re kidding me,” Jak said, “You want me to team up again?”

“I do,” Torn confirmed in a tone that suggested he would brook no argument. The ex-KG commander sat in a corner of Headquarters, sharpening his crescent dagger.

“Once was enough! The last thing I need is dead weight dragging me down. I work alone.”

“Plus me!” Daxter interjected.

“Plus Daxter,” Jak affirmed.

Torn shot the younger man an icy blue glare. “Oh? It sounded to me like Lil and Nic were plenty helpful when you were swarmed by Metal Heads in Dead Town.”

“Lil maybe, but Nic was a liability and you know it.”

“Well, then you’ll be happy to know your partner has plenty of experience in the field. And I somehow doubt either of you morons know the first thing about repairing a warp gate.”

“ ‘Repairing a warp gate’?” Daxter repeated, “Why do you need us to babysit something like that?”

“If you’ll just wait for the official mission brief you’ll find out.”

Jak scowled at his superior, not caring in the slightest if he was being antagonistic. He was tired of waiting. “I don’t want to waste any more time on grunt work like this. All I want is to get another chance at the Baron.”

“Well you can’t always get what you want, and thank the Precursors or the Slums would get wiped off the map,” Torn growled, inspecting the edge of his blade, “...and with a winning personality like yours I doubt she’ll be happy about it either.”

As if on cue, the door slid open and booted footsteps padded past the bunk beds.

“All right, Torn, this had better be good.”

Jak turned toward the familiar voice and froze, his heart leaping into his throat. At first, he didn’t even know why. He didn’t recognize her. Her blue-green locks were well past her shoulders, her more womanly body clad in darker, Haven style clothing. And yet, just like with the Shadow, color seeped back into his faded memory, and he realized who she was. The sight of her cut right through every layer of armor he had.

“Keira?” Daxter yelled in astonishment.

The mechanic looked at the ottsel, startled, and then recognition flickered in her beautiful face. “Daxter?! It is you!” She crossed the room in a few jubilant steps and picked him up, hugging him fiercely. “I never thought I’d be so glad to see your furry mug!”

Torn looked on, utterly disgusted. “You’re familiar with this rat?”

Keira wasn’t listening. She put the flustered Daxter down and turned towards the third person in the room. “And Jak—”

As soon as she caught sight of him, all the apparent joy in her face evaporated. He tensed, his own astonishment mingling with dread at what she might say next.

“You look,” angry, hard, dangerous, “…different.”

A fissure in his heart cracked open, allowing the word to burrow deep within his aching chest like a white-hot bullet. She wasn’t happy to see him. He was different. In a flash he was in the chair, the machine injecting him with torrents of dark eco as he screamed and writhed like a helpless animal. Just as quickly, he was back in the dank basement that passed for Headquarters. So disorienting was the surge of memory that his pulse skyrocketed, and he began to sweat. It took every ounce of control he had to keep from staggering on his weakened knees. He crossed his arms defensively and stared at the floor, muttering, “It’s been a tough ride.”

“You can talk!”

Torn looked from girl to boy to ottsel and back again, shocked to see that no one else seemed surprised by the statement. “Of course he can talk! How the hell do you know these two punks?!”

“We grew up together,” Daxter answered, his voice less grating than usual.

Torn asked Keira, incredulous, “You grew up with a rat?!”

The ottsel indignantly puffed out his chest. “You know what? I’ve just about had it with this ‘rat’ business. You better put your dukes up, Tattooed Wonder, ‘cause it’s time for Orange Lightning to kick your—”

“He wasn’t always like this.” Keira cut off Daxter with such ease she was clearly a seasoned professional. “He was a person just like you and me until he fell into a pool of dark eco a few years back.”

Daxter slicked back his ears. “And what a hunk I was.”

Jak might have laughed to himself under different circumstances. As it was he felt as fragile and prickly as a wounded hedgepine, and the tension in the room congealed into an uncomfortable silence. He could feel Keira’s eyes but refused to look at her. Torn sheathed his dagger, totally at a loss. It fell to Daxter to ask, “So what’s the rundown?”

Setting aside his curiosity about the trio in front of him, Torn began the briefing, “The Shadow’s source of power is Haven Forest, but it’s been cut off. The warp gates around the Mountain Temple appear to be inoperable, and every scout fly we’ve sent out has disappeared. Keira, that’s where you come in. I need you to fix the gates.”

“What about Vin?” Jak asked.

Torn was about to answer when Keira swooped in, “First of all, Vin is a pathetic coward who’d piss his pants if he ran into any trouble. Secondly, he’s a computer scientist not an engineer.”

At last, her biting remark was enough to get Jak to look at her, and he stared with thinly veiled disbelief.

She met him with a level glance. Yes, she thought, I can be just as crass as the next person. She turned back to Torn, not interested in dealing with Jak’s surprise that she too may have changed in the intervening years.

Torn pretended not to notice the unspoken exchange. “Right. And if there’s trouble I want someone to cover you. Jak, that’s your job. Make sure you both come back in one piece.”

The young man didn’t say anything else.

“Given the situation, we need to act fast. We can’t have the Shadow compromised, and since they’ve been encroaching more and more on the city it’s likely Metal Heads are involved. You’re both the best equipped to deal with whatever’s out there."

Torn assessed his audience. Daxter’s orange countenance was overconfident as always. Keira was trying and failing to cover up her obvious discomfort. Jak appeared emotionless and glazed. Was he even paying attention?

“You got that, Jak?” the Underground strategist spat with surprising venom, causing the younger man to focus on him with fresh anger.

“Go to Haven Forest, fix the warp gates, take out Metal Heads if we find them,” he recited, his fists tightening at his sides till his knuckles were as white as the peak of Snowy Mountain.

Torn nodded, his lip curling in a sardonic smile. “Good. Dismissed.”

 


 

The three recruits exited the Underground and made their way to a nearby parked zoomer. Keira couldn’t help stealing sideways glances at Jak. He was a little taller, his body broader and more muscular. His once gravity-defying hair now fell past the nape of his crimson-scarfed neck, and a small green beard sprouted from his strong chin. She never imagined he would look this way, and she was nearly overwhelmed by the strength of her attraction to him. She felt breathless and longed to drink him in further.

But on another level, she didn’t want to.

His build and clothes weren’t the only things that had changed. Gone was Jak’s easygoing and carefree demeanor. His mouth was set in a firm line, his brow crooked in a constant scowl. His cerulean eyes, once warm and engaging, were now cold and guarded. The old Jak who shone so brightly was nothing like this dark young man. Keira could see no trace of the boy from Sandover Village.

…What on earth happened to you?

Jak climbed behind the wheel, and Daxter hopped off his shoulder perch, settling between the two available seats. Realizing she was just standing there, Keira hurried to join them. As she slid into the passenger side she turned and caught Jak staring. He immediately looked away, busying himself with the dash and revving the engine, giving her no chance to get a read on him, and in short order, they were off like a shot. A heavy feeling took root in the pit of her stomach. She suspected he was doing whatever he could to avoid being in the present with her. She wasn't wrong.

Jak’s thoughts were a chaotic mess, a storm with two competing winds. On the one hand was Keira, free of the distorting veil of dark eco. For the first time in what seemed like forever he didn’t just remember how he wanted her—he felt it. And it hurt terribly. There was a raw hole in his chest, bleeding such copious emotion he wished to feel nothing instead. Yet there was no stopping it, not with her right there. Her presence inflamed him in every way possible. He both wanted to flee and close the distance between them. Since he saw her last she had grown more enticing than ever, and it wasn’t just her appearance that had changed. She seemed brash, stronger, more capable of taking care of herself. He could see it in the way she walked and talked, and though it was deeply hypocritical it made him angry. Her differences reminded him of his own.

And so he was also inundated with thoughts of who he used to be. The way she reacted to him in HQ plainly spelled it out. Her eyes, such a beautiful shade of emerald, turning on a dime from happiness to alarm… They cut him to the quick, accusing him. They were a biting reminder of his defilement, his innocence forever lost, and it made Jak hate himself and the Baron all the more.

Outraged and frustrated, he attempted to don a mask of indifference and focus on the road ahead. He had a mission to attend to and revenge in his heart. What difference does it make if she’s here? he thought, hoping he could successfully fool himself into not caring.

Daxter surveyed the pair, unimpressed by their lukewarm reception of one another. Figuring there was no chance of anyone else breaking the ice, he asked, “So, Keira, are ya really happy to see me?”

She grinned over her shoulder at him. “Didn’t I already tell you?”

“Well, you certainly never hugged me like that back in the old days—” Daxter gulped, immediately realizing his mistake. As soon as the words “old days” escaped his fuzzy lips Keira’s smile faded, Jak’s jaw clenched tighter. He quickly changed the subject, “How long’ve you been in the Underground?”

“Almost two years.” She smirked as she remembered enlisting. “I practically had to beg Torn to give me a chance.”

“The guy isn’t great at the whole having faith in people thing. He was none too pleased about us when we joined up about a month back.”

“He still doesn’t seem pleased with you, to be honest.”

“Yeah,” Daxter admitted, “he doesn’t like it when we bend the rules.”

“Torn’s a stickler for procedure. He’s a military man after all.”

“Makes me wanna make him run drills till he begs for mercy. Drop and give me fifty, maggot!”

“That’d be something to see,” she said, chuckling, “He’s not all that bad when you get to know him better.”

“Eh, I’m not buying it. If a guy who’s fighting against the Baron gets angry when we kick his ass then his priorities are out of whack.”

Keira frowned and was about to ask what he meant when Jak broke his silence. “You’re Violet—from the stadium—aren’t you?”

“How did you know that?” she asked with a sharp look.

“Hey!” Daxter exclaimed as he caught up with his friend’s realization, “We’re the candidates for your race team!”

Keira raised a blue eyebrow, still staring at Jak. “Krew’s guy?” He didn’t say anything, but his confirmation was unnecessary. It made perfect sense. Her eyes returned to the street, watching the dilapidated buildings of the Slums stream past without really seeing them. “Now I understand all those ‘us’s and ‘we’s.”

“Yeah, that would get kinda confusing,” Daxter said as he scratched his head, “Why’d you join the Underground in the first place?”

She hesitated, unsure how to answer. Her brief history with Ryker and Vivian was complicated, and parts of it she was less than thrilled at the prospect of sharing. “...It’s personal.”

“Of course it is,” Jak scoffed, “Everyone joins because ‘it’s personal.’ ”

Keira glowered at him, suddenly annoyed. How dare he talk down to her when he was the rookie? “Well then, Jak, why did you sign up?”

“I need to kill the Baron.”

“Like that's any less obvious? Everyone in the Underground wants to stick it to Praxis. The question is why.”

The bristling blonde’s cool exterior cracked,

and he shot her a scathing glare. “What do you care?”

Keira stared back, quiet.

He hated it. He wanted her to flare up, insult him, push him away, anything other than maintain pregnant silence. At least driving afforded him the small mercy of evading her penetrating eyes.

After a few agonizing moments more, she asked in a soft voice, “Why wouldn’t I care?” Her knit brow pulsed as she struggled to find the right words to say. “...We’re friends aren’t we?”

He glanced at her now. Friends…

Memories prodded at Jak, endeavoring to inject him with tenderness. He could easily remember all she had been—his childhood friend, his inventive accomplice, his first love—and though she seemed so different there was an earnest quality to her expression that he couldn’t ignore. She looked so vulnerable, even scared, and yet she was allowing the girl she once was to shine through. Was it possible she meant what she said?

He turned his attention back to the road, switching hover zones to speed beneath a slow driver.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, unable to reject her, “friends.”

Keira took a deep, centering breath in an effort to gather herself. “I’ve been looking for you guys forever and planning a way for us to get back home. Somehow that rift took us far into the future. The time displacement—”

Jak interjected, “We found your father…well, sort of.”

Daxter piped up, “He’s been working with—”

“The Underground,” Keira cut him off, “I know. I met the Shadow a long time ago.”

The subtext of her statement was clear. She was already aware of many things, and she hadn’t needed Jak or Daxter’s help to learn any of it. After tremulously bridging a small gap with her talk of amity, the hardships of the last two years once again massed between them, yawning into a wide chasm that consumed all hope of conversation. Daxter made no further attempts to get things rolling, and the rest of the ride passed in silence.

To get to Haven Forest they had to pass through the shield wall’s northwestern gate, the same one that led to the Mountain Temple, and it resided in the North Garden. Much like the Bazaar, the Gardens were split into two halves, and together they formed the city’s agricultural district. Almost entirely constituted by verdant fields and dirt roads, they were by far and away the greenest and least populous part of the city. Huge fields of crops were tended to by specialized machinery, and herds of yakow grazed in enclosed pastures. The guard presence was lower here, lending the Gardens an atmosphere verging on peaceful, but there were signs that not all was well. The war with the Metal Heads was exacting a toll on everything in Haven, including the means of food production. A growing fraction of the fields lay fallow and the yakow numbers dwindled.

When they at last reached their destination Jak power slid to a stop, perfectly positioning their zoomer in front of the ramp up to the gate. Keira noted the move, impressed. All throughout the drive, he navigated the slow traffic of both zoomers above and pedestrians below with impressive adroitness, always taking the quickest possible route through the congested streets. No wonder he managed to get to the stadium so fast before, but then he was always a speed demon with her old A-Grav.

After ascending the ramp and passing through the shield wall, the trio stepped onto soft grass. They stood inside a deep canyon, all light from the lowering sun blocked by the looming cliff ahead. Beside a small tree to the right waited the first warp gate, an upright ring wrought from the warm metal of the Precursors. It sat lifeless in the shade, and Keira immediately bent to examine its base. She deftly popped off a panel that fit so perfectly it appeared seamless when in place. Setting it on the ground, she grabbed the necessary tools from her belt and proceeded to tinker with the warp gate’s insides.

For the next few minutes, the only sound was the clinking of her work. The sky began to shift in hue, and a lone flut flut mournfully cooed in the distance. Jak stared into space, and Daxter sighed, frustrated with the quiet. As the seconds ticked by, the mechanic felt a growing sense of desperation. After two long years here were her companions, alive and whole, but she didn’t know how to break through Jak’s shell. Her mind raced, searching for a way to connect. She wanted—needed—to get an open channel of communication established.

With a whir and an otherworldly shimmering sound, the warp gate came to life. Aqua light rippled within the ring, seeming to bend the very fabric of reality.

“Way to go, Keira!” Daxter congratulated her.

“Oh, this was nothing.” She waved off the compliment. “We’re in luck because the nearby gate appears to be working just fine, but I can't get a signal from the one in the forest. It looks like we’ll have to take the long way over if we want to find out what’s wrong.”

Moving one at a time, all three leapt through the warp gate and teleported out the other side at the top of the cliff. The only way forward was through a cleft in the rock, a claustrophobic path that dramatically opened up into a view of the palatial Mountain Temple. At first glance, it appeared to be a cluster of several individual towers set into the terraced crown of a tremendous slice of granite, but this was merely the tip of the iceberg. Each structure burrowed deep within the mountain, linked by a warren of winding passages and elaborate chambers. Though technically a ruin, long since abandoned by the vanished Precursors, it hardly showed the passage of time. It was constructed of the same bronze-like metal as Precursor orbs and other artifacts, a mysterious substance that repelled the aging effects of weather and the encroachment of plant life. The temple gleamed like burnished amber in the day’s dying light, as new and untarnished as the day it was completed. Only the grounds themselves, overgrown by tall grasses and twisting trees, indicated its long dormant state, and they had their own beauty to offer. A succession of waterfalls wreathed the premises in streamers of white before dissolving into clouds of vapor, descending into the seemingly bottomless canyon below.

Haven Forest waited on the other side. In lieu of the final warp gate, a thrumming platform floated near the edge, obligingly waiting to transport them safely across. With a sinking feeling, Keira saw just how small the platform was: barely large enough for one person. The thought of being in close proximity with Jak was extremely unnerving. Trying not to make too much of it, she nimbly hopped onto the hemisphere of orange metal. When no one followed she looked back over her shoulder, one eyebrow raised as if to ask what the fuss was about.

Jak reluctantly joined her, his stiff body language giving every indication that he too was uncomfortable with the situation. As soon as his boots met the platform it sprang into motion, slicing smoothly through the air like a flying disc. Unable to maintain a stable enough stance with such limited space, the passengers were thrown off balance and grabbed onto one another to keep from falling into the chasm underfoot.

Keira’s heartbeat soared as the entirety of her attention shrank to Jak’s body touching hers. She could feel his strong fingers on her arms, his breath tickling her ear, and for a moment she was unable to move. To be this close to him was to step back in time, back to the night before they activated the Precursor Ring. She remembered how good it felt then, and she was seized by a sudden desire to kiss him in the present.

Lips tingling, she glanced up at Jak. As soon as their eyes met she came to her senses and steadied herself. Both moved their hands firmly to their sides and looked elsewhere as though nothing had happened. Daxter watched the interaction and rolled his eyes.

Making a weak attempt to cover up the moment’s awkwardness, Keira said, “I hope we don’t run into any Metal Heads so we can get to the warp gate fast,” realizing how her statement sounded, she hastily backpedaled, “I mean, it’ll be more difficult to work on it the less light I have.”

“Fine by me,” Jak replied gruffly, and she stifled the urge to wince. Was he really that unhappy to see her?

After swooping through a rocky cavern, the platform came to a gentle stop in front of a massive Precursor gate that served as the entrance to the forest. A great yellow eco crystal as wide as Keira’s legs were long was suspended from the arch above by a semicircle of five metal spokes, giving the impression of a shining sun peeking over the horizon. She wondered as she always did if it was rising or setting. Though the real sun was fast falling, she hoped for the blessings of a new day.

Boy, girl, and ottsel stepped through the gate and proceeded to pick their way down the rocky hillside into the forest valley. Orange light filtered through the leaves, setting them aflame against the sky. The trees and rocks glowed coral, and the water of the river sparkled like liquid gold. The scene was serene and devoid of any Metal Head activity.

Jak wished it was otherwise. It would force him to focus on something, anything, besides Keira. Even with her olive branch of friendship, he doubted the veracity of it. Surely she must be regretting saying so. He replayed their sparse conversation over and over, each time through becoming more convinced that every brusque word was proof that she actually couldn’t stand him. Again he saw in his mind’s eye the way she first looked at him in HQ.

“I landed in Main Town,” Keira tentatively spoke up.

Jak halted in surprise. She kept walking, her pace unbroken, and he shortly followed.

“My first couple days were… unpleasant. But I was taken in by two people. They were kind to me when no one else was… It didn't last long. They turned out to be spies for the Underground and were rounded up by the Krimzon Guard. That’s why I joined… I tried everything I could to find you.” She glanced meaningfully at Daxter, then Jak. “Both of you.”

Despite all his cynicism, Jak was momentarily disarmed by her declaration. Before he even realized the words were coming out of his mouth he replied, “I wasn't easy to find. We landed in the Industrial Zone, and the KG came for us right away.” Watching Keira out of the corner of his eye, he gratefully noted she was staring straight ahead, impassive. “Dax got away, but I was locked up.”

Feeling as though he had permission to speak at last, Daxter let loose a tumble of words, “I made it my mission to save him, but that was way easier said than done! I wound up in the exterminating business to make ends meet, and let me tell ya it stinks. As soon as I figured out where big guy here was a month back, I dropped everything and sprung him from the joint. It’s a good thing too because the Baron was—”

“We met Kor, and he pointed us toward the Underground,” Jak interrupted Daxter with all speed. It was hard enough sharing any reference to his time behind bars. He didn't think he could take it if Keira knew about the dark eco injections. The last thing he wanted was for her to feel sorry for him.

She still stared straight ahead as she asked, “You were imprisoned in the fortress for two years?”

Jak responded with a terse nod.

Keira, who had endeavored to remain neutral and nonjudgmental to draw him out, now struggled to keep a straight face. She had heard whisperings about the Krimzon Guard Fortress over the years. She wasn't sure what all was true, but she knew enough to understand he must have endured hell.

She said, her voice thick with emotion, “The people who took me in… They never got out. You’re lucky you escaped.”

“Lucky…” Jak echoed. Am I?

Before long the trio arrived at the third warp gate. It was positioned along an abutting wall of the Mountain Temple, and to their surprise, it lay in pieces. Keira ran up to the sorry pile, charred wires exposed to the open air. She fell to her knees and gingerly examined what was left. “This is a disaster! I can’t fix this without all new parts!”

“Maybe Metal Heads are involved,” Daxter offered.

Jak dryly noted, “Well it sure isn’t wumpbees.”

“Hey, it's my job to make sarcastic remar—”

Daxter was abruptly cut off by the report of a gun and Jak leaping out of harm’s way. The spot they had stood in was now a charred patch of grass.

Wasting no time, Jak and Keira dove behind a nearby log as Daxter yelled, “What was that??”

Keira raised a finger to her lips, hushing him. “Whatever it is, it’s hiding in the bushes,” she whispered as she brandished her revolver. The chambers glowed with green eco cartridges, casting soft lime light across her face. Though he should be focusing on the task at hand, Jak couldn’t help but stare at her. The sight of the petite girl packing heat was totally incongruous to him.

Realizing she was being scrutinized, Keira sighed in exasperation, “What, does me using a gun go against the script?”

Before Jak could retort their attacker fired off another shot that went over their heads. After a moment’s pause, he peered over the edge, searching the foliage from which both bullets originated. Though his senses were heightened with adrenaline, he couldn’t see or hear any movement. Whatever it was must be camping in the same spot. Making a snap decision, he instructed Keira and Daxter to stay put and stealthily circled toward the thicket before either could protest. In twenty seconds he was behind the bushes. Certain he had the element of surprise on his side, he rushed in, scatter gun at the ready.

He found… nothing. Confused, Jak scanned the area, now feeling all too vulnerable. The silence in the forest was oppressive. Just what was going on? He was about to head back when he heard more gunfire. He made a beeline for the log, crashing through the bushes, only to find his companions gone. Panic seized him, and he called out, “Dax! Keira!”

A dark eco bullet whizzed past Jak’s face, and Keira leaned out from behind a nearby tree trunk, firing back and only just missing him in the process.

He took cover behind a boulder. “What the hell do you think you’re shooting at?!”

“I wasn't aiming at you!” Keira yelled as she reloaded her pistol.

“Could've fooled me!”

Another bullet flew past Jak’s hiding place, and Keira fired several rounds at what appeared to be thin air. Then something truly strange happened. Her last shot found its mark, and a ghostly silhouette wavered in and out of view.

Acting on instinct, Jak switched to his Vulcan fury mod and sprayed the area in a hail of blue. He hit the creature several times, causing it to flicker in progressively shorter intervals before its camouflage failed completely, and it was revealed to be a spyder gunner. With blinding speed, the quadrupedal Metal Head charged and leapt over Jak’s rock. It let loose a flaming barrage of its own from the blaster mounted on its arm, forcing him to dodge to the side. He fell to the ground and rolled, the bullets following his path by a scant few inches.

Keira jumped into the open, Daxter bobbing uncertainly on her shoulder, and stopped the assault by shooting one of its four saffron eyes. The spyder gunner screeched in agony, thrashing about, giving Jak time to jump back to his feet. He was about to finish the job when the creature surged forward, shrieking anew, nearly running him over in the process. It was heading straight for Keira, blue blood streaming behind its head like a macabre ornament.

Jak unloaded his clip, puncturing the spyder gunner’s back with dozens of bullets. With a gurgling whimper its legs gave out, and the light within its yellow skull gem extinguished.

Jak and Keira stared first at the corpse and then each other, panting.

Daxter remarked, “Well, it’s definitely a Metal Head.”

Jak shook his head, breaking eye contact with the green-haired girl. “It would’ve been easier to handle on my own,” he said in a rough voice.

“Really? That's where you're gonna go with this?” Keira demanded, plainly offended, “You’ve obviously never encountered any Metal Heads with cloaking abilities, and you wouldn’t have figured it out half as fast without me. Not to mention you would be full of holes if I hadn’t plugged its eye!”

“And you would be dead meat if I hadn’t pumped it full of eco!”

“Alright, children,” Daxter cut in as he jumped off Keira’s shoulder and waddled over to Jak, “as the third party I’m the only one who can accurately judge the situation, and I say by the magic of teamwork, yadda yadda yadda, you both saved each other’s skins and killed the Metal Head.”

Jak and Keira lowered their guns to the ground and sulkily stared at the dirt.

“Anyway,” Daxter remarked as he assumed his usual perch, “nice to know you were worried about us.”

“Worried about you?” Jak echoed, clearly annoyed by the suggestion.

“First you get the bright idea to sneak off and take out the crabby bastard by yourself. Then you come running back yelling for us at the first sign of trouble.”

“Yeah, well,” he muttered, “the last thing I need is Torn chewing me out for getting your squirrelly ass killed.”

By the time Jak finished the sentence a taunting grin had spread across his face, and he and Daxter proceeded to rib each other further. Keira watched the exchange and quietly smiled to herself. For the first time since she walked into Headquarters, the atmosphere was something resembling comfortable. Though she was on the outside looking in, she didn't mind just then. Daxter was right. Jak was worried about them—about her. He even said her name for the first time in all the years she had known him.

Without warning dark eco split the space between them, grazing Jak’s face. He staggered, gripping his right cheek, and Keira cried out.

“I’m fine, let’s go!” he barked back and broke into a run. More gunfire streaked past, and with a jolt of alarm, he realized Keira wasn’t keeping pace. He looked back just as the mechanic threw down a small device. As it clicked and expanded she leapt on and sped forward with perfect balance, hovering over the grass, and Jak recognized it as the JET-Board he had tested at the stadium.

Though twilight was fading the forest came alight with blazing projectiles rocketing between the trees like a deadly laser show. It was nearly impossible to tell with all their assailants cloaked, but it seemed like they were being shot at from at least two dozen sources, some nearly flanking them. The very air was heating up, its earthy scent subsumed by the astringent stench of smoke. Daxter wailed in terror as Jak and Keira fled for the exit, ducking and weaving to make themselves difficult targets.

Twisting as he ran, Jak unloaded round after round of blue eco. Several Metal Heads trembled into view, a spyder gunner and two shorter ones. Their cloaking damaged, the trio scattered as they returned fire. They didn't make it very far. Keira swung around on the JET-Board and, in the best shooting of her life, felled all three with perfect headshots.

As more of their camouflage failed, it turned out very few of the Metal Heads were spyder gunners. Most were a variety that neither Jak or Keira had seen before. They stood on two legs, about as tall as the average person, and broad pauldrons greatly extended the width of their shoulders. Both arms were mounted with hefty dark eco blasters, and gems glowed within their chests rather than their skulls. They were remarkably fast for their size, easily able to keep pace with the larger spyder gunners and much harder to hit.

There was hardly time to think much less properly take stock of how many enemies were left. All Jak could tell was that, despite his and Keira’s best efforts, they were in danger of being boxed in. Gone was any pretense of stealth. With every passing second their assailants surged further forward, laterally enveloping them, and the extended chase was taking its toll. Ammunition was running low, and they were getting tired.

“C’mon!” Keira roared over the din and swerved left toward a wall of rock, “through here!”

Jak followed, plugging another Metal Head as he went, and was led into a narrow gorge he hadn’t noticed before. Though it briefly sheltered them from gunfire, they didn’t dare slow down. The bottleneck acted like a megaphone and amplified the sound of their pursuers, hot on their heels. They had almost made it to the other side when Keira removed an object from her belt and dropped it on the ground. It beeped and blinked with red light in exponentially shorter intervals.

Daxter yelled, “What the hell is that th—”

He was cut off by a mighty explosion, and the resulting shockwave sent all three of them careening forward into a sprawl.

Jak rolled over with a groan, his ears ringing so loud he could scarcely hear anything. He picked his aching head off the grass and squinted back in the direction they had fled from. The blast had triggered a landslide, and the mouth of the gorge had disappeared. A few Metal Head limbs were visible, popping out of the rocks at grotesque angles. They shuddered, then fell still.

Jak allowed his head to fall back and slowly exhaled, willing his tensed muscles to relax. His body was peppered with searing nicks, a painful reminder of too many close calls, but at least the ringing in his ears was diminishing. “Is everyone alright?” he asked, his throat dry.

Keira murmured a dazed affirmative as she pushed up to a sitting position, and Daxter groaned like he was going to be sick.

“Dax?” Jak probed.

The ottsel waved off the inquiry with a shaking paw. “I might puke, but other than that I’m just peachy. Can we go back now?”

Jak stood on shaky legs and scanned the dark forest. Night had fallen completely. The only activity was the cautious rousing of small creatures. Bugs and amphibians began to chirp, their steadily rising chorus confirmation that the danger was well and truly past.

Holstering his morph gun, the young renegade began trudging uphill. The gate was within sight, the great yellow eco crystal embedded above lighting the way like a beacon.

Keira retrieved the JET-Board and followed, realizing with a wince how battered she was. She was undoubtedly covered in cuts and bruises, and given the burning sensation on her back, she wondered if the blast managed to singe her.

Daxter brought up the rear. “Well that was unexpected,” he announced, his voice regaining its usual grating timbre, “If I didn’t feel like I’ve been hit by a pile of bricks I’d ask where can we get boomsticks like those.”

“They’re KG charges,” Keira replied, “and they’re difficult to get ahold of. Tess always manages to have some in stock though.”

“Sugarplum!” Daxter exclaimed, “Jak, let’s swing by the Hip Hog! We can get some charges and some drinks…”

Keira tuned out the ottsel’s chattering with a roll of her eyes. “Some things never change.”

“You’re telling me,” Jak replied.

Simultaneously struck by the ease of their exchange, the two shared a glance. Jak didn’t quite know what to make of it. After all the ups and downs of the last couple hours, he felt something like camaraderie with Keira. He couldn’t help but remember all the times in the past her aid had proved indispensable, and for the first time that evening the weight of their history didn’t feel quite so heavy.

Then her expression dramatically shifted to one of dismay, and she rushed to his side. “Jak, your face! Is that dark eco?!”

Startled, he reached up and felt the cut beneath his right eye. His stomach dropped into his toes as he realized what she was seeing. Shielding his cheek with his hand, he turned on his heel and walked away.

“Wait!” Keira cried after him.

Jak stubbornly kept on walking. He could hear her light footsteps pad in the grass behind him and was forced to halt when she jumped in front of him. He saw the concerned look in her eyes and barely refrained from shoving past her and flat out sprinting back to the city.

“Let me see it!” she commanded as she boldly grasped his hand and pulled it down from his face, her free fingers brushing his cheek. It was the first time either of them had purposely touched the other, and Jak was momentarily shocked into stillness. Her emerald eyes, reflecting the ghostly yellow light of the Precursor gate, widened in horror as terrible understanding dawned. She whispered, “It’s your blood…”

Jak wrenched himself free of her grasp and turned away, cradling the hand she had grabbed like it was burned.

“Why does it happen?”

“…You don’t need to know.”

“Yes, I do!”

“Like hell!”

He stomped around her toward the gate, but was again stopped when she blocked his path. She was angry now. “Why do you think you can’t tell me? Me! I’ve known you as long as Daxter!”

“Yeah, well you don’t know me anymore!” he yelled, his tone hard and cruel.

“Only because you won’t let me!” she pleaded.

Stricken by the truth of her words, Jak couldn’t bear to look at her. Part of him was aware of how unfair he was being, but he was helpless in the face of his compulsion to hide any and all vulnerability. Every fiber of his being was screaming for him to be somewhere, anywhere, other than with her in that forest.

Keira stared at him, hurt glistening in her eyes. “…What happened to you?”

Jak walked around her again, denying her, and his pace quickened to a run.

She didn’t follow him.

Bounding on all fours, Daxter caught up. “Uh…big guy—”

The ottsel was cut off before he could say anything that would weaken Jak’s resolve. “It doesn’t matter.”

Chapter Text

All Tess needed was one look at Keira to know her friend was incredibly upset. She stared at the floor as she trudged toward the bar, her crossed arms pressing into her ribcage as if to hold herself together. Her already fair face was drained of blood, rendered extra pale, and her scrunched expression seemed on the verge of crumpling entirely. The last time her misery was this palpable was the night Vivian and Ryker were arrested, and to top it off her disheveled clothes were littered with stains and burn marks, most likely evidence of dangerous field work.

Grateful that the Hip Hog was having a slow night, Tess waited till the green-haired girl sat down on one of the stools with a heavy thump before saying anything. “Bad day?”

Keira placed her elbows on the bar and allowed her head to hang slightly, her ears drooping like the sad petals of a wilted flower. Her only response was a weary nod.

“Can I make you something?” Tess asked, her voice sisterly and gentle.

Keira looked up, smiling weakly. “Gimme gin, straight.”

“Coming right up.” The bartender turned around, grabbed a multitude of bottles, and poured the spirits over ice in an old-fashioned glass with practiced ease.

As she reached for a swizzle stick Keira protested, “I said straight gin.”

“You can thank me tomorrow when your hangover is a little less head-splitting,” Tess matter of factly responded. She ran an orange peel along the rim and twisted it before dropping it into the glass. She smoothly presented Keira with the cocktail, ruby red in the low light of the bar, and was thanked with a glare. Nonetheless, the younger woman picked up her drink and took a sip. The texture was syrupy, the taste extremely bittersweet. Mostly bitter, Keira thought as she puckered her lips and swallowed. It demanded slow sipping, and therefore some degree of sobriety as Tess no doubt intended.

In stubborn defiance, she downed the whole cocktail in just a few gulps and daintily returned the glass to the bartop, batting her eyelids expectantly.

With all the patience of an exasperated parent, Tess passed her a small glass of water. “Drink this, and I’ll make you another one.”

This time Keira obediently complied and was rewarded with a fresh cocktail.

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

The mechanic blew air out her nose in short puffs, the rhythm a shadow of a chuckle. She took another overlarge gulp, and finally said, “Yes.”

Tess frowned but refrained from admonishment.

Keira slowly inhaled, eyes closed, and cracked her neck. She was gathering herself, preparing to unload one of her dearly held secrets for the first time. “So…” she said, nervously fingering the rim of her glass, “I’ve never told you anything about my life before Haven City.”

“No, you haven’t,” Tess confirmed, her face suddenly bright with curiosity like a newly illuminated light bulb. She waited for a further explanation, but Keira had fallen totally silent. “...What about your life before Haven City?” she prompted.

“Well… I lived in a small village. It was a quiet place by the seaside. Life was peaceful and good for the most part.” She paused, her eyes glazed and far away. “But it all went to hell a couple years ago. So I left with three people. They were all important to me, especially my father and… this boy.”

Tess nodded in encouragement as she leaned on the bar, one hundred percent attentive.

“We all were separated on the journey. I got here by myself, and it was… horrible. Then I met Ryker and Vivian, and the rest you know. I looked but I was never able to find any of them.”

“What brings all that up now?”

Keira gave a ragged sigh and placed her forehead in her hands. “I just got back from a mission with a recent recruit. The one people started whispering about after all that commotion in the Slums. Turns out…”

Keira trailed off, but Tess was easily able to fill in the blank. Her jaw fell slack, and she stared at her friend in abject shock. “Your lover boy is Jak?”

“Yeah, my ‘lover boy.’ ” Keira’s mouth twisted in a joyless smile. “You know him?”

“He comes here all the time getting work from Krew.”

“Like getting a tip that I need a driver.” She took a sip of her bitter drink and grimaced. “that was real cute, wasn’t it?”

The bartender cupped her cheeks in wonderment. “I never imagined that you—or the old you—would fall for such a, um…”

“Conceited, arrogant, violent, raging, insecure, immature jerk?” Keira offered.

“…Those weren’t exactly the words I was looking for, but they fit him pretty well actually.”

“Yeah, well, he wasn’t always like that. He was a completely different person before we came here… just like me.”

Tess sighed. “Haven does have a way of changing people.”

“…Can they ever change back?”

“I think you know the answer to that.”

Keira gulped down the rest of her drink. Tess refilled her water glass and asked, “Does this mean you know Daxter too?

“The three of us grew up together,” she said as she dutifully rehydrated.

The blonde narrowed her brown eyes, trying to picture it. “Huh! It’s not often you hear of a girl growing up with an ottsel.”

Keira glared at her friend. “Geez, you and Torn both. Before he fell into a pool of dark eco he was a regular person.”

“Really? what did he look like?”

An image of a gangly, moon-faced, buck-toothed Daxter briefly popped into Keira’s head, his spiked orange hair flying up from his greasy scalp like a blazing fire. “Nothing special.” Her tone suggested she had no interest in entertaining Tess’ one track mind.

Looking sheepish, the bartender apologized, “Sorry. Back to you. Tell me everything that happened.”

And so Keira proceeded to relay all the evening’s events. She lingered equally on moments where it seemed like she was forging a real connection with Jak as well as those where he shut her out. Perhaps she would feel a little less awful if it weren't for how they parted. She couldn't make heads or tails of his mysterious blood, and Tess was equally stumped. The only thing either could point to was his imprisonment in the Krimzon Guard Fortress.

As Keira talked on—she successfully badgered Tess into making a third round—her drinks caught up with her, and by the end of the story, she was very inebriated. Her inhibitions lowered, she sloppily reminisced about her childhood and adolescence. She painted a picture of Jak as he used to be, a happy, innocent, and mute youth.

Tess found all this difficult to imagine, but of much bigger concern was Keira herself. She was plainly upset, her voice laden with regret for good times lost, and yet she never shed a tear. This was particularly surprising given how drunk she was. Most people would be blubbering by now, but she never even came close. Her eyes were as dry as they were green.

As Keira took a long draft, swaying on her stool, Tess said, “Now I’m really worried.”

The mechanic looked at her with exaggerated skepticism. “Why?” Her mouth formed the word lazily, nearly slurring.

“Because,” Tess responded, “you’re about the most upset I’ve ever seen you before, but you’re not crying. Shouldn’t you really let it all out?”

Keira waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal. “Pssh! I haven’ cried—” she hiccupped, “for two years.”

“Some people would call that unhealthy.”

“Well, some—people are idiots.” She scowled and stared into her glass. “Besides! I’m a grown ass woman! An’ big girls don’ cry…”

“You’d feel a lot better if you did.”

“You know who’d really—feel better? Jak! He’sh the most emotionally constipated person I’ve ever—seen!”

Tess drummed her fingers on the bar, wondering how best to approach the next topic. “I doubt you’ll remember this, but… I don’t think you’re really the problem. Jak’s clearly got baggage he’s hauling around. He was locked up in the fortress for two years, so I can’t totally blame the guy. Maybe he’s just scared of sharing whatever it is with you.”

Keira stared at Tess, brow furrowed. “Why would he—be? He doesn’ have any problems with Daxter.”

“That you know of,” Tess clarified, “Besides, he’s already been hanging out with Daxter for, what, a month? And he’s a friend, so that’s always easier to deal with.”

“I’m a friend too!” Keira protested.

“I know you are, honey, but you’re also something more. That presents its own challenges.”

Keira tugged on a strand of viridian hair, chewing her lower lip in frustration. “How—encouraging.” She simultaneously slumped and tilted her face to the ceiling. Her brow was knit together, her mouth squished into a screwy line. Barring tears, it was as though all the agony she felt was manifesting itself in a single pained expression.

Tess looked on, her heart breaking for her friend. “You really want to be with him, don’t you?”

The green-haired girl closed her eyes and frowned, considering the question. She haltingly responded, “I did… I—don’t know if I do now. He’s hotter than ever, but he’s… hard. Mean even. It’s like he doesn’ trust me at all. Like— I’m the one who hurt him.”

Unsure of what to say, Tess settled for placing her hand over Keira’s with an empathetic squeeze. The supportive touch was all the validation the younger woman needed to go off like a firecracker. She burst out yelling, drawing curious looks from other patrons, “Fuck that! I’m hurt!! We were s’pose—to be in love! We were sh’posed to have cherry popping, mind—blowing sex! Maybe we’d be the real thing! Maybe we’d…” just as quickly she trailed off and let her head slide to the bar top with a dull thud.

Tess responded in a sharp voice, “If the new status quo is him treating you like garbage then fuck him. You should drop him like a sack of potatoes! But emotions are running high right now. Just give it some time… If it’s meant to be it’ll be.”

“But,” Keira looked up, her face drained of emotion, “maybe it’s not.”

 


 

“I’ll take two… no, three kabobs!” Daxter instructed, holding up a corresponding number of fingers.

The stall vendor stared suspiciously down at the ottsel as though she doubted the orange animal understood the concept of commerce. He held up a wallet full of credits and triumphantly waved it about in silent rebuttal.

Rolling her eyes, the vendor set about fulfilling the order.

Awkwardly wielding three sizzling yakow kabobs half his height, Daxter waddled over to where Jak sat on a crate under a red and white striped awning. Almost dropping one when it dripped piping hot grease on his furry fingers, he quickly passed it to his solemn friend and took a seat on the dusty street. He happily drooled over the two that were his, his hungry eyes roving over the steaming cubes like he would a woman’s curves.

“I don't care what folks say, the best food is definitely in the Bazaar!” Daxter declared, “Main Town’s too hoity-toity, and who wants to go wait in a breadline in the Slums?” He proceeded to chow down, blithely tactless as ever. After picking his first skewer clean with lightning speed he tossed it aside, and he would have continued onto the second without so much as pausing for breath if not for the fact that Jak wasn't eating. He simply stared at his kabob, twirling it around disinterestedly.

Daxter puffed out his chest authoritatively and commanded, “Food! Fuel! Eat!” He pointed to emphasize each word.

Jak regarded his kabob a few moments more before he acquiesced and took a bite.

Satisfied that progress was being made, Daxter returned his focus to his own meal. As with the first skewer he virtually inhaled the second, and he happily belched as he patted his full belly. Then there was nothing to do but wait for Jak to finish, and that gave the ottsel time to reflect, something he had done his best to avoid doing all day.

No one sought them out for a mission, so that meant it was time for a rare day off. Daxter was determined to make the most of it, and naturally, that meant sleeping in was the first priority. Only when his stomach gurgled as loud as an alarm clock did he rouse himself and cajole Jak into going out. They left the dreary confines of the Slums behind for a satisfyingly greasy late breakfast in the Bazaar, and there were sights and sounds aplenty to enjoy scattered around the vast marketplace. Even so, Jak had proven to be a big wet blanket. With enough persistence, he went along with his friend’s suggestions to eat this or explore that, yet he took no joy in any of it. Instead, he was more taciturn and surly than usual, and for him that was no small feat.

Daxter drummed his tiny fingers on his distended stomach, pondering what to try next. Clearly, distractions weren't working, so perhaps it was time to address the elephant in the room. “I wonder if we’ll run into Keira again soon,” he said, all nonchalance.

Jak silently chewed.

“Maybe she’s down for popping around the city with us. You should call her up.”

“I don’t have her number,” he at last responded.

“Then we can go to the stadium,” Daxter countered.

“And what would I say?” Jak asked, stonily staring at nothing.

“Beats me,” the ottsel shrugged, his response utterly unhelpful, “so far you do way better with her as a mute. Get back in touch with your strong and silent type roots! Make a grand gesture!” He leapt to his feet and started dancing to an imaginary drumbeat. “Walk into that garage and let your body do the talking, baby!”

Jak glared at his diminutive friend, his expression plainly communicating he would do nothing of the sort.

Daxter threw up his arms in exasperation. “Well, whaddya want me to say? You carried a torch for Keira for years and you’re just gonna give up now? You’re obviously miserable about it, so give it a shot!”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Sure it is! You say,” Daxter positioned his arms like he was holding a lover and spoke in an excessively suave voice, “ ‘Sweet Stuff, I’m sorry for being such a prickly jerk. I’ve wanted to do this since before my balls dropped.’ ”

Jak abruptly stood up and announced, “Let’s get a drink.”

Daxter blinked at his friend, surprised, but quickly decided to roll with it. He climbed onto his shoulder perch, feeling a surge of excitement. “Alright, I know just the place. We’re going to the Brewery!”

A short ride into the Industrial Zone later, they arrived at a nondescript exterior marked by a small and inconspicuous sign. If that wasn’t indication enough, upon crossing the threshold it was indisputable that the Brewery was a very different kind of watering hole than the Hip Hog Heaven Saloon. Where the latter was colorfully sleazy the former was simple and no-frills, mostly finished in dark stained wood. Tables and chairs cluttered the floor plan, the perimeter lined in red-lit booths. A giant keg was mounted above the bar, and the back wall was home to a blue and white dartboard. The space hummed with the conversation of late lunch stragglers, and a busboy scurried about clearing dirty dishes. The warm air was thick with the smell of smoke, hearty food, and, most of all, beer.

The duo took a couple seats at the bar, and Daxter enthusiastically addressed the bartender, “We’ll take two of your finest brew!”

They were shortly presented with a pair of tall, heavy-bottomed mugs filled to the top with amber liquid, froth spilling over the sides.

“This is the life!” Daxter proclaimed as he made to toast, “Just a couple bros enjoying some cold ones in the middle of the day.”

“Cheers,” Jak responded, and he tipped his mug to the ceiling, draining his beer in a half dozen gargantuan gulps. He slammed the empty glass on the bartop and found Daxter staring at him. “What?”

“Nothing,” the ottsel quickly replied, and he took a long draught of his own.

Jak rolled his eyes and flagged down the bartender. “I’d like another.”

The old man shook his head but otherwise set about fulfilling the order without comment.

Before Jak had a chance to take even a normal-sized sip, Daxter grabbed his arm, tail whipping back and forth. “Babe alert, 3 o’clock!”

Glancing in the indicated direction, Jak saw a woman sitting alone at the far end of the bar, sipping on a half-empty pint glass. Her hair was dark, her skin olive, and she seemed dressed to impress. She wore a tight frock that showed off her curves, and her long legs were elegantly crossed. Though it was difficult to tell just how much, she was definitely older than nineteen. She projected a mature confidence that Jak realized he found sexy.

“You know, you’re right,” he agreed, “she is beautiful.”

“Time to work my magic,” Daxter said, licking his fingertips and slicking the fur above his large eyes.

“I bet she’d like it better if you didn’t,” the young renegade pointed out.

“Please,” Daxter said with a dismissive wave of his paw, “I’ve spent lots of time wooing ladies in this establishment. Watch and learn.”

Taking a moment to clear his throat, he hopped up on the bar, waddled over to the unsuspecting beauty, and got her attention with a poorly considered, “Hey there, sweet cheeks.”

She cooly glanced back, a small frown creasing her marble smooth forehead. “Hey.”

“You know I was feeling a little off today, but not anymore,” Daxter said, doing his best to be charming, “because you definitely turn me on.”

She sighed, plainly repulsed by the tasteless pick up line.

Possessed by a sudden recklessness, Jak got up from his stool, walked over, and leaned in, elbowing his way in front of the ottsel. He said in a deepened tone, “You’ll have to excuse my friend. He doesn't have very good manners.”

The woman looked him up and down, seemingly waiting to see if he’d prove as annoying as Daxter. “And you do?” she asked, her voice silvery and enticing.

“When the situation calls for it.” He could scarcely believe the words coming out of his mouth. Was he actually going to successfully hit on a stranger at a bar?

“Right,” she said, her interest piqued, and raised her beer to toast, “well, when the situation calls for it.”

Her pint glass clinked against his mug, and both took long sips before setting them down on the bar.

“I’ve never seen you around here before,” she noted with a toss of her long, curly tresses.

Jak’s nose caught the subsequent waft of her perfume, and he felt electrified. “That’s because I’ve never been.”

“So, what do you do?”

“I’m, uh…” Jak stumbled right out of the gate, not knowing how to respond to such a simple question. Mentioning the Underground was out of the question, and being the hired gun of a ganglord wasn’t any better. Scrambling for something innocuous to say he blurted, “The port! I work there as a, uh… sailor!”

She raised one perfectly manicured eyebrow. “A ‘sailor,’ huh?”

He nodded deliberately, endeavoring to look sure of himself.

“Funny considering you don’t see too many upstanding seamen with firearms like that.” Her eyes darted toward the morph gun strapped to his back.

“Yeah, well,” Jak nervously coughed into his fist before barreling on, “How about you, come here often?”

“Here and there,” she said with a mischievous smile, “I like the brew.”

“I can see wh—” to his horror, Jak was cut off by his own belch, a loud and bubbling sound that could easily be heard in the furthest corner booth. His cheeks burned with shame.

To his further vexation, the woman’s response was a throaty chuckle. “That’ll happen when you chug beer like you’re dying of thirst. So much for good manners.”

He stammered incoherently.

Finishing her pint, she stood and threw some credits down on the counter. “Don’t worry, you look way too young for me anyway.”

“Wait,” Jak said as he placed his gloved hand over hers, hoping in vain that he could regain control of the situation, “Stay for another round.”

“Look, I don’t know what you’re trying to prove, and I don’t really care. It was a decent try though,” she stated as she delicately removed her polished fingers, “No hard feelings.” Finished with the encounter, she turned and sauntered toward the exit, her perfume trailing behind her like a sultry cloud.

Jak watched her go, feeling very small. It didn’t help when Daxter’s laughter floated over his shoulder. The rejected teenager glowered back at him.

“Boy,” Daxter managed to say between snickers, “ya sure showed me!”

Grumbling, Jak slouched over the bar and tucked back into his mug of ale. It didn’t seem to matter what he did or who he talked to. There was no equilibrium to be found, no connection worth pursuing. Now that he had reunited with Keira, the final pieces did fall into place. For the first time since the dark eco treatments began, he could vividly remember his former life. Sandover, the villagers, her... but he didn’t feel whole. Far from it. Instead, the memories tortured him with more power than ever before, reminding him of what was lost. Again and again, he thought of the night he gave her the light eco crystal, the closest they ever were. Her cheek was as soft as a cloud, her lips as tender as ripe fruit. The stars sparkled in her emerald eyes, wide with nerves, excitement, and affection. He could recall every bittersweet detail with excruciating clarity, and his heart ached so fiercely he feared it would crumble like a sculpture made of sand. He gripped his mug with both hands and squeezed tight, an unconscious byproduct of his inner turmoil.

“...We’re friends aren’t we?”

A spidery crack splintered out from beneath his crushing fingers. Like they were ever just “friends.” Like they ever could be again. Wishing for nothing more in that moment than to disappear, he debated whether downing his current beer like the first would net him a faceful of broken glass when his communicator buzzed. He removed it from his belt and accepted the incoming call with some trepidation, hardly in the mood to be ordered around by Torn.

But it wasn’t the curmudgeonly commander calling. Keira’s staticky voice came through the speaker, “You want another crack at the Baron?”

Jak stared first at the device, then at Daxter. His friend’s expression mirrored his own. They were both shocked to hear the mechanic. She spoke casually as though nothing were amiss—like nothing had happened the previous night.

Disarmed, Jak cautiously asked, “What did you have in mind?”

“Meet me in the garage, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

He deliberated, at a complete and total loss. The last thing he wanted was to see Keira, but he couldn’t ignore information that might help him in his quest for revenge. Nor could he ignore how… normal she sounded. “...When do we need to be there?”

“As soon as possible.”

Chapter Text

Keira tinkered with the rift rider, trying hard to pretend like nothing out of the ordinary was going on. She had awoken in Tess’ apartment before sunrise, her head in splitting pain despite her friend’s best efforts to moderate her drinking. Rather than staying put until breakfast she hurried back to the garage, to the refuge of her own bed, and collapsed back into a fitful sleep. Despite the ocean of fatigue lapping around her in unsavory waves, rest was elusive and dreams were plentiful. She would start awake, fragmented visions cluttering her mind like piles of broken glass. With a sip of water to soothe her dehydrated mouth, she would fall back into her pillow and futilely will her head to stop pounding until she somehow managed to doze off again. Eventually, her mind grew too active to let go of consciousness, and even though she redirected her thoughts they always returned to the events of the last twelve hours, over and over again until she could barely stand it.

Before long she gave up trying to turn off her brain and rose for the day. Only after showering and eating a strategically bland meal did she feel even remotely better, and though her hangover still gripped her like a tar pit it was time to formulate a plan. She may not remember leaving the Hip Hog or anything that followed, but she did recall the meat of her conversation with Tess. If Jak was so scared of opening up to her, she’d just have to be patient and give it time. He was traumatized, of that she was certain, and she knew a little something about that from personal experience. There would be no forcing the issue.

And so, after much deliberation, Keira decided to swallow her wounded pride and act like nothing was wrong between them. She would lay all her cards out on the table, and if he was dead set on getting back at the Baron she’d help him do it. And then she would wait. She hoped it was already working. Jak’s voice was guarded when she called, but surely he was surprised she was anything other than barely civil.

Nervous and exhausted, she tried her best to keep busy with the abundant work to be done on the rift rider. She could hardly focus and was more or less only capable of futzing with her tools, endlessly restarting the same few tasks. Still, enough time eventually passed that she heard footsteps—big clunking accompanied by small padding.

Keira carefully pasted a placid expression on her face and stepped out from behind the patchwork olive green curtain, but her resolve faltered when she saw Jak. His frowning visage was wary, his body language tense, and, just like the previous evening, the sight of him set off warring desires within her. She simultaneously wanted to go to him and to run away, the barrier between them both attractive and repulsive. Ignoring her inner turmoil as best she could, she sidled up to the duo. “Hi, guys,” she greeted them in what she hoped was an effortless manner.

“What’s happenin’?” Daxter responded. He elbowed Jak’s leg, goading him to say something as well.

“Hey,” he mumbled.

“...It’s nice to see you,” Keira ventured.

The sentiment was enough to break through Jak’s surly demeanor, and his guard dropped. She could’ve sworn he looked at her then with a deep sense of shame, as though he didn’t feel he had a right to be in the same room.

He self-consciously cleared his throat, and the moment was over. “What’s this about another crack at the Baron?”

She raised a warning finger and walked behind boy and ottsel to close the garage doors. She knew better than to have this conversation without a modicum of privacy. When the bay slid shut with a clang, she turned and addressed Jak, “Tell me, do you like working for Krew?”

“What?” he blurted, discombobulated by the change of subject.

“Do you like working for Krew?” she asked again, “Do you respect him?”

Jak blinked a few times before answering, “Of course I don’t respect him. He’s a scumbag. I just need his connections to help me fight the Baron.”

Keira nodded. “Good, glad to hear it. I can work with that.” As she spoke she walked back over to the curtain and pulled it aside in a single swift motion.

Jak and Daxter stared flummoxed at the revealed vehicle, still only half-constructed. Then recognition flickered in their faces, and the ottsel said, “Hold the phone! Is that the time travel mobile?”

“It’s a replica-in-progress of our crashed rift rider machine, yes.”

Jak spoke in a dazed tone, “Does that mean we’ll be able to…”

“I don’t know,” Keira answered without waiting for him to finish, “I don’t know if it’ll run, and even if it did the Precursor Ring seems to have vanished. I’ve looked in every book on Precursor history I can get my hands on with no luck. But before we can even deal with that I have to finish rebuilding this.”

The mechanic leaned against the rift rider, crossing her arms in a business-like fashion. “You’re using Krew for his connections. I’m using him for mine . I have a contact who has one of two unique Precursor artifacts I’m missing. She also happens to be one of Krew’s biggest rivals, so to convince her to part with it I’ve been feeding her information about his racing bets. I’ll have another lever to pull if you agree to be my driver, and it’s not like you’ll get nothing out of this. You said it yourself, the champion gets to tour the palace. Even better, the Baron always attends the final race. He personally congratulates the champion in the winner’s circle.”

Jak gaped at Keira.

“What?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Nothing,” he stammered, “I just can’t believe you did all this. I mean it’s so… useful.”

She flinched, stung by his awkward choice of words. When in their entire lives had she been anything but?

Daxter, losing patience with the whole situation, groused, “Oh, will you two stop moping around and make up already?”

Tossing her long hair in an effort to shrug off the stinging interaction, Keira asked, “So what do you say? Are you ok racing for me if it means taking Krew down in the process?”

Jak nervously clenched and relaxed his fist, mulling over all she said. He wondered if he should balk at the idea of betraying the bloated crime lord but quickly dropped the concern. “I have no problem screwing over Krew. I know he’d do the same.”

"But this winner’s circle sounds like a stupid place for revenge,” Daxter indignantly pointed out, “Won’t there be tons of people? Soldiers? Guns?

“It’s hardly crazier than breaking into the palace by ourselves with basically no plan.”

The orange animal splayed his paws in frustration. “Yeah, and we almost died!”

“Nobody said you have to race!”

Keira knit her hands together. “Still, Daxter’s not wrong. The Baron will be surrounded by his personal guard, and he’ll be watching the race in his floating private box. No one will be able to get near him except the champion. Maybe this all ends with us aborting the idea, but we have three weeks to come up with a reasonable plan, and together… we might be able to work something out,” she said, her voice softening, “I want to help you.”

Jak stared at her long and hard, as though assessing if she really meant what she said. “...Even if I was interested, wouldn’t this be going behind the Underground’s back?”

“Yes, but one of the main goals of the Underground is to depose Praxis. If this works we’ve done them a favor,” she insisted, her eyes as unyielding as flinty gemstones.

Jak flexed his fingers as Daxter grumbled about the dangers of what Keira was proposing. She prayed that they would agree. Otherwise, they would walk away, and she wouldn’t have anything to offer them.

To her tremendous relief, Jak nodded in the affirmative. “Alright. Let’s do this.”

“Then we better get to it,” she said, stifling a grateful sigh, “The buzzer sounds at six.”

“That early?”

“We’re in the first heat,” Keira rummaged around in a nearby closet as she spoke, “If you place first in that you’ll move on to the actual race later tonight.”

“I didn’t know there were two races," Daxter said.

“To be precise, there are nine. The league has sixty-four racers total. Eight each qualify in eight heats, at least at the start of the season. Now each heat has six. The winners go on to the actual race.”

“So let me get this straight. Sixteen racers have died this season?” the ottsel clarified, his arms thrown wide to illustrate how large an issue this was.

“Offset by replacements, twenty-one,” Keira corrected, “Including mine…”

Without giving the boys time to interject, she gestured at a work table behind them. Mounted upon it was a zoomer quite unlike the ones civilians drove in the streets. It was exceptionally streamlined, it’s body so slender it resembled a blade. “This is an air racer, the fastest zoomer money can buy. It’s extremely responsive—high on acceleration, and speed. Handling can be tricky though, and with such a slight vehicle there’s no protection in a crash. Worse yet, other drivers won’t hesitate to get violent, so stay on your toes. It’s only five laps to victory. Here’s a key card in case you ever need to access the garage, and...” she held out racing leathers, protective gear, and a mask, “see if these fit.”

Jak took the garments and briefly studied them before raising his green eyebrows in question.

“You’re a wanted fugitive. You can't just go out and race like that, or you’ll be recognized.”

He waited a few moments before asking, “So is there someplace I can change or are you gonna stand there and watch?”

“Oh, no!” Keira stammered, “of course not! You can use the bathroom there.” After pointing out the relevant door she quickly turned to the air racer and busied herself with preparations for tuning, grateful that they wouldn’t see her reddening face.

She listened as Jak walked away and Daxter pointed out, “Yellow and blue! It's your colors, buddy.”

“What's so exciting about that?” Jak asked as he stepped inside.

It wasn’t long before Keira’s attention was solely focused on the short window she had to prepare him for the race. There was far too much to do. Under normal circumstances, the air racer would be precisely customized to the driver following carefully administered test runs, but they had no such luxury. They would have to settle for what adjustments could be made in the garage.

As she fiddled with the height of the work table to better access the engine, Jak stepped out of the bathroom. Though he still wore his regular pants and boots, he was otherwise transformed by the vibrant attire favored by the league. The form-fitting jacket, chaps, and gloves of his leathers were sewn from long panels, streamlining his body into tall, sporty bands of cerulean and blue. Bulky violet armor striped white, the team colors, encircled his chest and shoulders, and a gleaming metal mask was strapped atop his head. The sight of him was enough to raise her pulse. He looked every inch a true racer and a dashing one at that. Just like Ryker once did.

Jak waited for Keira to say something, but when her silence stretched on he self-consciously scratched his nose and averted his gaze. “This driver of yours,” he asked, “what was his name?”

Keira blushed as she too looked elsewhere. “Her name was River.”

 


 

Despite himself, Jak was beginning to feel nervous. It was all but impossible not to as he and Keira shepherded the air racer down to the docking bridge, navigating rambunctious crowds of spectators eager for the action only NYFE could provide. The other five contenders in his heat were already waiting by their respective vehicles, and they eyed the newcomer with suspicion, hostility, or both. They weren’t at all pleased to have another body to compete with as his participation lowered their own chances of winning.

For her part, Keira was doing her best to arm Jak with as much knowledge as possible. She threw out pointer after pointer as she affixed the air racer to the appropriate berth. “So keep your lines as tight as you can, but don’t rush the corners. Be especially careful in the last one because after that’s the track’s longest straightaway, and you’ll need to max out your speed there.”

Jak nodded, his own expression inscrutable behind his mask.

“And be conservative with your boosts. You don’t want to get stuck without one when you really need it.”

“Got it.”

Keira glanced at him, wishing she could see through the mask’s opaque purple lenses to the blue eyes beneath. “You’ll do just fine,” she said as much to reassure herself as him, and she bent to give the air racer a last-minute once-over.

“Kill it, big guy,” Daxter urged from his temporary seat on the zoomer, “Show these scrubs whose boss!” He gave his friend a buoying fist bump.

“They won’t know what hit ‘em,” Jak affirmed with a level of bravado he didn’t feel, and the stadium computer announced the imminent start of the race. A fresh wave of anxiety washed through his belly, bringing with it the unwelcome twinge of nausea.

Keira stood back from the air racer, wiping her hands together. Only by squeezing was she able to keep from wringing them. She jerked her chin at Daxter, and the ottsel hopped off his perch and went to stand by her side. “We’ll be watching from the sky box,” she said as Jak swung his leg over the seat, “Good luck!”

The young renegade’s throat had grown uncomfortably dry, so he flashed her a thumbs up in response. She returned the gesture before turning on her red-booted heel and making for the exit, Daxter trailing behind her.

With nothing left to distract him, Jak passed the final minute before the race in an escalating state of physical unease. His queasy gut grumbled as he pulsed his tongue and cheeks in a vain effort to lubricate his parched mouth. What in the name of the Precursors was he doing? What business did he have on the track when he had never even driven an air racer before? He cast his attention to one side and then the other, giving his fellows a cursory examination. Like him, they were all astride their vehicles, bent so low their chests skimmed their tanks. Surely there wasn’t something else he should be doing.

A yellow light mounted directly in front of him began to flash in time to a loud and grating ring once, twice, three times. On the fourth the machinery of his dock clanked, and his stomach lurched as he was slowly lowered to the track below. Unmuffled by the enclosed bridge, the roar of the crowd assaulted his ears with the unrelenting ferocity of a pounding waterfall. It was a wall of sound, second only in its ability to awe by the sheer size of the crowd itself. The stands stretched on and on, yawning up and around the track like a colossal, bloodthirsty maw that threatened to devour him whole. Never before had he seen so many people at once. The arena in Rock Village, home to spectated competitions between warriors and his only point of comparison, was a piddling analog, a shallow puddle next to a great lake. He felt utterly overwhelmed as his eyes swept over the teeming mass, their far-off faces melting into one another, indistinguishable. He tried to swallow but only succeeded in constricting his dry esophagus.

The clamor of the stands diminished like a crashing wave pulling back from the shore, and Jak let out the lungful of air he hadn’t realized he was holding. His modicum of relief was short-lived, however, for the hush heralded the starting indicator floating into place in front of the checkered line. Why couldn’t he swallow?

Three.

The first light jutted out, blazing like a miniature vermillion sun as the accompanying buzzer sounded.

Two.

The second light followed suit, and Jak tightened his fists on the handlebars.

One.

He drew a final breath.

Go!

The crowd erupted as the final light flared chartreuse and the competitors sprang forward. Jak immediately stuttered and almost stopped, so startled was he by the air racer’s exponential rate of acceleration. At the faintest touch on the throttle, the vehicle surged like quicksilver, liquid smooth and lightning fast. Already falling behind, he heedlessly accelerated and nearly rear-ended one of his opponents. Only by some combination of natural skill and dumb luck was he able to wrangle his line and enter the pack without hitting anyone.

Clearly racing in Haven City was far easier said than done. It took Jak several laps to get just comfortable enough that he wasn’t constantly on the verge of losing control. The proceedings were so fast and so exhilarating it was all he could do look twenty feet ahead, much less properly remember Keira’s instructions. He continually failed to break when necessary and drifted high enough in the turns that he would struggle to make a swift exit. The first time through the final corner before the straightaway, he botched it badly enough that he lost several places.

His lack of experience was the least of problems. The competition was homicidal, swift and reckless as a horde of berserkers, and it was a wonder more people hadn’t died this season. Whenever the opportunity presented itself they would ram and grind each other around the track without missing a beat, frailty of their vehicles be damned. Jak soon lost count of how many scuffles ended with him a mere heartbeat away from crashing and burning.

In the end, his quick thinking and instincts from the street carried him through. His form improved with every lap, and he managed to finish first in his heat. He wasn’t so fortunate in the actual race. Hoping to get ahead as quickly as possible, he was too aggressive with the throttle and narrowly avoided colliding with the far wall at the first turn. All seven other racers were able to easily pass him on the inside, and he was forced to spend the rest of the race playing catch up. Since all of his opponents had won their respective qualifiers, the competition was far more fierce. He got as high as second by the final lap, but a scuffle with the leader cost both of them a trophy.

Within ten minutes he was back in the garage with Keira and Daxter. The doors were shut, the battered air racer once again mounted on a work table for repairs. Still wired from the rush of the race, Jak alternated between scowling at the vehicle and restlessly pacing.

“Well done, big guy!” Daxter congratulated him, punching his leg as if it were his shoulder, “Other than the whole getting fourth thing you did great.”

The ottsel earned a withering glare in response.

“Don’t feel bad about it,” Keira said as she assessed the damage to her zoomer, “Considering you were thrown in the deep end you did well, and we’ve got just enough runway to make this work.”

Jak protested, “But I didn’t even place.”

“Even so, this isn’t impossible. It’s all about points, and every single racer you went up against has no chance of becoming the champion. It’s mathematically impossible.”

The blonde raised a quizzical green eyebrow.

“Erol has been the champion for five years running. The only two racers with a snowball’s chance of beating him crashed and died two weeks ago. River was one of them,” Keira paused, a shadow of grief on her face, before continuing, “Finding competent replacements this late in the season rarely happens, so Erol winning is effectively a foregone conclusion. And word is his role as the Baron’s right-hand man has been more demanding than usual what with managing the war with the Metal Heads and the Underground. Thanks to all that he hasn’t even bothered to show up since the crash.”

Keira put down her tools and stood tall, staring Jak straight in the eye. “But now you’re on my team, and he’s going to pay for being such an arrogant bastard. You just have to finish second or better in the last two races of the season.”

“Oh, that’s all?” Jak asked, wearily sarcastic.

“Come on, don’t be so negative! I know it’s been a rough start, but we have a whole week to get ready for the next race.”

Something about the way Keira spoke then moved him. She was animated, glowing with determination. Despite all his prickliness, he couldn’t help but find her pluck endearing. He remembered her behaving just the same many times in their old life, and he was briefly transported to her island hut.

His mouth twitched in the ghost of a smile.

Boy, girl, and ottsel all jumped in surprise when there was a knock at one of the bay doors. Keira jerked her chin toward the lounge in silent instruction and went to see who it was. Jak and Daxter obediently slid behind the curtain and waited by the rift rider.

They both angled their ears, straining to listen, as the doors slid open and Keira casually asked, “What can I do for you?”

“Just answer a few questions,” replied an irresistibly husky voice.

Jak and Daxter exchanged a look of recognition. Ashelin!

“I’d love to, but could it wait ten minutes? I just have to finish taking care of post-race maintenance and—”

They could hear the KG officer step further into the garage.

“Or not,” Keira said.

“You’ll want to close those doors,” Ashelin instructed in a tone that plainly conveyed it wasn’t a suggestion.

Keira did as she was told, punching the necessary button with just enough force to sound annoyed.

The next several moments were occupied by tense silence, and Jak imagined the two women sizing each other up.

Ashelin was the first to speak. “Is Jak the rebel fugitive your driver?”

“...What makes you ask that?” Keira’s even keel was beginning to crack.

The KG officer ignored her question and walked closer to the lounge. “He’s still here, isn’t he?”

Seeing no reason to keep hiding, Jak stepped out from behind the curtain, and the gorgeous redhead faced him. Her eyes narrowed to emerald slits.

Daxter took his friend’s example and ran with it. “Did ya miss us, sweet stripes?”

Ashelin remained focused on the young renegade. “NYFE Racing seems a little flashy for one of Haven’s most wanted.”

“How did you recognize me?” Jak asked.

“You’re lucky I’m the only one in the Krimzon Guard who knows your name. I was in the sky box when I heard your rat cheer for you.” Ashelin gestured at the ottsel without deigning to look at him.

“Oh yeah?” Daxter retorted, puffing himself up, “Excuse me for supporting my buddy in his first race!”

The ottsel stumbled when Jak firmly kneed him in the shoulder.

Ashelin scrutinized the duo, one dagger sharp eyebrow raised. Then, to the surprise of both, her red lips curved in amusement, and a deep chuckle rumbled in her slender throat. “Well then,” she said, “In that case that wasn’t half bad for your first try.”

“Oh, thanks…” Jak lamely replied as a betraying flush crept up his cheeks. Why couldn’t he keep his cool around her?

“Sorry to butt in on this little chit-chat,” Keira said in an overly sweet voice, stepping up to his side, “but what exactly is going on?”

His stomach flipped. In that instant, he became keenly aware of the precarious nature of his situation. He tugged on his suddenly itchy scarf as he looked back and forth between the two women. The garage had always felt so spacious, but now it was entirely too small for his liking. Ashelin appeared unruffled, but Keira was nakedly hostile, her arms crossed defensively. Wishing with all his might that he could be anywhere else in the world, Jak proceeded to speak in a halting cadence, “Ah, Keira, uh…this is Ashelin…she’s just—”

“Everyone knows who she is,” the viridian-haired girl cut him off, her expression darkening further.

Jak’s discomfort increased as he addressed Ashelin again, “And Keira’s a—”

“A friend,” she interjected again in a venomous voice, “A very good friend.”

Ashelin looked at the younger woman like she might a hissing lizakitten. “So is it safe to say Torn is also your superior?”

Keira remained tight-lipped, her chin firm and defiant.

“Discretion. Good. I was beginning to doubt the Underground had any.”

“The Underground can take care of itself,” Keira shot back.

Clearly disinterested in the drama that was unfolding, Ashelin effectively dismissed the mechanic by speaking to Jak instead, “I appreciate you helping out with that tanker the other day. You saved a lot of lives. So let me give you a word of advice. I don’t know what the Underground is planning by having you do this, but you better watch your back. Just because Erol’s not racing that doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention. I can’t protect you from him.”

And with that, the KG officer turned on her booted heel and made to leave. She stopped in front of the panel next to the doors, about to open them, when she hesitated. Her gloved fingers rested against the wall, and she said without facing the others, “I’m not my father you know. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve looked down at the city streets from that ridiculous palace…and imagined a better place.”

Despite how uncomfortable the entire scenario was, a part of Jak wanted to take a step toward Ashelin. Her words confirmed what he observed in the dusty streets of the Bazaar. She wasn’t just a military automaton, beautiful and cold. She had a heart, one that bled for the suffering Praxis inflicted.

Before anyone could say another word, Ashelin left the garage.

The pregnant silence that followed was broken only when Daxter whistled, a leering sound. “Whew, she’s a betty! And she likes you, Jak—not that I can account for her tastes.”

The young renegade stiffened anew. He could feel Keira’s stare boring into his temple.

“I bet you’d love to pin some medals on her chest, huh?” The ottsel laughed, oblivious to how insensitive his crass assessment was.

Only then did Jak look her in the eye, barely shaking his head as if to say it wasn’t true. Even he wasn’t convinced, and his insides twisted with the deepening of her green glower. Unable to stand it any longer, Keira walked—nearly stomped—towards the stairs and up to her small apartment. He raised a hand as though he might reach out and stop her, but in the end, all he could do was watch her go, at a total a loss for words.

Daxter looked after her, thoroughly confused. “What? What’d I say?”

Jak glared at his diminutive companion.

Placing his paws on his hips in indignation, Daxter demanded, “What did you say, Jak?”

Chapter Text

The midday sun shone brightly over the Eastern Bazaar, and Jak wondered what sort of meeting they were in for as he and Daxter arrived at Onin’s tent. Interacting with the old woman and her irascible interpreter was always plenty strange on its own, but there would be a third party today. The Shadow himself had elected to join them, and the old-fashioned zoomer parked out front indicated that he was already inside. Muffled voices drifted through the canvas walls, and though the words were unintelligible the level of irritation wasn’t, giving the distinct impression that Pecker and Samos didn’t much care for each other.

Jak and Daxter exchanged a sidelong glance before striding past the entrance flap, bracing themselves for the inevitable fumes within. The hunched Onin was unearthly calm as ever, flanked by the crackling flames of pillar candles, but Pecker and Samos faced each other with simmering distaste. The Underground leader turned at the sound of the newcomers’ footsteps, his spectacle magnified eyes quivering with moisture. “The birdbrain and I were just talking about you, Jak. Onin is very proud of what you did.”

The blonde crossed his arms, wondering what the soothsayer could possibly mean now. “What I did?” he asked.

Pecker gestured with one wing and then the other. “What you did, what you'll do; it's all the same.”

Balling his paws into small fists, Daxter complained, “Will you stop with the deja voodoo stuff! It's creepy!”

Onin began signing in her usual showers of blue sparks.

“Shall we get on with the show?” Pecker translated in a sharp tone, or perhaps he was speaking for himself.

The Shadow inclined his chin in agreement. “Onin says you must find the Tomb of Mar.”

“Even now Baron Praxis seeks the tomb, but only RRRAWRK the one true heir of Mar can open the Tomb's seal.”

“We believe the kid is the key.”

Samos opened his mouth to go on, but Pecker swooped in, “The prophecies say that the true heir of Mar must face the Ancient Oracle. He alone must circumvent the cunning Tests of Manhood. He alone must wield the Precursor Stone, thereby unleashing th—” he leaned over the brim of Onin’s hat, exclaiming at the old woman, “Geez Louise, fossil lady! Stop with the snooty mystic talk already! You know that it hurts my lips!”

Jak rolled his eyes to the draped ceiling and asked, “Why is Mar's tomb so important?”

“The fabled Precursor Stone is rumored to sleep within the tomb, stupid! I added the ‘stupid’ part.”

The young renegade scowled at the insult, but he couldn’t help but smirk when Daxter wordlessly flapped his mouth in mocking pantomime.

Pecker continued, his glare narrowing, “The Precursor Stone contains vast eco energies. It can be used for great good—or, great eeeevil!” He settled back on his feathered haunches with a self-satisfied smile. “I just love saying that last part!”

The Shadow, sharing in none of the vibrant animal’s levity, nervously paced the tent. ”The Baron wants the Precursor Stone for himself to rule the world. But he is playing with forces he does not understand.”

“Okay, Pecker,” Jak said, “so how do I get this Precursor Stone? Where’s the tomb?”

“No one really knows,” Samos answered before the belligerent moncaw could say anything, earning a dirty look. “Mar hid all knowledge of it, as he was often fond of doing it seems. Legend has it that the way will be shown by an ancient Light Tower, sealed behind Mar’s Gate at the Mountain Temple... but the gate can’t be opened without the three pieces of the Seal of Mar.”

As he spoke Onin circled her hands, swirling blue light into a sparkling illustration of the seal. Jak immediately recognized it as the symbol Ashelin pointed out at the pumping station and the amulet the kid wore.

Pecker excitedly explained, “Old songs tell how this Light Tower once shined down on the actual site of Mar's tomb! I sing one of these songs for you: From the mists of tiiiime, Mar's light would shiiiine—”

“Woah there, iron lungs,” Jak interrupted the would-be minstrel, much to the gratitude of everyone else. The Shadow had grimaced and Daxter plugged his ears with his furry fingers; even the usually placid Onin ground her teeth together in aggravation.

“Cretins with no taste, huh?” Pecker spat dismissively.

“So let me get this straight,” Daxter said as he proceeded to count off his fingers, “we gotta find and assemble a busted seal to open a gate to activate a tower to find a tomb?”

The Shadow, Onin, and Pecker all nodded in unison.

Not at all pleased by this, the ottsel crossed his arms and muttered, “I hate fetch quests…”

The seer’s milky eyes widened in excitement as she signed again. “Onin says to get the first two pieces you must find the sage’s daughter and free that which is chained.”

Jak’s heart skipped a beat. Surely, “the sage’s daughter” could only be one person.

“ ‘That which is chained’?” Daxter repeated, scratching his head, “Think you could be a little more specific, granny?”

Onin’s only response was a vexing smile, and Pecker shrugged.

“Well, what the heck is that supposed to mean?”

“That’s for you to figure out and me to sit back and have nothing to do with,” the moncaw haughtily declared.

The Shadow frowned, considering Onin’s cryptic words. “She must mean the slave trade.”

“ ‘The slave trade.’ Wait, so we have to help lurkers?” Daxter asked, appalled, “We don’t like lurkers!”

“You don’t have to like them,” Samos retorted.

Jak interjected, “So what are we supposed to do? Run up to every lurker we see and liberate them on the spot?”

“I wouldn’t recommend it. You can’t just free all the slaves one at a time… hmmm,” the middle-aged man’s brow furrowed as he pondered the best course of action. Then he punched a decisive fist into his open palm, startling everyone except for Onin. “Of course! You should go see Brutter!”

 


 

Jak and Daxter soon found themselves on their way to the West Bazaar in search of Brutter’s trinket stand. A lurker himself, he used his free and independent status to help his fellows as much as possible. The Underground had worked with him before to smuggle escaped slaves safely out of the city, and with any luck, he might know something about the seal. Certainly, he was as good a lead as they were going to get

It was the busiest time of day for the sprawling marketplace, so the going was slow. The cramped streets were chock full of pedestrians visiting the endless procession of stalls and shops, forcing Jak to remain within the jammed zoomer hover zone above. At least their destination was hard to miss. Brutter’s stand loomed over the sea of heads, its purpose unmistakable thanks to the massive magenta letters of its neon sign trumpeting a single word: FISH. Further driving home the point was a large, bug-eyed fish head rising out of the roof and fish of various sizes festooning the eaves. A rough-hewn wooden counter lined in uneven stools served as the stand’s perimeter, and a hand-painted menu pithily broadcast a number of items. FRESH FISH. GOOD SOUP. CHEAP. GOOD.

This was to say nothing of the creature running the humble establishment. In numerous ways, Brutter looked much the same as any other lurker babak. He was formidably tall and well muscled, his gargantuan mitts easily strong enough to rend limb from limb, and brilliant plum fur covered most of his body. In others, he was wholly different. His loincloth was dressed up by a dapper if very old-fashioned shirt and coat, and a red pelt dripping with black-tipped tails wrapped around his hulking shoulders. Smart spectacles balanced on his wide purple nostrils, and the thick hair atop his head was carefully oiled and coiffed. Most odd of all, two long periwinkle feathers stuck out of either side of his head, making for a truly eccentric appearance.

Jak and Daxter took two seats and waited, but not for long. Brutter wasted no time approaching his new guests, beaming widely. “Customers! You like fish soup or beers?” His voice was gravelly and aggressively genial.

“Uh, no thanks,” Jak said.

Daxter, on the other hand, found himself suddenly thirsty. “I’ll take a tall cold one!”

The fish vendor retrieved a metal tankard and filled it up at a barrel keg, making small talk as he went. “Brutter never see you around before, orangey boy.”

“Yeah, well, if this beer holds up ya can expect to see more of me.”

“Beer good! Specialty of lurkers!”

Brutter presented Daxter with his foam-topped tankard. The ottsel delicately sniffed the beverage before downing several glugs and slamming it back on the counter with a thunk. He belched his approval.

Impatient to cut to the chase, Jak leaned over the bar and spoke in a low voice, “We’re actually wondering if you might be able to help us out. The Shadow sent us.”

“Greenie man!” Brutter gasped, “He great guy! Friend to Lurker People! What he want?”

“Have you ever heard of the Seal of Mar?”

“Brutter not sure…” he admitted, quizzically scratching behind one of his feathers, “What seal like?”

“Well, it’s about this big, and it swirls kinda like this,” Daxter said, holding up his paws to illustrate, “and it’s glowy and sparkly.”

“It shiny?” Brutter clarified, his large yellow eyes twinkling with excitement.

“Sure, shiny, whatever.”

The purple beast clapped his great hands together. “Ooh! Brutter loves shiny, bright things! I have piece I thinks!”

“Great!” Daxter said, flashing his toothiest grin, “Can we have it?”

At the ottsel’s request, the lurker’s enthusiasm diminished. “Well… Brutter no want to part with it for nothing. But maybe you can give me thing I wants, yes? Like trade!”

“We might be able to work something out,” Jak affirmed.

“Musics to my ears!” Brutter exclaimed as he cupped his feathers with his hands, “Outside city there is hidden Lurker Village in caves, and red troopers get closer and closer mining eco. Very dangerous for us this is! Today, red troopers find band of lurker brothers and round them up for slave trade. They is loading into prison zoomer in port as we speaks!”

Daxter looked up from his tankard, wiping his foamy lip with the back of his arm. “Sounds bad. What do you want us to do about it?”

“Please help lurker brothers! Save them before red troopers get to fortress, and bring to warehouse. Brutter take it from there. Give piece of seal in return!”

The giant furball nodded vigorously to emphasize his last point, jostling his ear feathers. He looked desperate, his pleading eyes shimmering with moisture like wet lemons, and Jak considered the proposal. Krimzon Guard prison zoomers were large, slow vehicles, and they were always flanked by accompanying soldiers. Making it to a rendezvous without any pursuers wouldn’t be easy, and he was anything but excited about the prospect of risking his skin for a bunch of lurkers. Still, he couldn’t help but feel a certain twinge of obligation. Though his once strong sense of justice was effectively dormant, and he was ultimately doing this for selfish reasons, he realized it was the right thing to do.

Sighing, he asked, “Ok, where is this warehouse?”

 


 

The one advantage of their target being a prison zoomer was how easy it was to spot. When Jak and Daxter entered South Town and drove out over the scummy waters of the port ten minutes later, they quickly identified the vehicle even though it was already en route to the fortress. It was as wide as a HellCat cruiser and just as red, a long cage trailing behind it crammed full of six lurkers. The furry creatures gripped the bars with fearful expressions, their lavender knuckles blanched bone white. An escort of two HellCat zoomers led the way and brought up the rear.

Jak drove past all three vehicles. “You ready for this?” he yelled over the wind as he pulled a sharp u-turn.

“Let’s do it, big guy,” Daxter responded.

Jak sped up till he was abreast with the rear guard. His body tensed in anticipation, and then he leapt onto the zoomer’s steering column. He briefly wrestled with the driver and ejected him into the water below.

Wasting no time, he drove right up to the cage, so close he almost rear-ended it. He sharply inhaled, steeling himself, and jumped on top. His booted feet nearly slipped through the bars, and the lurkers recoiled and grunted in agitation. Jak spared a moment to shush them, his hands spread wide in a gesture of reassurance, before crouching low and running to the front of the vehicle. There he was able to grip the unsuspecting driver by the helmet and throw him overboard. Immediately, the prison zoomer lurched to the side, following the soldier’s trajectory, but Jak managed to get behind the controls and correct course.

He swallowed, tasting his spiking adrenaline, and willed himself to stay focused. If his luck was good he would only have to deal with the last Krimzon Guard. He unholstered his morph gun with one hand and picked the target off with a blaster shot to the back. The guard collapsed forward, sending his HellCat zoomer careening into the seawall with a spectacular explosion.

“Way to go, big guy!” Daxter cheered, and the half dozen lurkers they carried follow suit.

But it was too early for celebration. Either they had been seen or one of the first two guards managed to call backup, for three new HellCat zoomers had entered the boulevard lining the port. They were making a beeline for the hijacked vehicle.

“Well,” Jak muttered, “let’s see what this baby can do.”

No longer out over the water, gone was the luxury of open space. Now there were congested streets to contend with, and the resulting weaving slowed their pace considerably. The smaller and faster HellCats were able to catch up with ease, and within moments they flanked the prison zoomer. As soon as they had a clear line of sight they opened fire. Jak ducked, the blasts of red eco passing so close he could feel their heat, and yanked on the controls, sending them veering into the assailant on their right. The HellCat was knocked completely off-kilter and spun through the air like a vermillion vortex. In the blink of an eye, it collided with a nearby wall.

Jak shoved the morph gun into Daxter’s paws, yelling, “Take this!”

“Wh-what, you want me to shoot?”

“Don’t ask questions, just do it!” He swerved to avoid a civilian zoomer, and the ottsel flailed with the tremendous relative weight of the firearm. Thanks to the yellow eco powered blaster mod, its length was greater than his diminutive height. Somehow he managed to hoist it up and take some shots at the two remaining HellCats to the left, forcing them to back off. The guards then split so they could ride abreast on each side, and Daxter couldn’t shoot both directions at once.

Acting fast, Jak again ground into one of the red KG zoomers, but the driver was prepared. He managed to maintain control and brake into a temporary retreat. His compatriot wasn’t so lucky. Daxter landed a direct hit on his fuel tank, and both soldier and vehicle were engulfed in a raging ball of orange flame and black smoke.

With only one pursuer left, Jak was beginning to think they would shortly be free to make the rendezvous when two more HellCats came into view ahead of them, one a dreaded cruiser. Both fired their turrets, and two shots pierced the armored hull just to the side of the blonde’s head. The sizzling stench of eco fire filled his nostrils, spurring him to make a last-second turn onto an intersecting street.

This thoroughfare was narrower than the last, and it took all Jak’s concentration to navigate without causing an accident. Daxter did his best to dissuade their pursuers by returning fire, but they were relentless. They would be upon the prison zoomer again any second now. To make matters worse, around a bend in the road a busy intersection appeared. The cross traffic was brutally thick, and only a sheer idiot would attempt to reach the other side pell-mell.

Reckless inspiration seized Jak, and he accelerated. His fingers tightened on the wheel as they grew closer to the junction, his frantic gaze darting about for an opening. Then a small break between the zoomers appeared, and he gunned for it. When Daxter realized what was about to happen, he let loose a high-pitched wail. Jak sucked in a breath, every hair on his body raising, and they entered the intersection. Vehicles coming from both directions braked and swerved. First one three-seater was dinged, then a two-seater was rear-ended, and so on as a full-blown pileup developed, but they somehow sailed across unscathed. Judging by the whooping of the lurkers, the HellCats weren’t so lucky.

“Never do that again!” Daxter commanded, his quaking limbs falling lax.

“Hey, at least I looked both ways,” Jak pointed out with a giddy grin, though in truth, he was in no hurry for another attempt. He was sweating profusely, his pulse pounding in his ears, and he hoped he would never have to drive a prison zoomer again. Fortunately, there was no immediate need for any more crazy stunts. The chase hadn’t taken them far away from the rendezvous point, and they encountered no more guards on their way over.

Still traveling as swiftly as he could manage, Jak soon pulled into a nondescript warehouse next to a fish cannery. Brutter was waiting, and they were barely parked before he ran up to the cage and joyfully clasped fists with his rescued fellows through the bars. The lurkers were shortly let out and their chains undone, and they danced and hugged in pure elation. Jak watched the scene unfold, a small smile curling his lips until the ecstatic fish vendor shook his hand so zealously he feared his arm would dislocate.

“You have do great thing for Brutter and Lurker People! Little orangey warrior!” he addressed Daxter and swept him into a bear hug, showering him with wet, noisy kisses.

Spitting in disgust, the ottsel managed to extricate himself from his gracious assailant. “Yuck! No toucha the do!”

“Oh, sorry,” the lurker apologized, “Brutter just so happy!”

“Right, right,” Daxter said, rolling his paw to speed up the proceedings, “about that piece of Mar’s seal…”

“Of courses!” Brutter exclaimed as he rummaged around in his jacket. He held out a glowing artifact. “That is it. Piece of seal, yes? Nice and shiny, huh? All yours!”

Daxter swiped up their prize for inspection. It appeared to be one half of the circular seal, and it glittered with power. Satisfied, he mindlessly tossed it over his shoulder for Jak to catch. “Yep. That’s a piece of Mar’s doodad alright.”

“Of course this not enough thanks for what you do! Trade not complete yet!”

“Really, it’s fine,” Jak assured him, taking a last look at the overjoyed lurkers. He swelled with a bittersweet wave of something like nostalgia. Though he had technically been fighting on behalf of the citizens of Haven ever since joining the Underground, he was also insulated from them. Always he dealt with Krew, Torn, or the Shadow, superiors who were directing him on to the next task with hardly a “job well done” much less a celebration. Never did he see the reactions of those who were too powerless to fight for themselves. The last time he was rewarded with a response like this was five centuries in the past, when helping people was a thing he did for its own sake—when he was a hero. “Just… be careful.”

The duo turned to leave, and Brutter called after them, “You great guys! Brutter not forget! Brutter pay you back. You see!”

“Sounds good, B-man,” Daxter yelled back as they stepped outside. Nothing appeared amiss. Pedestrians below and zoomers above went about their business as though this were a day like any other. A pair of Krimzon Guards drove past, evidently in a hurry but totally unaware of the hijacked vehicle within the warehouse. By all counts, they were free to move on to the next task. “So what now?”

“Well,” Jak replied, clenching and unclenching his fist, “I guess we’ve gotta go pay a visit to 'the sage’s daughter.’ ”

Daxter looked up at his friend, confused.

“Keira,” Jak said. When the ottsel continued to stare blankly, he chided, “Weren’t you listening to Onin’s hints earlier?”

“Sure I was listening! I think… I was just focusing on whatever ‘freeing that which is chained’ was supposed to mean. You really think she meant Keira?”

“Do we know any other sage’s daughters?”

“I guess we don’t,” Daxter conceded, and he climbed onto Jak’s shoulder guard. “Onward, noble steed! To the stadium!”

 


 

A small flying machine buzzed below the canopy, disrupting the serene soundscape of Haven Forest. The odd contraption resembled an insect with an overlarge head, all the better to spy on its surroundings with its huge, shiny black eyes. Its antennae quivered as it absorbed sonic information, and its orange button nose twitched with each new smell it encountered. Furiously beating wings on its back gave it the power of flight, much to the consternation of the local bird population. Every so often it would skim too close below the branches of an inhabited tree and scatter the occupants into an angrily chirping cloud. It began its descent as one of the orange walls of the Mountain Temple came into view.

Keira’s ears pricked up as the machine’s high-pitched whirring rose above the gentle breeze. “Another scout fly’s back,” she announced, her tools clinking, “Mind checking it out, Gabe?”

As if it understood her words, the machine landed at the booted feet of the tall, bearded man standing beside her. “You got it.” The jovial veteran bent to his knees and picked up the insectoid. Five feet away lay a pop-up console, and it was here he docked the scout fly on a magnetized port. As soon as it was plugged in its large eyes glowed green and a small screen on the console began scrolling with its report. Gabe squinted at the stream of data, his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth in concentration.

“We’re still sitting pretty. No Metal Head activity at all. Should I send it back out?”

“No, I’m almost done with this.” She indicated the nearly reconstructed warp gate she, Jak, and Daxter had discovered dismantled a mere two days earlier. Though the Shadow hated teleporting and would be just as happy if the device was left in a heap of metal and wires, it couldn’t be helped. His source of power was the forest and therefore needed to be as accessible to him as possible. And so Keira had spent the last several hours jury-rigging a new warp gate from a combination of scavenged parts and what could be salvaged from the original, which was sadly very little. Gabe accompanied her in case of trouble, but in the end, there was nothing to guard against. There wasn’t any indication of Metal Heads in the vicinity, cloaked or otherwise. As such, he had passed the time engaging her in conversation and drifting from one restless activity to the next. Once he packed the scout fly away with its twin in a large padded case, he proceeded to pace a circle around her and scan the tree line.

“Thanks for waiting on this. I promise, I just need a few more minutes,” Keira said, smiling apologetically. She had always liked Gabe, and so she hoped he wasn’t too bored.

“Don’t worry about it,” he replied, waving off the concern, “Better this be uneventful than we get ambushed by Metal Heads… What are you doing now, anyway?”

“I'm splicing in the new power supply. Hopefully, the amperage rating is enough.”

“In layman’s terms please.”

“I’m connecting the wires so I can turn it on.”

“Right, right. Never did understand machines much myself. What makes you like ‘em anyway?”

“Well…” Keira paused, considering the question. “Machines just make sense to me. Their construction is logical. If they break down you can always find exactly what’s wrong. I feel like I can design anything and solve any problem. I wish the rest of life was like that…”

Gabe regarded her with kind chestnut eyes. “How have you been doing since the accident?”

She paused again, her jaw tensing. “You know about that?”

He nodded. “Yep. Been following the races since before you were born. When I was young and foolish I wanted to join the league myself.”

Of course, it wasn’t technically true that he did so before she was born, but she wasn’t about to correct him on that front. Just then she was more concerned that if he paid attention to the NYFE League then he knew she had another driver when the Underground brass didn’t.

“I’m hanging in there,” she, at last, answered his question, “There’s been a lot going on, so… I’ve been able to keep busy.”

“Well, I hope the new driver works out.” She stiffened. “Your mystery man got off to a rough start, but it’s still an exciting position you’re in! If he can step up to the plate then it’s possible for you to win isn’t it?”

So he doesn’t know it’s Jak at least, she thought. “It is. Especially if Erol stays away.”

“I wouldn’t count on that. Erol’s a proud piece of shit. He won’t let his title go to someone else without putting up a fight.”

“Fair point,” Keira grumbled, hoping that Gabe would be proved wrong.

“Your driver does have a name, right?”

“Of course he does.” She kept her eyes glued to her work and hoped she sounded natural.

“Wonder if he’s in the Underground too…” Gabe mused as he scratched his silver-peppered brown beard, “Well, if he’s crowned champion I look forward to learning who he is. It’s been years since there was a good mystery driver.”

Keira refrained from sighing in relief, so grateful was she that Gabe didn’t ask her about Jak’s identity outright. There were some advantages to Torn’s need-to-know information policy. Now all she had to do was safely steer the conversation in another direction. “So you’ve been a fan of the league for a long time. Are you from Haven originally?” she asked as she plugged the pop-up console into the gate.

“I am.”

“So you remember a time before the Baron.”

“I do indeed. Back then the city was ruled by King Damas.”

“What was he like?”

“He was a just man, but severe. The war with the Metal Heads had gone on for so long that certain sacrifices were necessary.”

“Like what, offering up all the firstborn children?”

Gabe chuckled. “No, nothing like that. The city elite were pressured to give more so that the rest of us could survive without going to the poor house. They were all too happy to back Praxis so he would ‘unleash the economy.’ ”

“You mean there were people who actually supported his rise to power?”

“Of course! All dictators enjoy their cheerleading sections.”

The notion was utterly foreign to Keira. She thought of the humble villagers she grew up with in Sandover. Their community was so small and close-knit, the idea that any of them would avoid contributing their fair share was unfathomable. Then she remembered the rich socialites in High Society, blithely indulging in their lives of luxury, and her blood boiled. “People are really stupid, aren’t they?”

“They can be,” Gabe admitted, “but there are also those who fight the good fight no matter the situation.”

The sentiment was small comfort, though Keira supposed it was worth remembering. Certainly, it had borne out with every desperate situation she found herself in. It was true five hundred years ago when the only thing stopping Gol and Maia from destroying the world was the combined efforts of Jak, the sages, and herself. It was true now with the Underground working tirelessly to save Haven City from the Baron’s regime.

Keira typed a final keystroke, and the warp gate hummed to life, emanating aqua light.

“Hey now, you fixed it!”

“Was there any doubt?” she asked, flashing Gabe a teasing smile.

The pair proceeded to dismantle the popup console so they could be on their way, but they were interrupted when his communicator began to buzz on his belt. “Gabe here… Torn, perfect timing! Keira just finished fixing the warp gate.”

The older man ambled away, his feet leisurely swinging with every step as he conversed with the Underground strategist. Keira proceeded to pack up her tools, only half listening.

“Hey,” he called back over his shoulder, “you ever heard of ‘the sage’s daughter’?”

Keira froze, momentarily at a total loss for words. Gulping so loud she feared he could hear it, she responded, “Never have. Why do you ask?”

“No idea, something top secret. But it seems like Torn’s asking everyone about it.”

“Oh,” she mumbled, “of course he is…”

Keira resumed packing up her tools, her head light. The way this world interacted with and consumed eco was so far beyond that of her own time. The raw energy was no longer the province of mystical researchers but of giant industrial forces. There were no sages in this future, at least not that she was aware of.

Who could Torn mean if not her?

Chapter Text

By the time Keira parked back at Mar Memorial Stadium, clouds had rolled in and blanketed the sky in a sheet of gray gauze. She stared upward, identifying the few remaining patches of blue. Judging by the direction of the wind, none of them would provide a window for the sun’s rays anytime soon. She sighed and hoisted her cargo out of her zoomer, two bulky metal cases that contained the scout flies and pop-up console needed for repairing the warp gate. They were rather heavy and awkward to wield at the same time. She rolled her shoulders back, bent her elbows slightly so they wouldn’t lock up, and scaled the stadium steps at a slow shamble. By the time she reached the top her arms were already burning, so she allowed herself a short rest before lifting the cases once more and hurrying under the arches to the corridor. She nearly dropped them on her feet when she rounded the corner and collided with someone going the opposite direction. A heartbeat later she realized she was standing face to face with Jak, Daxter at his side.

“Good, you’re back,” the ottsel announced, “Perfect timing, huh?” He playfully elbowed his significantly taller companion’s knee.

For a moment all she could do was stare at Jak. He appeared sheepish and struggled to meet her eyes. She pictured how flustered he was over the voluptuous Ashelin the previous evening, and her already strange mood took a nosedive. “Wh-what do you want?” she stuttered, painfully aware of how unenthused she must sound.

“Can we come in? There’s… something we need to talk about,” he answered, his tone diffident.

She sighed again and gave him a curt nod before shouldering past with her cumbersome load.

“Here.” He leaned down and gripped one of the cases with both hands, lifting it out of her grasp.

She regarded him again, suspicious of how conciliatory he was being, then turned back toward the garage. “Thanks,” she muttered.

Once they were situated inside, the bay doors closed to guard against prying eyes and ears, she leaned against a work table, arms crossed in a defensive posture. “So what is it?”

“Well,” Jak began, but he fell silent and nervously scratched behind one ear.

Daxter stepped in, “You’ve got a piece of Mar’s Seal, right?”

“ ‘Mar’s Seal’? You mean…” Keira trailed off as a wisp of memory brushed against her mind.

“That sparkling thing-a-ma-jig that Mar left behind,” the orange animal explained, “We need it to find his tomb.”

Her stomach dropped. She hadn’t heard any mention of the artifact in almost two years. Images seized her, so spellbinding she could feel her backside spike with pain as she landed on the wet, filthy floor of the sewer, the door to the Water Slums shutting her alone inside the stinking darkness. She picked up the small drawstring bag beside her with quivering fingers.

“...Keira?”

Daxter’s puzzled look jogged her back into the present. She had just been standing there like someone who had forgotten how to speak. “Sorry, ‘his tomb’?” she echoed in a hollow voice.

“Yeah, it’s got some old Precursor Stone inside that the Baron wants, but it’s bad news if he gets it. We’ve gotta find it first.”

The green-haired girl crossed her arms tighter. “Wh...what makes you think I have a piece of the seal?”

“Because Onin said ‘the sage’s daughter’ would,” Jak answered.

She blinked back. “Who’s Onin?”

“Some blind old bat who’s psychic or something,” Daxter said in a mocking tone as he performed a series of signing gestures.

Keira couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She looked back and forth between boy and ottsel, but she could tell by their faces they were dead serious. “...So that’s why Torn brought it up.”

“You’ve talked to Torn about this?” Jak asked.

“Yes. Sort of. He called Gabe while I was fixing the warp gate in the forest, and he asked if we knew anything about it.”

“Did you say anything?”

“Of course not. The last thing I want is to explain myself and get them asking more questions.” Ice trickled down her spine as a horrible realization dawned on her. “You didn’t tell anyone about me, did you?”

Jak shook his head. “I never want them to ask questions either.”

She stared at him, momentarily at a loss for words. She didn’t know why she expected otherwise. Of course he would understand. Never mind that he was also from the past, he didn’t even want her to ask him anything.

Allowing herself a deep inhalation, Keira shook out her numb hands. The shock was beginning to subside, and at some length, she requested, “Help me move this.”

She led the way over to a chest of drawers and Jak, puzzled, assisted her in lifting and carrying it to the side. She then knelt on the exposed patch of floor with searching fingers. Seconds later she found and opened the trap door to the garage’s secret compartment, and her companions exchanged an incredulous look. From inside she removed a small drawstring bag, and for the first time since the fateful night Axle’s Garage was raided, she shook its contents into her open palm. Out fell a flattened teardrop, curved like an animal’s claw. Though it was constructed of the same bronze-like metal of other Precursor artifacts, it glowed and shimmered with dazzling light like an amber moon. She had forgotten how beautiful it was.

“Why do you have it?” Jak asked.

The mechanic took a steadying breath. “I got it from the people who took me in. They found it right before they were arrested, and… they left it with me.”

“And you never turned it over?”

She shook her head, her attention still locked on the glittering object. She knew that Ryker had retrieved it for the Underground. She knew it must be part of their mission. Even so, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to give it up when she enlisted. If it wasn’t for this seemingly innocuous little piece of alloy, perhaps Vivian and Ryker would still be alive. It wasn’t yet needed, she rationalized. No longer.

Keira slipped the seal piece back into the bag and pulled the drawstrings tight. Then she held it close to her heart, squeezing her eyes shut. Why did parting with it have to feel like Vivian and Ryker were dying a small death all over again?

At last, she held it up for Jak to take, blinking furiously as her persistently dry eyes burned with emotion. His cerulean gaze briefly locked with hers, and she could see he wanted to probe her further. Instead, he set his mouth in a tight line and refrained from saying anything else. He took the bag, unable to keep from brushing her fingers with his in the process, and he jerked his hand back as though her flesh might sear his.

Keira flinched, a corresponding stab of hurt in her solar plexus, and watched him tuck the seal away in his belt pouch. They stood in awkward silence, all that was left unsaid teeming between them like a barely contained tempest. “Jak, I… About last night, I—”

“We better get going,” he interrupted her, shuffling his feet.

“Right,” she murmured, “Well… let me know if you need anything else.”

Without waiting for them to leave, she turned and walked behind the safety of the lounge’s patchwork curtain.

 


 

When they returned to Onin’s tent, Jak and Daxter fully expected to be sent off with another vague hint. Instead, they received the happy news that the seer herself was the steward of the third and final piece of the Seal of Mar. She clapped her hands together, summoning the artifact in a burst of golden light. It was circular in shape, the size of a small plate, plain save for two points sweeping around the edge.

No sooner had it appeared then the two pieces Jak retrieved began to resonate, vibrating in his belt pouch. He held them out, and they floated up to their companion as a pure ringing note gently filled the space. The three artifacts glowed brighter and spun round and round, growing ever closer till they combined into a single whole, and the ringing resolved into a sonorous chord.

Jak grasped the completed seal. At first, it seemed weightless, but the light dissipated and it grew heavy in his hands. Despite his surly demeanor he couldn’t help but smile. It was as though the harmony of the seal had flowed into his body, and for a moment all was right with the world.

After receiving final instructions from Onin and calling to update the Underground leadership, it was time to open Mar’s Gate. Armed with the seal as well as the gear, lens, and crystal they had retrieved before—relics of the ancient Light Tower—Jak and Daxter made their way to the Mountain Temple post haste.

It was there the duo found a great, round door as tall as a tree. Precursor metal of alternating values curved toward its center, where a large indentation lay conspicuously vacant. Producing the Seal of Mar, Jak found it to be glowing once more. This time it was more than weightless. It actively pulled away from his fingers, and when he let it go the seal floated up to the center of the door, trailing otherworldly sparkles as it went. There it locked into place with a loud click. An internal mechanism clanged to life, and the metal retracted into the lip of the frame, leaving the seal suspended in midair. Its purpose served, the glow ceased.

On the other side, they stepped into a vertiginous canyon that snaked up and down through the granite of the mountain. So deep and narrow did it cut that little light reached its floor. It was a forlorn place, untouched for centuries. The only life was the occasional twisted tree sprouting from the rock, somehow finding purchase on the sheer canyon walls.

Jak was beginning to wonder how much further they would have to travel through the claustrophobic environment when he rounded a bend and the path expanded into a wide clearing, completely encircled by towering cliffs. Three points of interest stood around at even intervals, each one unique in appearance and function.

First, there was ancient machinery to the left, its appearance dominated by tremendous gears. They mostly clustered around a small console, but their presence elsewhere, some even poking out of the cliff face high above, suggested that much of the machine’s structure was underground.

Then, across the clearing in the middle of a kettle pond, rose a stone island with Precursor writing as tall as Daxter carved into its bank. In its center, there was a pedestal topped with a large ring that could spin freely.

Lastly, there was a mysterious four-armed structure to the right which sat upon a large dais. At the tip of each arm was a gigantic blue eco crystal.

It was plain to see which relic went where. Dividing and conquering with a convivial thumbs up, Daxter ran to the machine console with the gear in hand. There he placed it into a depression, and the great apparatus groaned to life.

Jak took the lens to the island, bounding across the water on bulky stepping stones. With expert aim, he threw the glass disc into its rightful position within the ring. Spurred on by the power of the machinery, the mounted lens proceeded to spin as the entire island rose up. Increasingly smaller concentric segments ascended higher and higher, telescoping to the heavens above. When at last the monolith came to rest Daxter examined it bottom to top, slack-jawed. No longer was it an island but a tremendous tower of rock.

With only the crystal cluster remaining, Jak took it to the curious remaining structure and inserted it into a hollow in the base. An electric current jolted to life, and the four arms opened like elongated flower petals, their blue eco crystals glowing brightly. Within was a fifth arm topped with a focusing needle. Four beams of blinding indigo shot from the crystals to the needle, forming a pyramid of light, and the combined beam, in turn, flew to the lens above and was redirected toward Haven City.

 


 

Keira roamed around the streets of Main Town on her custom zoomer, too antsy to stay inside the confines of her garage. Between parting with the seal piece and all the drama with Jak, there had been entirely too much excitement over the last forty-eight hours. She felt totally overwhelmed, and though she dreaded being alone with her thoughts neither was she able to bury herself in her work with the rift rider.

It was therefore perfect when Torn called her about keeping watch. Soon the Light Tower would reveal the location of Mar’s Tomb. Judging by how he worded the directive, he was making it of every Underground operative he could reach, a good plan given the size of the city. Besides, no one really knew just what the Light Tower would look like. Keira’s best guess was the eco beam in the Forbidden Jungle, reflected to and fro by towers large and small, that powered Sandover Village.

The mechanic’s heart twisted at the memory. Jak had once restored power to the village when lurkers blocked off the beam. She had waited for him to do so along with the rest of the villagers, just as she did now. She hated it, even though he filled her with such ambivalence. She had always hated waiting.

Keira tossed her long hair and accelerated. She was nearing the city center and a good spot for a lookout. There was a series of apartment buildings here, one with a back alley service ladder to the roof that was left unguarded. She climbed up four stories and took a seat on a large air intake vent. From here she could clearly see the mountain looming over the western shield wall as well as various city landmarks, the palace closest of all. The bustle of the streets below was diminished, and a bracing wind blew. She faced the buffeting stream of air, relishing its force. In that direction lay the ramshackle rooftops of the Slums and the domineering blockiness of the Krimzon Guard Fortress. Further still were dark storm clouds brewing on the northeastern horizon. She wondered if the wind would carry them all the way to the city.

Without warning, a blue beam so bright it left pulsing trails across her eyes shot from the mountain to a point on the far side of the palace. There was a great rumbling and cracking, like the cacophony of a landslide. Keira listened as the disaster settled, frozen in morbid fascination before she remembered what she was supposed to be doing. She made to call Torn, her hands fumbling with her communicator. She scowled at her disobedient fingers, and by the time she heard his gruff voice, she felt quite flustered.

“Yeah.”

“It’s Keira! I see the Light Tower’s beam! I think it destroyed a building south of the palace,” she breathlessly reported.

“I’ve already received confirmation from Ashelin. The beam struck the Baron’s statue.”

She breathed a sigh of relief even as she felt a flash of irritation at the mere mention of Praxis’ daughter.

“Where are you?”

“The city center, on the other side of the palace.”

“Get over to the statue now and render immediate assistance. The Shadow is en route with Kor and the kid.”

“I’m on it,” Keira confirmed. She ended the call and hurried back down to her parked zoomer.

In a show of narcissism second only to the palace itself, the largest statue in Haven City, taller than most buildings, was of the Baron himself. He was severely authoritative as ever, raising his sword in the pose of one engaged in glorious battle. Keira had long despised it, so she couldn’t help but take great pleasure in the pile of rubble she found instead. The Light Tower had indeed pierced and shattered the behemoth sculpture, and the debris broke open the pedestal below, revealing a secret door—the entrance to Mar’s Tomb.

She waited for the arrival of the Shadow, Kor, and the kid, her palm resting on the handle of her revolver. Eventually, they pulled up in a large, slow zoomer. Ranging in age from a toddler to an elderly man, they weren’t exactly fast in exiting the vehicle, and Keira impatiently shepherded them inside as she kept watch for approaching soldiers. They stepped into a double door airlock, just as they would if they were crossing through the shield walls. When the interior door opened there was a great whoosh as fresh air was sucked inside, and the mainframe computer spoke in its monotone female voice, “Leaving city safe zone.”

The ominous words made the hairs on the back of Keira’s neck stand on end.

The motley group stepped onto an elevator, plainly ancient in comparison to the more modern ones scattered about the city. The shaft walls consisted not of metalwork but masonry, and the elevator machinery creaked and groaned in protest at being awoken from its long slumber.

Down, way down deep, they stepped into a stone antechamber illuminated by dusty yet ornate yellow eco sconces. The walls were carved with elaborate frescoes depicting the history of the city, and the visage of a Precursor Oracle presided over a huge door bearing Mar’s royal seal. Oracle statues were once a common presence in Keira’s life, scattered about the landscape as they were in the past, but this was the first one she had seen since traveling to the future. Her eyes swept over the familiar face, dominated by large eyes and a long, proboscis-like muzzle.

“Amazing,” the Shadow murmured, “to think we’re the first people to step into this hallowed hall in generations.”

Kor didn’t say anything. He stared with unblinking intensity at the door as though he could open it by sheer willpower.

The child was neither awed nor determined. Instead, he clutched Kor’s robes, his little fingers trembling with fear. He looked so very small within the empty expanse of the antechamber.

Keira gazed at him, at first feeling sympathy but then curiosity. She had only ever seen the silent urchin in passing, never long enough to get a good look. There was something about him, something unsettling… something very familiar.

Her train of thought was broken when Jak and Daxter ran into the antechamber. The young renegade stopped short at the sight of her, evidently surprised by her presence.

“You did it, Jak!” Samos exclaimed before anyone else could speak, “You actually found Mar’s Tomb!”

His voice had such a reverent tone that Daxter rolled his eyes, and Jak could have sworn that it was the Samos of Sandover speaking. It was then he saw the child quaking at Kor’s knees, and he flared with sudden enmity. “Great. Now what? We send this poor kid into a meat grinder?”

Keira wasn’t expecting for the blonde to sound so protective. Practically all she had heard from him the last two days was anger at nearly everyone and everything. He was also angry now, but his concern for a child he barely knew was noteworthy indeed. Perhaps his moral compass still pointed true North.

Kor, on the other hand, wasn’t listening to a word. He mumbled unintelligibly to himself, his face possessed by an intense hunger. For what, Keira didn’t know.

Samos stepped toward the boy and placed a gentle green hand on his shoulder. “You must be cautious, child. The Tests of Manhood are sure to be fraught with peril, and Mar’s heir must face them alone.”

Daxter also waddled over, his grin encouraging. “It’s okay, kid. You can do it! It’s just a deep, pitch black, sure to be filled to the brim with painful death old tomb.” As he spoke, his voice shrank smaller and smaller, his confidence draining away. “...I wouldn’t go in there.”

The boy’s lower lip quivered as though he might burst into tears. If nothing else, Daxter could always be counted on for his complete lack of tact.

Suddenly, the raspy bass of the Oracle boomed out like two boulders grinding together, its words reverberating through the rib cages of all assembled. “Welcome, Heir of Mar. Finally, the chosen one stands before me. Enter and prove yourself worthy to claim the ancient birthright.”

The entire room began to rumble when the great door obeyed the Oracle’s command and ground upward, steadily revealing the dark chamber beyond.

At first glued to the unfolding sight, Keira’s attention was drawn by a movement in the corner of her eye. Jak slowly stepped around the boy, entranced, like there was something, some invisible force, drawing him toward the tomb within.

“No!” the Oracle bellowed.

Jak snapped out of it, and the door halted its ascent.

“This child is too young to face the Tests!”

To everyone’s horror, the door began sliding back toward the stone floor.

“What? No!” Kor yelled.

The Shadow shouted, “Do something, Jak!”

That was all the encouragement the young man needed. He sprinted at the falling door, Daxter trailing behind him.

“Wait,” the ottsel exclaimed, “remember the sure to be filled to the brim with painful death part??”

Sparing not a second, Jak launched himself forward and rolled under the door with barely two feet of clearance. The wailing Daxter slid to a stop just before the ever-shrinking gap and turned to run away when Jak reached back to grab him by the tail. He was pulled under just before the door shut with a deafening crash, and the foursome left behind looked on in astonishment.

“JAK!” Keira cried, though he likely couldn’t hear her. He had survived terrible trials in the past, but she was nevertheless gripped with fear for his safety. What long-buried dangers was he about to face?

“Great tree limbs!” The Shadow pressed his tightly balled fists into his bushy hair. “He’s gone to face the tests!”

Kor corrected in a solemn voice, “No, he’s gone to his death.”

Keira fell to her knees, utterly overcome, just as someone behind them yelled, “Freeze!”

Chapter Text

Jak and Daxter lay prone on the dusty ground, both breathing heavily from forcing their way into the tomb.

“Phoo! What’s that smell?!” Daxter yammered as he sat up.

Jak held his breath in an attempt to stave it off, but it was a futile effort. He soon inhaled, and the ancient aroma assaulted his nostrils with full potency. It was dank and thick with moisture, like the squalid bouquet of a centuries-old swamp. Wrinkling his nose, he rolled over and stood up, dusting himself off as he went.

The stench failed completely to prepare Jak for the sprawling sight before them. They were poised high up on one end of a mammoth stone arcade that stretched hundreds of feet from flooded floor to vaulted ceiling. Ghostly green flames burned in ornamental cauldrons, and orange firelight flickered from torches mounted on the palatial pillars. The two colors fought for dominance, splintering the chamber with jagged, eerie shadows and reflecting off the water below. At the other side, as far as the length of Mar Memorial Stadium, there stood an enormous pair of double doors.

The duo drank it all in, gawking in wonder, until Daxter broke the silence, “So I guess we gotta open those doors somehow.”

Jak nodded. He still felt humbled by such a magnificent sight. If the tomb was this grand, surely the Tests of Manhood would match that scale in difficulty.

The ottsel crawled up to his shoulder perch and swept a gloved paw over the foreboding expanse. “After you, big guy.”

Jak brandished his scatter gun, sparing an acid look for his friend, and began the descent into the tomb. He found it difficult to move quickly. The entrance was suspended above a seemingly bottomless black pit, a gaping maw that would shake the equilibrium of even the stoutest of spirits; a steep and narrow staircase was all that connected it to the other side. He couldn’t help but sigh in relief when his feet were once again on level ground. There he paused and listened. Aside from the crackling of flames, he couldn’t hear a thing. There was no breeze and no movement beneath the water’s glassy surface.

Halfway down the arcade stood two raised platforms, both leading to their own doorways. Jak didn’t doubt that beyond each awaited a trial to be overcome. Steeling himself for the unknown challenges ahead, he walked down the last few steps out into the water and stifled a gasp. It was bracingly cold and so murky in the low light he couldn’t see the floor. It might as well be as bottomless as the pit, but thankfully, it was only waist deep. He made his way slowly, wading through the fetid water with disgust. Every step stirred up little waves that released fresh, foul smells.

“Jeez, you think this Mar guy would’ve been more careful about pond scum,” Daxter complained.

“If he had, something tells me this place wouldn’t be so secret.”

“Then keep the place dry! It’s not like there’s some law saying all creepy crypts have to be floo—”

Without warning something as large as Jak breached the water in a plume of acrid froth, its jaws spread wide. He reflexively held up his morph gun, and the creature clamped down on the barrel. It was slimy and white, its body blanched from generations of its kind living hidden away from the sunlight, and it wrenched at his gun with such incredible strength that it was a miracle he didn’t lose his grip. Before it could do so again, he wound up one arm and brought his elbow down onto its flat nose with all the force he could muster. It let go, hissing in pain, providing Jak with the opening he needed to fire at point-blank range. The creature’s head exploded into a bloody burst of flesh and bone and brain, and the pieces rained back into the water in a sickening bevy of splashes. Its body bobbed and rotated till it floated belly up, crimson billowing from its exposed jugular all the while.

“Ok, never mind!” Daxter declared in a shaky voice, “I’ll take pond scum over albino amphibians any day. Let’s step on it!”

Jak couldn’t agree more. He waded past the creature’s remains and toward dry ground as fast as he could manage. Faced with deciding between the two paths, he arbitrarily chose right.

They passed under a tall arch and rounded a bend, entering a long, dim hallway. The ceiling was lined with small openings, black squares that perhaps served as some sort of ventilation. A single torch burned at the middle point, its sconce projecting long, dancing shadows that obscured the walls and floor. Though he squinted, Jak couldn’t make out any other distinguishing features. He cautiously advanced, sure that everything wasn’t what it seemed, but nothing happened. The only sound came from his boots scraping along the dusty stone tiles.

He made it all the way to the torch without incident, and there he paused to examine his surroundings once again. He cast his gaze back the way he had come. All appeared still and unchanged. Though he strained his ears, he heard only silence. He was about to continue on when there was a stray movement in the corner of his eye. He focused on a small stretch of the openings, searching for whatever it was he saw, but there was nothing. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light. After waiting another ten seconds, he turned around and nearly leapt out of his skin in surprise.

“What the?!” Daxter exclaimed in horrified disgust.

A spider as large as a crocadog stood about fifteen feet away, its black abdomen marked scarlet. It raised its hairy front legs and hissed before rushing forward in a skittering charge. The manner in which it moved was so disconcerting that Jak nearly dropped his weapon. Then he fired a wide surge of raw red eco that disintegrated the arachnid’s fragile body.

There was no time for a reprieve. A tumult of hissing sounded all around him, and an entire swarm of spiders streamed into the hallway, crawling one by one out of the dozens of openings crowning the walls.

Daxter wailed, and Jak bolted, repeatedly firing his scatter gun to clear the way. Every round obliterated a host of the attacking bugs, and yet there was nary a discernible dent in their numbers. They just kept coming, a seemingly endless brood.

He was nearly to the end of the hallway, but in his haste, he failed to notice the raised tile that indicated a plate switch until he stepped on it. The ground clanked and swung open, sending boy and ottsel tumbling into thin air. They crashed onto a chute that whisked them away from the spiders and deeper into the bowels of the tomb. The ride was swift and violent, all tangled sliding limbs, before ending in another freefall into a deep, dark pool.

Jak spun about in a chilly cyclone of bubbles, utterly disoriented as foul water invaded his nose and mouth. The weight of his sopping clothes pulled him down, and he kicked in the opposite direction until he, at last, broke the surface. Daxter soon followed, coughing and spluttering.

“Are you ok, Dax?”

“Absolutely not! I’ve HAD it with this place! What kind of test is this?!”

If his treading companion was jumping straight to complaining then he wasn’t seriously injured, and so Jak tried to get his bearings. The chute had deposited them into a tall and narrow shaft, not unlike a well. There was an opening high above, which allowed a small modicum of light to reach the waterline.

“Whoever looked at a bunch of spiders and thought ‘you know what, this is a perfect measure of manliness’? Seriously, Mar can go fuck himself!” As his tirade intensified, Daxter paddled over to the wall and attempted to scrabble back up to the chute. To his further outrage, he couldn’t advance higher than a foot. The stone bricks, already smooth and relatively seamless, were slick with slime. There would be no climbing out.

“There has to be another way.” Jak bobbed and stretched through to his toes, but he felt no bottom. Throwing his arms overhead and straightening his body into a vertical line, he submerged and reached deeper, but still, there was nothing. He surfaced and lowered his goggles into position before ducking underwater again, casting what little there was to see in dark shades of red. After taking a few moments to adjust to the crimson murk, he made a slow circle, examining all sides of the stone shaft. He narrowed his eyes at a suspiciously light patch. Was that a faint glow he saw? He went to investigate and found it was a large mouth of a short tunnel. Some sort of bright light source was on the other side, refracting into rippling caustic patterns on the grimy stone.

He surfaced to a still ranting Daxter. “Hey,” he interrupted, “there’s a tunnel under here. We can swim out.”

“Oh, sure, ‘swim out’ he says!”

“Do you have any better ideas? Ottsels are supposed to be good swimmers.”

“Just because I’m an ottsel doesn’t mean I can swim like one! I wasn’t born this way! The only instincts I’ve got are for comedy and sex!”

Jak jerked his chin in a curt invitation. “Then grab on.”

Daxter pressed his furry lips together, finally at a loss for words, and obediently complied. Once he had a firm grip on Jak’s shoulder guard and both of them had taken deep breaths, the blonde dove down and proceeded to swim through the tunnel. As they went the water grew warmer, and they entered a lengthy chamber. The entrance to another tunnel was just barely visible in the distance, and they quickly realized they wouldn’t be able to come up for air along the way. In a cruel twist of fate, the light came from bands of electricity writhing over the water’s surface.

Daxter panicked and let go, yelping out large bubbles and erratically swimming back the way they had come. Jak followed, grabbing his flailing friend as he went. They emerged on the other side, splashing and gasping.

“Oh no,” the ottsel muttered, “oh no no no!”

“Looks like it was about fifty yards,” Jak said, the gravity of their situation sucking him in like quicksand.

“We’re as good as dead! We’ll never make it!”

“There’s an opening on the other side. That has to lead to safety.”

“You don’t know that! What if it’s another fifty yards in a tunnel?!”

“Dax, we have to do this.”

“Easy for you to say! You always won those contests where we’d hold our breath. I never did! I’m gonna drown in this Precursor forsaken tomb!”

“Get ahold of yourself!” Jak yelled loud enough to quell the ottsel’s blathering. “If there’s a way forward we have to take it! Just trust me. I’m going to get you out here...”

Daxter could only stare back, his eyes wide with fear, and numbly nod.

The duo converged once again and prepared themselves for what was to come, taking long, deep breaths. Jak did his best to maintain an even composure, not only for Daxter but himself. Though he was no stranger to the water, he had never swum so far on just one lungful of air. He shook his head, willing himself to focus not on the future but only on the present. The expansion and contraction of his chest became a metronome by which he ramped up his determination. With every inhalation, he grounded further into his body, and his voice was steady when he asked, “Ready to go, Dax?”

Instead of speaking in response, Daxter choked out something between a hum of agreement and a whimper.

“On the count of three. One… two… three!”

Jak dove under a final time and his entire world shrank to his churning limbs, his inflated chest, and the water streaming past. Soon he was through the first tunnel, and no thought entered his mind beyond reaching the other side. Always he was propelling himself downward, lest his natural buoyancy raise him too close to the surface. On more than one occasion he felt the lick of electricity along his back, a phantom jolt that urged him to dive to safety.

He was halfway through the chamber when his lungs began to burn in earnest. Swim! he urged himself and pressed on, forcing his legs to kick faster. Just twenty yards. The heat in his chest continued to build like a fire threatening to leap out of a hearth. His eyes watered with the effort to contain it. Fifteen yards. With every stroke his boots grew heavier, dragging down his feet, and yet it never became easier to stay safely below the electrified surface. Ten yards. Daxter groaned, a muffled, helpless sound that invaded his ears just as urgently as the pressing water. Fifteen feet. He was grunting himself, unable to contain the raging inferno in his lungs. He was so close… Five feet. At last, his fingers brushed the rough edges of the tunnel. How far did he have to go? Only a few feet more and… his lips parted, driven by an uncontrollable need to gulp air. His stroke faltered as he swallowed a mouthful of water, and he somehow quelled his overpowering urge to cough it back up. He kicked off the tunnel floor, propelled by primal desperation out and up toward the light above. Just when he thought his lungs would explode with the effort, he broke the surface.

Jak hacked up water and, incapable of treading at the same time, held himself up by pressing his trembling palms onto the slimy walls. “Dax,” he choked out the name as soon as he could speak.

“Yeah,” came the thin response between gagging heaves.

“We—” He sagged against the slippery stone, still coughing uncontrollably but more grateful than he could possibly say. “We made it.”

“Remind me—to thank you later.”

This side had the luxury of a staircase and therefore an easy exit. Jak and Daxter staggered out of the water, panting and shivering.

“This trial better be over soon,” the ottsel groused in a weak voice, grimacing so severely his large eyes nearly shut.

“It’ll be over when it’s over,“ the young renegade replied as he wiped his goggles and pushed them back up his forehead, “Just be careful about springing any more tra—”

There was a deep click, and Jak and Daxter’s eyes darted to the floor beneath the latter’s fuzzy feet. To their collective horror, he had stepped on another plate switch, and a hair-raising rumble sounded overhead. They looked up to see the low ceiling bearing down on them with alarming speed. With no time to run, it was all Jak could do to throw up his hands and catch the crushing slab of stone. Immediately his knees and elbows buckled, and the ceiling pressed painfully into the crown of his skull, yet its progress diminished to a merciful crawl. The muscles of his arms, legs, and torso all bulged with the effort of holding it back.

Daxter could only stare up, eyes huge and ears flat against the leather of his pilot cap.

“Do… something!” Jak managed to speak through gritted teeth. He had little time before his strength would give out.

“Wh-what can I do?” the diminutive animal squeaked.

“Anything!”

The ottsel’s head turned this way and that in frenzied scrutiny before he spotted a lever beyond the perimeter of the falling ceiling. “Over there!” he cried and darted away, spitting in his gloved paws and frantically rubbing them together as he went. He leapt at the mechanism, a thick rod taller than he was, and pulled it without hesitation. Though he strained mightily, it didn’t move an inch.

Jak fell to one knee with a grunt, a grisly promise that served to fire Daxter up further. He threw every last ounce of his weight into pulling, arching his back and stretching his skinny arms till he was as long and taut as a rubber band.

Just as Jak’s spine bent to the point of collapse, the lever finally engaged. The ceiling retracted, and he fell to his hands and knees. Every ragged breath scorched his already inflamed lungs like a fountain of lava.

The respite was short-lived. The room began to vibrate and a tremendous rock sphere, larger than any boulder and painted in a faded rainbow of hues, rumbled into view. Guided by a shallow gutter, it was making straight for Daxter. He screeched and fled on all fours under an adjacent archway. The gargantuan sphere rolled right after him, its velocity increasing with frightening speed.

Jak lurched to his feet and rushed forward to help, but as soon as the sphere passed under the arch a panel slid down, leaving a solid wall where once there was empty space. He collided with the hard stone and felt around, growing increasingly distraught, but there was no gap or switch to be found. He tried the lever, but it had no effect. Backing up, he charged and rammed the wall once, twice, three times, but it held firm. All he would accomplish was injuring himself if he continued. He rubbed his sore shoulder, wracking his brain for anything else he could try, but there was only one available option. He would have to continue on alone, and Daxter would have to fend for himself.

 


 

The path forward soon intersected with another, a fork that came together at the base of a tall staircase. Jak charged up, taking the treads three at a time despite how his flesh buzzed with exhaustion. When he reached the top his legs were screaming in protest, as resistant to bending as congealing cement.

At last, he ran back into the main arcade. He stood on a balcony diagonal to the tomb’s entrance and similarly flanked by two cauldrons blazing with chartreuse flames. Between them the floor was raised, and, realizing it was a final plate switch, he forcefully stepped on it.

Moments later, all the torches lining the arcade extinguished, leaving only the cauldrons alight. The tomb descended into near total darkness, punctured by pockets of convulsing, uncanny green light. Jak waited, so unnerved by the sight that he unconsciously held his breath. Then a blue eco beam, just the same as the Light Tower’s, cut through the gloom with a startling pitch, spanning all the way to the great doors at the far end. It remained engaged, humming patiently, and the first Test of Manhood was complete.

Wasting no time, Jak hopped onto a waiting platform and floated down to the flooded floor below. He plunged into the water and traveled as quickly as his burning legs would allow back to the fork. Daxter was nowhere to be seen, so he barreled headlong down the left path.

He entered a hallway that was identical to the first trial’s, long and lit by only a single torch. Praying that didn’t herald a coming horde of spiders, he scarcely took five steps inside before encountering a new obstacle—the light went out, completely obliterating all visibility. He halted and looked back to find that the threshold he just crossed had disappeared. He couldn’t see anything but black, pure and dark as jet. Flinching in surprise, he realized that wasn’t quite right. His own body was perfectly illuminated. On impulse, he reached out to feel the walls, but his groping hands touched only air. He advanced ten feet, far beyond the hallway’s original confines, and encountered nothing at all. It was as if the rest of the world had ceased to exist entirely, leaving him standing in an endless void.

Jak’s eyes darted to and fro, fruitlessly searching for a point of reference, and a creeping sense of dread took root in the pit of his belly. “Dax?” he called. His voice ricocheted back and forth like gunfire, rising and falling in volume and intensity as it somehow bounced about the empty expanse. “Daxter!” he called again, but only his unnatural echo answered.

Jak did the one thing he could and walked forward, listening to his reverberating footsteps as he went. With no sense of space or direction, no stimuli of any kind, he had no way to tell if he made any progress. For all he knew he could be walking in place, and the sensation was profoundly unsettling. He hoped that a point to travel toward, anything at all, would present itself, but there was nothing.

As he lost track of the passing time, it was inevitable that his thoughts would turn to his friend’s whereabouts. How long had it been since they were separated? Eight minutes? Maybe more? The seconds ticked on by, and his anxiety grew. Certainly, Daxter was resourceful. He had survived the streets of Haven alone for two years after all, but to consider that arena equivalent to this one was folly. The Tomb of Mar was a death trap, designed with the explicit intent of defeating all but the true heir. There was no guarantee the scrappy ottsel would be able to last by himself.

Jak picked up his pace, accelerating to a jog. He was beginning to imagine all the horrible ways Daxter could sustain serious injury or worse. They had already risked death by amphibian, spider, drowning, electrocution, and crushing. What other dangers would he face? There could be pools of dark eco or hidden spikes or—

“About time you showed up!” said an abrasive voice.

Jak stumbled to an abrupt and graceless stop and turned to see Daxter standing behind him, fuming mad but apparently alive and well. An overwhelming sense of relief swept away the fear that had gripped him so, and he took a step forward, exclaiming, “There you are!”

“Oh, save it,” the ottsel spat, his orange fur bristling with hostility, “It’s not like you ever think about anyone but yourself!”

Jak faltered, his eyes widening. “Wha—”

“Being around you sucks! The only thing that matters to you is your stupid revenge! Why did I ever bother being your friend?”

Jak stared at him as though he had been slapped across the face.

“My boy…” said a new voice.

Jak whirled around and found himself facing not Samos the Leader of the Underground but Samos the Sage of Green Eco. The old man gripped his gnarled staff with both hands, his wrinkled expression drawn.

“I’m so very disappointed in you,” he admonished with a slow shake of his log-topped head.

“Wh… What have I done?” Jak asked, feeling as small and powerless as a child.

“I had such high hopes for you. You were my brightest student. But you’ve allowed yourself to be defiled by darkness...”

“No , I… I was arrested with no cause! There was nothing I could do!”

“...and in time it will destroy you. So much wasted potential. You would’ve been better off killing yourself in that cell.”

Jak could barely breathe. Samos’ cruel words sliced through all his defenses. He felt as though the darkness was closing in around him, suffocating him.

“Jak…”

His pulse nearly stopped.

Keira.

He couldn’t bear to turn around, not if it meant facing her.

“You hate yourself so much, don’t you?”

She said the words softly, a gentle caress that coaxed him to look over his shoulder. Her small fingers were knit together, her beautiful emerald eyes brimming with regret.“I understand,” she continued, “I hate you too.”

The young renegade’s face twisted in anguish as his heart broke. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t stand it.

“The old Jak wasn’t a murdering criminal. He wasn’t like you at all.”

“Stop it…” he whispered.

“He was good and kind. He was happy.”

Jak closed his eyes, wanting with every fiber of his being to shut her out. He said again, louder, “Stop it!”

“You’re just a sad, broken freak. You’re worthless. Who could ever love you?”

He clasped his gloved hands over his ears and screamed with all his might, “STOP IT!”

He waited, quivering like a whipped animal, but heard nothing more. When at last he looked again Keira was gone. In her place stood a nightmare, unlike anything he had ever seen before. His skin was corpse white, his hair ashy gray, a wild tangle out of which raked two charcoal horns. Rays of dark eco swirled around his dagger-like claws, their purple glow glittering like dying stars in his glassy black hole eyes.

It was with a wash of icy terror that Jak realized he was looking at himself.

A vicious snarl ripped out from between the pale beast’s bared teeth, and Jak reached for his morph gun. Before he could shoot, the nightmare knocked the firearm aside and slashed, swiping so fast there was no hope of dodging. Four gashes tore across his chest like white-hot nails, ruining both his baldric and jacket and knocking the wind out of him. A succession of blows followed, all too quick for him to avoid. Again and again, he sustained injury until he was shredded into meaty ribbons, black blood flowing freely from his body. He fell to his knees, faint and in shock.

The monstrous creature stood over him, smiling with sick pleasure, and raised a blood-soaked hand for the killing blow. He did so slowly, deliberately, savoring his prey’s final moments.

Jak blinked, a sluggish movement. The seconds seemed to tick by at a crawl. He couldn’t believe he was facing death… but perhaps it wasn’t so bad. His life had been a constant misery ever since traveling through that cursed Precursor Ring. What did he have to live for anymore? If he didn’t kill Baron Praxis surely someone else would. He could disappear into the darkness, the light of his existence snuffed out, and the world would keep on turning. It might even be a better place.

Then there was a spark in the back of his mind, a persistent thought that he couldn’t make out. He frowned. What was it? What could possibly be important now, when he was prepared to surrender to oblivion?

Like the clouds parting to let sunlight dispel the fog, he suddenly remembered with perfect clarity where he was—within Mar’s Tomb, facing the Tests of Manhood. Samos wasn’t here, Keira wasn’t here, and the nightmare wrought by Baron Praxis’ experimentation lived within him.

Jak stared up at his dark self and said, his voice strong, “This isn’t real.”

Immediately, the illusion crumbled and disintegrated, vanishing into the ether like a bad dream. He looked around, disoriented, and found himself kneeling on a balcony, a mirror image of the one he found at the end of the first test. With a jolt, he realized the metallic reek of his blood was gone. He probed his chest where the first strike had landed, gingerly at first but then more urgently. He rapidly patted all over his body, but there was nothing to find. He had no injuries to speak of.

Closing his eyes, Jak heaved a mighty sigh, a gradual, weary exhalation in which gratitude and trauma intermingled in equal measure. The trial’s apparitions were gone, but they would live on forever in his memory.

He allowed himself a brief breather before he stood on shaky legs, feeling truly dead on his feet. Between the two harrowing tests, his flesh and psyche were drained of nearly all capacity to function. Only by his driving need to find Daxter was he able to continue, and it was with a hollow sense of triumph that he activated the final switch.

Another beam of blue light joined its twin in shining from one end of the arcade to the other, and there was a sound like a low peal of thunder. Leaning over the edge to peer around the long row of pillars he could see the great doors parting, clearing the way to the tomb’s inner sanctum.

 


 

Jak rode the waiting platform back down to the flooded floor and waded with what speed he could summon to the far side. Another pale amphibian made to attack him, leaping out of the water with open jaws, but he dodged and cracked it over the head with the butt of his morph gun. The blow landed on one of the creature’s large eyes, hard enough that it hissed in pain and swam away, a blessing given his weakened state.

When at last he rushed up the steps and through the open doors, a familiar furry creature stood waiting for him, orange fur disheveled and long arms crossed in barely contained impatience.

“Daxter,” Jak said, keeping his enthusiasm in check, “is it really you this time?”

“Of course it’s me!” the ottsel cried, throwing his arms up in frustration, “Who else would be waiting for your skinny ass?”

As soon as Daxter opened his mouth Jak knew he wasn’t speaking with an illusion, and he simultaneously felt so relieved and enervated he might’ve collapsed on the spot under different circumstances. Instead, he gave his friend a tired smile.

“What the hell happened to you?” the ottsel asked as he circled around, inspecting Jak for injuries like an agitated mother hen, “You look like shit.”

The blonde straightened up. “You’re not looking so hot yourself.”

“I had a hairy experience!”

The ottsel was so outraged that Jak screwed up his lips to keep from grinning in amusement. “Which means what exactly?”

“First I had to run away from that giant stone ball like some crazy tomb raider. Then I had to do it all over again with an even bigger spider. Those eight-legged freaks we dealt with before were just babies!”

His complaining was cut short when the voice of the Oracle once again boomed out, “Welcome, young warrior. Many eons have passed since our hope burned so brightly. Today you have proven yourself worthy to receive Mar's legacy.”

Daxter perked up, his brows rising toward the ceiling. “He's talking about me! Thanks, your holy statue-ness.” He took a deep bow, his bedraggled ears scraping the dusty floor. “This tomb wasn't so tough!"

“What you are about to receive contains grave power, and with it comes grave responsibility...”

As the Oracle spoke, the duo ambled further into the tomb, examining their surroundings as they went. Across two arched footbridges loomed the most dominating feature of the room—an enormous statue of a man rising out of a pit, only visible from the chest up like a super-sized bust. His mighty stone visage was humorless and stern, his brow crowned in an ornate headdress, and Jak realized he must be Mar. Similar to the antechamber, intricate carvings illustrating events long past radiated out from the statue and filled the walls. There were scenes of death and destruction, the creatures waging it familiar despite how heavily stylized they were.

“Eons ago, the Precursors waged a terrible war with the Hora-quan, those dark creatures you refer to as Metal Heads. Driven by their dark leader, the Metal Head legions destroyed our great civilization, and now they swarm the universe unopposed, looking for the last relics of our power. Mar tried to hide the Precursor Stone in this tomb to protect it from them. It is our last hope, and you were chosen to keep that hope alive.”

Jak was losing patience with the notion that he was the noble hero here to save the tomb’s treasure for some higher purpose. He wasn’t Mar’s heir, he was just a rebel fugitive seeking vengeance, and he waved his hand dismissively. “I think you've got me confused with someone else. I just want the Stone.”

“I sense there is a dark rage burning within you, and in time, it will destroy you with its madness.”

The Oracle’s words hit Jak like a sledgehammer, and the blood drained from his face. Immediately, his thoughts turned to Gol and Maia, as they did so many times when he was imprisoned. Their deranged obsession with dark eco, originally borne of scientific curiosity, led to their downfall. He had long wondered if the Dark Warrior Program put him on a similar path, but always he pushed such grim speculation away. Now it was a reality he couldn’t dismiss. This wasn’t a fictional manifestation of Samos saying all he feared most. This was a Precursor Oracle, an ancient being with no use for such human pettiness as lies.

“Wait, waddya mean it’ll destroy him?” Daxter demanded, “There’s gotta be something we can do, right?”

“Now that you carry the weight of darkness on your shoulders, only the last power of the Precursors can save you.

“So the Stone then. He means the Stone, right?”

Jak gave a light-headed shrug. The longer the Oracle spoke the more he wanted to find a quiet place to rest and slip into unconsciousness.

“It is time to fulfill your destiny! Behold!”

It was only then he took notice of the impressive lime green gemstone mounted in the statue’s chest, as wide across as his arm was long, and became transfixed. It thrummed with power, pulsing and glowing as if to beckon him forward.

“Wow!” Daxter’s eyes widened in wonder, reflecting the green light. “Let's get the goods!”

The ottsel stepped onto the second bridge, gleefully waddling toward their prize when there was a great whoosh overhead. Jak ducked, feeling the heat of eco thrusters on his back, and looked up just as a crimson war machine landed in front of the statue. Six legs sprouted from its body like an insect, a brilliant red light blazing on its front like a vermillion eye. After battling the squid mech atop the palace, it came as no surprise that the Baron himself sat in the cockpit.

“You fools! You brought me right to the Stone,” the tyrant gloated, “Your pitiful Underground friends were no match for my guards above!”

Fear spiked in Jak’s gut as he demanded, “What did you do to them?!”

The Baron grinned, all too happy to ignore the question and let Jak twist in the wind. “Now I will gain the power I need to crush my enemies!” He raised one mechanical leg toward the ceiling, its clawed foot glinting in the low light of the torches, and slammed it down with enough force to break the second footbridge. The structure crumbled into the pit below, forcing Daxter to scramble back to safety. “And after claiming the Stone,” Praxis promised as he leapt onto the statue and tried to yank the treasure clean off, “I’ll begin with you!”

“Abomination!” the Oracle cried, “The Precursor Stone was not meant for you!”

The Baron paid the ancient voice no mind. The claws of his mech’s front two legs began spinning like drills, and he attacked the Stone’s setting in a shower of sparks.

Gripped by determination and anger far more powerful than their last confrontation, Jak immediately switched his morph gun to the Vulcan fury mod, took aim, and fired… nothing. He pulled the trigger repeatedly, and the only response was a useless click-click-click. The gun was hopelessly jammed, and with a sinking feeling, he realized it was waterlogged from the first Test of Manhood.

The Baron watched and laughed, a cold-blooded display of sadistic enjoyment. Then he punched a button, launching a salvo of small quadrupedal droids. They landed all around Jak, surrounding him, and scuttled forward like tiny flightless versions of the larger mech. He was forced to engage them in melee combat, punching and kicking them into the surrounding pit, but there were too many. One assaulted his legs while another jumped onto his back, shocking him with blue eco powered electricity and forcing him to his knees. Daxter joined the fray, punching and scrabbling from his shoulder perch. The assault was so overwhelming that Jak failed to notice the grenade that landed nearby, beeping ever faster. By the time he managed to throw off the last droid, it was too late to clear the explosion.

“Say goodnight!” the Baron crowed triumphantly.

Without thinking Jak rushed the grenade and kicked it, sending it flying into his opponent just as it spectacularly exploded. The blast pushed Praxis off the statue, and the green light of his force field sputtered and failed.

“Yeah!” Daxter jeered, “Take that, you fascist!”

The ottsel spoke too soon. The Baron charged at them, rapidly firing his twin cannons, his face ablaze with manic outrage. “I am the city's savior, not you!”

Jak dove out of the way, but before he was totally in the clear the mech’s legs splayed and fanned outward. He felt one brush so close it nearly decapitated him, and there was a yelp of pain and a flash of orange. He realized with a sickening drop of his stomach that Daxter had been knocked away and was spiraling into the pit below.

The decision between rescuing his friend and continuing to fight against the Baron hung in the balance for one horrendous moment. All that the illusory Daxter said came rushing back like a shot of poison, daring him to think only of himself and blindly pursue vengeance. But it didn’t matter. In the end, there was no choice. Jak took a running leap into the pit, straightening out his body so he could slice through the air like an arrow. In seconds he caught up with the ottsel and grabbed him, momentarily interrupting his insensate screaming.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING??” Daxter shrieked.

“SAVING YOU, YOU IDIOT!”

“WELL, GOOD JOB! NOW WE CAN FALL DOWN A BOTTOMLESS PIT TOGETHER!”

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN BOTTOMLESS, IT’S—” Jak stopped yelling. Something was strange. As with the second Test of Manhood, though the inky darkness was total both he and Daxter were clearly visible, the echo of their voices aberrant. They had indeed been falling longer than seemed possible.

“You must not admit defeat, young warrior,” the Oracle’s voice reverberated through the gloom, “Go! Protect the Precursor Stone, our salvation!”

They blinked out of the darkness and crashed into the hard ground, Jak taking the fall for Daxter. The wind was knocked from his body, and he coughed and gasped for air before he recovered enough to notice that they were right back in the tomb’s inner sanctum. It was as though the Oracle had folded time and space with some mysterious remnant of Precursor power… The Stone! His attention snapped to the statue of Mar. The Precursor Stone had been wrenched free from its ancient resting place, and the Baron was gone.

“Wh— What the hell just happened?!” Daxter demanded, utterly discombobulated by the surreal experience.

“I’ll explain later.” Jak staggered to his feet, not at all sure that he’d be able to, and lurched toward the exit.

Chapter Text

After scaling the winding staircase over the pit, his lower half still dripping wet from crossing the arcade’s flooded floor a final time, Jak found that the door into Mar’s Tomb had been blown to smithereens by the Baron’s forces. Beyond that the antechamber stood empty; no hastily forgotten possession or evidence of spilled blood, not a soul in sight. At least he could take some small comfort in that his Underground fellows hadn’t been executed in the spot.

He ran onto the elevator, Daxter bobbing on his shoulder. During the long ride back up to street level, he made to call Torn but discovered that, like his morph gun, his communicator was too waterlogged to function. He would have to hurry back to Headquarters for new information and equipment, but as soon as he traversed the airlock’s double doors he stopped dead in his tracks.

Torrential rain poured down on swathes of people stretching across the square like roiling tentacles. Some fled, some looted, and others battled with lines of Krimzon Guards holding shields and taser rifles. It was pure chaos, laced in angry jeers and terrified screams. The red-armored soldiers were vicious, beating and electrocuting any civilians that got too close and launching canisters that belched noxious clouds of fumes. Those who had been subdued were arrested en masse and loaded into waiting prison zoomers.

“This is nuts!” Daxter exclaimed.

Jak nodded in solemn agreement. Maybe their companions had somehow escaped in all the confusion and would be waiting back at HQ, but then he spotted the Shadow’s old-fashioned three-seater and Keira’s custom one-seater parked and forgotten nearby, and his hopes fell further.

Just then a woman climbed on top of the fallen, sideways head of Baron Praxis’ statue beside the duo. She fired on the soldiers with a handgun, yelling a rallying cry. Moments later she was shot three times and fell into a bloody heap on the pavement. The horrific sight jolted Jak into action. In a snap decision, he ran over to Samos’ zoomer and hotwired it. The vehicle was bulky enough to act as a tank of sorts, and he accelerated as fast as the cranky old engine would allow and plowed straight into the main KG line. The unsuspecting guards tumbled over the hood, flying left and right, their broken bodies leaving a macabre trail and earning cheers from the crowd.

Without looking back, Jak made a beeline for the Slums. It was imperative that they get back to the Underground with all speed, and he soon wished he had taken Keira’s sleek zoomer instead of the Shadow’s. At least he could continue to ram the KG when possible, and as they entered the rundown district, the anarchy intensified. Around every corner, the streets were clogged by pockets of violence, and fires raged, their unquenchable flames generating hissing steam in the downpour.

When at last Jak turned into the Underground alley, he came to an abrupt stop and vaulted onto the wet pavement without bothering to turn off the engine, Daxter hot on his heels. They charged down the steps with a vigor that belied how exhausted they were.

“Torn!” Jak barked. He found the ex-KG commander sitting on an overturned bucket in a corner, flanked by a tense Lil and Nic. “What the hell is going on out there? Where is—” he stopped himself before demanding, “where’s the Shadow?”

Torn didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look up.

Lil answered for him, “Captured and carted off to the Krimzon Guard Fortress, probably along with everyone else who was at the tomb. Word spread, and people started rioting.”

Jak’s heart leapt into his clenched throat, his worst fears confirmed. “Why, dammit?! How did the Baron know we were so close to making a move for the Stone?”

“It’s my fault,” Torn said in a low voice.

Jak gaped at the dejected man, at a total loss for words.

“The Baron threatened to kill Ashelin for spying. His own daughter!” The auburn-haired strategist made a tight fist, still staring at the floor. “I couldn’t risk that… even for the Underground.”

“Right, very good thinking,” Daxter spat sarcastically, “Except Praxis has the Precursor Stone now, so he can do whatever he wants!”

“I can’t believe you would sell out the Underground!” Jak yelled, “How could you betray the kid and Samos? The movement will die without them!”

Torn remained silent, unable to deny the truth of what they said.

“I don’t understand you… You throw away your life commanding the Krimzon Guard so you can join the fight for the city. But when it really counts you throw that away too. How is Ashelin worth it if it means fucking all of us?!”

“Because she is!” Torn roared, standing up to tower over his angry subordinate, “Aren’t you mad for the exact same reason?”

“Wh—”

“You’re not like me. You don’t really care about the Underground, you never have. From the very first you’ve actively resisted being part of a bigger cause. So from where I sit the only thing that would get you so riled up is that Keira’s involved.”

“Th-that’s not it,” Jak stuttered, flustered. He remembered the illusion of the mechanic and how her words eviscerated him, and a fresh pang of anguish shot through his chest. He couldn’t help but wonder if there was any truth to it. But then he pictured the real young woman imprisoned in the Krimzon Guard Fortress. He had scarcely allowed himself to think of it since leaving the tomb, but there was no avoiding the fact of the matter now. He knew all too well how she must be feeling. She was probably terrified, maybe injured, and definitely in very grave danger, a scenario so dismaying his gut twisted with nausea.

He convulsed, and Torn regarded him with a narrow glare. “Maybe one day you’ll grow up enough to stop lying to yourself.”

That was the last straw.

Jak punched the taller man square in the chin, sending him staggering back several steps. Nic and Daxter jumped in surprise, and Lil rushed between them to stop a full-on fistfight from breaking out. In the end, her concern was unwarranted. Torn straightened up slowly, cracking his neck and massaging his smarting jaw. He gave no indication that he would strike back. Perhaps he felt he deserved it.

Jak stared him down, breathing heavily, before turning away to pace about the room. It was the only thing he could do to keep his surging sense of panic from swallowing him whole.

“There is still a way to get our friends back… and maybe the Precursor Stone as well,” Torn said, his usual steely demeanor returning, “Time to call in a favor from Vin. Put that anger to good use and go to the fortress. We’ll call you.”

“And why should we trust you?” Jak shot back without missing a beat.

“Because you and I both know the Baron would have killed Ashelin.”

Jak stopped pacing long enough to scowl at the ex-KG commander. His pale blue eyes blazed back with righteous fire, an intense appeal that underlined the veracity of his words. Jak didn’t doubt the Baron’s barbarism or Torn’s intentions, but even if he did it wouldn’t make a difference. No matter how great the risk or how drained he already was, he would storm the Krimzon Guard Fortress. He absolutely had to rescue everyone—to rescue Keira.

“As soon as the Shadow stepped through the door, they’ll have reprogrammed the locks. Our passes will be useless,” Torn explained, “Vin will have to hack us in, and fast. If we’re lucky, the chaos from the riot has stretched their forces thin and kept interrogations from getting underway, but if not… It’ll be a tough fight through the fortress, probably suicide.”

“You just get that door open. I’ll be there!”

Lil stepped forward, buckling her rifle into place. “I’ll go with you.”

Nic straightened up, eyes wide, and volunteered as well, “Me too!”

She placed a stern hand on his shoulder. “No, you won’t.”

“Neither of you are coming!” Jak objected, “I’ll get in and out faster by myself.”

“I’m quite efficient,” Lil cooly retorted, “And you’ll want another gun on hand if things go south. Besides, I have an idea.”

 


 

Keira lay on the metal slab that passed for a bed in her cell, shivering though she wasn’t cold. She gripped Vivian’s jacket, pulling it snug around her shoulders. Courage, she repeated to herself like a mantra, I must have courage.

When she, Samos, Kor, and the kid were set upon by an entire squad of Krimzon Guards in the antechamber, she was too afraid for Jak for the reality of her situation to sink in. Instead, she slipped into shock as the soldiers cajoled them each in turn in a futile effort to open the door. By the time explosives were being set and they were ushered onto the elevator at gunpoint, she was so numb she couldn’t feel her lips. She floated as if through a haze in which nothing seemed real. The experience was so dream-like that she didn’t bat an eye at the huge crowd that had gathered outside, all the better to gawk at the broken statue, or the Baron’s arrival in an insect-like war machine, a seat of power from which he could gloat with impunity. Even when the riot broke out, she felt strangely insulated from the ever-escalating series of events. Kor and the kid were lost in the encroaching mob, and she and the Shadow were thrown into the steel cage of a prison zoomer. As they raced through the increasingly turbulent streets the domineering facade of the Krimzon Guard Fortress eventually loomed into view, and they were brought around to a sally port already heavy with traffic from civilian arrests. Only then did raw, urgent terror pull her back into her body.

At least Samos was with her as they crossed the threshold. He was just outside the dingy office in which she gave a false identity to the overwhelmed booking officer, and they entered the detention block together. But then she was locked up in her own cell, and he was led away. She called through her door’s little barred window when she was certain no guards would hear but received no answer. He was beyond earshot, and she was all alone.

Primal dread like Keira had never known pooled in her core, thick and persistent as a tar pit. She jumped at every sound, her pulse soaring until it thundered against her ribs, and her fingers tightened on her jacket. Vivian and Ryker had disappeared into this hellhole nearly two years ago, and they had never returned. Jak had escaped, but he was deeply scarred by the experience. What horrors awaited her? Would she too bleed violet black? The more time passed the more she wanted to vomit in fear.

Her ears pricked up, and she flinched. She could make out a pair of footsteps. Were they coming for her? She waited, her breathing so shallow she barely moved a muscle. They drew closer, and her anxiety grew with each clunk. Would they interrogate her? Torture her? A flood of disturbing images engulfed her senses, each more horrible than the last. When the footsteps continued past and gradually receded she nearly whimpered in relief.

How did Jak manage it? How did he bear day after day in such a place? By her estimation, she had been in the fortress for no more than sixty minutes, yet already it felt like an eternity. She couldn’t imagine the hours stretching into days and the days stretching into weeks. She would surely lose all sense of time and space, alone and in such a tiny room. Perhaps she would lose her mind as well.

Keira’s breath caught. More footsteps sounded in the distance. She gulped and closed her eyes tight, preparing herself. Courage! I must have courage!

This time they stopped just outside her cell. With a loud click, the door unlocked and slid open. Two guards stepped in and, without giving her the opportunity to stand by herself, manhandled her to her feet and handcuffed her wrists behind her back. She yanked her arms free from their grasp and was rewarded with a metal clad backhand. Stars exploded in her vision, and her cheek burst with pain. She staggered, tasting blood, but with great effort, she managed to lift her head high. She refused to give them the satisfaction of being cowed.

One of the guards walked out of the cell, and with the press of the other’s gun between her shoulder blades, Keira followed. Despite the illumination of acid green sconces the hallway was long and dark, a sickly esophagus that surely stretched on into the very bowels of the fortress. They turned left, leading her back out the way she had come past a seemingly endless procession of door after identical door. She willed herself to focus on the sound of their footfalls bouncing off the metal walls. It was far better than dwelling on what fate had in store next.

Keira frowned. If her ears weren’t deceiving her, she heard more than three pairs of boots. No sooner had she realized it than two more guards walked past. Her frown deepened into a squint. Was that an orange tail curling out behind the shorter one’s breastplate?

With a swift thwack, the gun lodged against her back was smacked aside. Another crack, and the guard behind her crumpled to the floor. The one in front spun to face the threat, but he was much too slow. The short attacker charged, slamming the butt of his rifle into the guard’s head, knocking him unconscious.

Keira‘s breathing quickened, her frantic gaze flicking from the felled guards to the two who had rescued her. She had to stifle a cry of relief when Daxter popped out of his armored hiding spot.

Flashing her a triumphant grin, the ottsel scurried over to one of the guards and swiped a key card off his belt.

The taller one spoke almost at a whisper into her communicator. “We’ve got Keira.”

“Lil!” Keira was never happier to hear the old veteran’s voice.

The shorter one hauled the prone guards into the cell Daxter opened. Only after both had been stripped of their keys and weapons were they sealed inside. Then he turned his attention to Keira, removing his helmet. “Are you hurt?”

“Jak,” she breathed, her eyes beginning to burn.

“Your face…”

In all the excitement she had totally forgotten about her swollen cheek. Though it still throbbed, she dismissed it with a toss of her chin. “One of the guards did it. It’s fine.”

He nodded, heaving a shaky sigh, and set about removing her handcuffs. In the few moments she listened to the clinking of his work, a single thought crystallized in her mind with all the clarity and intensity of a ringing bell—he had been worried about her. Scared for her. Despite all his standoffishness and hostility, despite everything, he still cared. She could feel it in every inch of her body, a joyous truth that vibrated in her bones.

As soon as she was free, Keira whirled and threw her arms about Jak’s shoulders, clasping him a tight embrace. He stiffened, but she didn’t care. She was overcome by gratitude and happiness, and she craved the safe harbor of his body. Some of the wretched tension that had dominated her so eased, and she shivered and pressed her face into his leather collar.

He relaxed just a hair, and his free hand rose to gently rest on her back.

“We have to keep moving,” Lil instructed, impassive, “We don’t have much time.”

Keira reluctantly stepped back from Jak, and Daxter crawled back inside his breastplate. The young renegade passed her a pistol he had taken from one of the guards and replaced his helmet. “Keep your hands behind you,” he instructed apologetically.

Keira stuffed the gun into her belt and did as she was told, falling in step with him behind and Lil in front. The troupe marched back toward her cell and eventually past it, the older woman murmuring into her communicator and receiving instruction as they went.

“We’ve got the Shadow’s location,” she said over her shoulder, “but there’re no records on Kor or the kid.”

“We were separated when the riot broke out,” Keira responded, keeping her voice low, “Maybe they got away.”

Lil quietly relayed the information.

The hallway finally ended in a T intersection, and they took a left. Still more cells lined the walls. Keira was beginning to wonder just how many prisoners the fortress was capable of holding when Lil abruptly stopped beside a door numbered 2553. A pair of voices floated through the bars.

Scanning his key card, Jak opened the door and slipped inside, again removing his helmet. “Samos, are you… alright?”

At his suddenly odd tone, Keira peered into the cell and was met with an incomprehensible sight. She saw not one little green man but two.

“What took you so long?!” one of them cried. Though of identical height with the Shadow he was plainly older, his disheveled beard long and his thinner hair snow white. He wore a soiled prison uniform that hung off his gaunt frame, and his weathered cheeks were hollow. He had plainly been in the cell for quite some time. “I added six rings to my trunk waiting for you two to get me out of here!”

Daxter stared, agog. “Wait a minute! You’re you! I mean the other you! I mean… you know what I mean!”

The younger Samos stood abreast of his counterpart, his bespectacled eyes gleaming with a mixture of wonder and shock. “Yes, it appears I have an older time twin.”

“Two Samos the Sages?” Daxter’s paws flew to his cheeks in revulsion. “Jak, they’re multiplying!”

Lil stopped muttering into her communicator long enough to censure the ottsel, “Would you be quiet? You’re going to bring the entire fortress down on us!”

“Daddy…” Keira said as she stepped forward.

The elder Samos looked at her with surprise. “Keira!” he exclaimed and rushed to her side, pulling her into a bear hug. “My darling girl!”

“Daddy,” she said again, her voice thick with emotion, “I missed you so much!” Her father rocked back and forth, squeezing her so tight she could barely breathe, but instead of shrugging out of his grasp she returned the gesture with full force. She had given up all hope of ever seeing him again, and so there was nowhere else in the world she would rather be. For just a moment the grimy walls of the fortress melted away, and she felt like a child, loved and held and secure.

“What the hell is going on in there?” Lil asked, and the Shadow looked on with naked disbelief.

Jak shuffled his feet, uncomfortable watching the intimate embrace. “It’s a long story.”

“Well, I hate to break up this little reunion, but we’ve got to keep moving. Vin’s found a warp gate nearby. Something about an ‘injection chamber.’ ”

Keira dutifully stood and composed herself just as all the color drained from Jak’s face. “There has to be another gate,” he protested in a voice she had never heard him use before.

Lil narrowed her eyes. “Not unless you want to go twice as far and walk straight into the barracks.”

Jak shook his head, a slight, helpless gesture that caused his tousled blonde locks to sway, before jamming his helmet back on.

Keira exchanged a sidelong glance with her father, and he looked up at her with a different but equally strange expression. There was something resigned in his old face, and he suddenly looked very tired.

The Shadow drew her attention when he straightened his shirt with an assertive tug, and his presence gave her pause. If he was here, a years-younger version of Samos the Sage, did that mean her father actually knew what was about to happen?

Her train of thought was interrupted when everyone proceeded to file out into the hallway. The motley crew once again arranged themselves as if the prisoners were being escorted, and Lil led them deeper into the fortress. Though they had so far been extremely successful, Keira’s nerves rose as the seconds ticked by. It was as though something in the air itself was putting her on edge. Around another turn, the hairs on her arms stood on end. She could hear screaming.

The group piled into an elevator, and Lil engaged the switch to go up. The higher they went, the louder the screaming became. It was constant, almost without any room for breath. Something about it was uniquely unsettling as it burrowed into Keira’s skull, deep into the cracks of her mind. She realized she would never forget the awful sound and shivered as it grew louder still. Though she knew there was no turning back, she wanted nothing more than to run and banish the wailing from her ears.

The elevator lurched to a stop, and the doors opened to a nightmare.

A pit yawned in the middle of the room, a platform suspended in its center. Overhead a tremendous, terrible machine hung from the distant ceiling, it’s instrument-laden bottom tip pumping flickering fingers of dark eco into a shackled man. He was strapped to a metal chair, thrashing against his restraints in pure, mindless agony. A scientist stood to the side, taking notes on a clipboard with perverse, unfazed calm.

Everyone remained rooted in the elevator, transfixed by the torture they were witnessing. Keira couldn’t look away from the poor man’s face. His chestnut hair stood straight, crackling with purple electricity, and his unseeing eyes were stretched wide open. His eyes… though he was much too far away for her to see it, she was absolutely certain in that instant of their golden color, and the horrific knowledge slammed into her with all the cold, crushing force of an avalanche.

“RYKER!” The name ripped out of her throat like a thorny branch, tearing open a gaping wound in her heart where once there was scar tissue. She ran forward without thinking, crossing the bridge to the platform with lightning speed. She was on the scientist before he could react and pressed her stolen pistol into his jugular, commanding over the ghastly din, “TURN IT OFF!”

The scientist obediently did as he was told, and the arcing rays sizzled and subsided. Ryker, at last, fell silent. “Dark Eco Injection Cycle complete,” the computer announced, “Bio readings nominal and unchanged.”

Keira pulled her gun back and cracked it over the scientist’s head. She didn’t wait for him to hit the floor before turning her attention to undoing Ryker’s restraints. Soon Lil was there too, assessing his condition. She said his name and gently slapped his cheeks in an effort to rouse him, but to no avail.

“He’s out cold. We’re going to have to carry him out of here.”

Once he was unstrapped, to Keira’s surprise, Lil passed off her communicator and lifted him up all on her own. The viridian-haired girl’s face contorted with anguish when she realized it was due not only to the veteran’s considerable strength but Ryker’s emaciated frame. He hung like a deflated rag doll in her arms, utterly wasted away.

“Torn,” Keira spoke into the communicator as she followed Lil back across the bridge, her voice quaking, “we’ve got Crys Ryker.”

“Ryker? He’s alive??”

She gave a dazed nod even though Torn couldn’t see it.

The central computer blared back to life, “Alert! Prison escape in progress!”

“Those guards must’ve woken up,” Lil said, sighing in exasperation as an alarm sounded and scarlet emergency lights flashed in time.

Torn heard the clamor and commanded, “Get moving!”

“On it,” Keira confirmed.

They were joined by both young and old Samos and proceeded to move around the pit toward the warp gate that had swirled to life.

“Wait, where’re Jak and the furball?” her father asked.

The mechanic’s stomach dropped into her toes, and she cast her attention back to the open elevator. She hurried over and found Jak still standing there, pressed against the back wall with splayed hands. Daxter had pulled his helmet off and was fanning his sweaty brow. Normally of hearty complexion, his skin had grown so pale it appeared almost to be the pallor of a corpse. His lips were parted, his wide blue eyes reflecting the alternately green and red light of the chamber beyond. Was she imagining it, or were they darker than usual?

“Jak…”

He stared straight ahead, unresponsive.

“Jak,” she said more sternly.

He blinked, and though he looked directly at her he didn’t seem to see anything.

“Jak!” She shook him by the shoulders, yelling, “It’s me!”

He blinked again. “Keira!” He gasped her name as though he had been holding his breath, and some color returned to his grayish cheeks. His shining eyes were full cerulean, leading her to question if they were ever actually different in the first place. Maybe it was just a trick of the light.

“Vin’s activating the warp gate. We need to get out of here now!”

He panted, his gaze darting from her face to the injector and back again, and it dawned on her that he was mortally terrified. She had never seen him like this.

“Come on,” she said, reassuringly gripping his armored hand despite how disconcerted she felt. She tugged, gentle but insistent. “It’s time to go.”

His breathing still heavy, he murmured an affirmative and followed her out of the elevator.

Chapter Text

Headquarters was more packed than Jak had ever seen it. Between his companions on the mission and those already waiting there were fifteen people, including himself and Daxter. He might not have minded if it wasn’t too crowded by one.

The only thing he could remember from the injection chamber was a red-tinged cloud of terror and Keira pulling him out of it. It was only after when they warped to the safety of the power station and regrouped that he gathered they had picked up another prisoner. Ever since there was something off about her behavior. She fretted and fussed over the still unconscious Ryker the whole way back to Headquarters, and she had parked herself beside the bunk where Lil lay him down. Now it seemed she could barely look Jak in the eye, and he sensed it was because she shared a history with this mysterious man—history he wouldn’t like.

The young renegade’s mouth twisted bitterly, and he looked away. When Keira hugged him in the detention block he felt… something. Needed. And not for his fighting ability or skill behind the wheel. He felt like she needed him… and maybe, just maybe he wasn’t so alone after all. Now it seemed as though his presence couldn’t be more unwarranted.

“I can’t believe it!” Kor loudly lamented, cutting through Jak’s brooding, “We were so close, but the Baron stole the Precursor Stone right out from under us! And after all of our planning and hard work, Torn has betrayed the cause!”

The ex-KG commander leaned against the wall, arms crossed and stone-faced.

Gabe rushed to his defense, “Torn meant well. He was protecting one of our own.”

“The Baron’s daughter hardly counts as ‘one of our own,’ ” Tess scoffed, and there were murmurs of agreement around the room.

“We must get that Stone back!” Kor slammed his staff on the ground in punctuation, his long white beard swaying with the movement.

“And what about the boy?” Lil demanded.

“What of him?”

“Is he worth nothing to you?”

“Yeah, what kind of guardian are you anyway?” Gabe stalked up to the old man, his tone accusatory, “How can you show your face back here after losing the kid in the riot? For all we know the Baron could have captured and killed him already, and you don’t even care!”

“The child already opened the tomb! What does he matter if the Baron has an all-powerful Precursor artifact with which to wrought untold evil? He might crush us all in one fell swoop!”

“I can think of something I’d like to crush,” Gabe threatened, cracking his thick knuckles.

“This bickering has to stop!” the Shadow cut in as he paced around the map table, “We must remain united, or we’ll fall without a shot being fired! And though I don’t care for his delivery, Kor has a point. Our resources are severely limited, and the kid has… served his purpose. If the Baron is able to harness the power of the Precursor Stone then we have bigger problems. Who knows what dangers the future may hold?”

“Wouldn’t he?” Nic asked, pointing to the elder Samos.

The room fell into expectant silence as all eyes focused on the Sage of Green Eco. Hovering by his daughter and still clothed in his disgusting prison uniform, he took the opportunity to self-consciously cough and clean his spectacles.

“Backing up,” Torn said, at last pushing off the wall, “You’re Samos Hagai but from the future. Only you’re not from the future, you’re actually from the past.”

“Yes,” Samos confirmed.

“And Keira, Jak, and the rat are all from your time as well.”

“That’s right.”

“So are there time twins for all three of you running around somewhere?” Torn’s pale glare shifted between boy, girl, and ottsel.

“There aren’t,” Samos answered for them, “They were all born in the past.”

“Fine. So tell us everything you know about your,” Torn paused and shook his head, “I mean our future.”

“I already told you, I can’t. If I reveal something you’re not supposed to know the consequences could be dire. The very direction of history could be altered! I’ll do whatever I can to ensure that the future I know comes to pass, so I can only say what I remember that one saying the first time around.” And with that, he grumpily gestured at his restless younger counterpart.

“Great grass grubs!” the Shadow exclaimed, “I can’t believe what a cranky old log I become!”

Ignoring the insult, Samos huffily declared, “All will reveal itself in due course. But for now, I’ll say this—we need to retrieve the Life Seed!”

The Underground leader halted in his pacing, mystified by his older self’s non sequitur.

“Before we came through the rift long ago, I nurtured a seed from the Great Tree and hid it in my hut. ‘The Sacred Site’ as you call it. You’ll need the Life Seed’s power to become—”

“What are you talking about, old growth?” the Shadow interrupted, his desire to keep from squabbling evidently exhausted. “I’ve never heard of any Life Seed! Our top priority should be to disrupt the Baron’s forces!”

“Oh, look who thinks they’ve sprouted! If you were half as wise as I am, you’d know that the proper course of action is to get the Life Seed!”

“Listen, you old, dried up leaf, I run this outfit, and I say we go after the Baron’s forces!”

Daxter interjected, “Do we have to separate you two?”

“This is getting us nowhere,” Torn grumbled, “Supposedly you know the future but you won’t tell us anything useful. Just what do you want anyway?”

Samos pulled his shoulders back and held the significantly taller man’s gaze without blinking. “I want to end the tyranny of Baron Praxis and the Metal Heads just as much as anyone in this room.”

Torn studied the little sage, weighing whether or not he was trustworthy. The tension between them was palpable, a silent battle of wills that held everyone’s rapt attention, but it was broken when the Underground strategist’s communicator rang, a loud, shrill noise. He answered the device, plainly irritated.

“Now’s not a—”

Whoever was on the other side cut him off, and though the words were indiscernible their urgency was not. Torn’s expression transformed from mild annoyance to stark alarm. He ended the call without a word and turned to face the room.

“That was Ashelin,” he said, his articulation swift and stentorian, “The Baron’s managed to track us back here and has sent bombots and an entire company of guards to take us out. They’ll attack any minute. We need to evacuate n—”

A deafening explosion rent the air in two. The sheer force was enough to shake the walls, and the lights flickered and died. Only the embers of the furnace and barrel fire remained to illuminate the windowless Headquarters, and the latter was knocked over by a stumbling rebel. Everyone proceeded to panic. There was only one way out, and it was currently under assault by an overwhelming force.

“CALM DOWN!” Torn barked, “ARM YOURSELVES!”

Lil rushed to unlock the armory and pass out weapons to those that needed them, Jak sprang up to assist her, and Tess smothered the leaping flames with a ratty blanket. It was such a frantic flurry of activity that it was difficult to say how long it lasted. The chaos was only just beginning to subside when another devastating explosion detonated. This time the shockwave knocked everyone to the ground.

Jak looked up in a daze, a high-pitched ringing filling his ears. Smoke and dust stung his eyes, and a diffuse bright light scattered forth from where the entrance used to be. The stairs beyond were reduced to rubble, the buffer wall gone.

He could just barely make out Torn yelling, “TAKE COVER!”

Rousing to the call, Jak dove behind a nearby crate just as a flurry of vermillion bullets sprayed down the stairs. Their number and power were so great that the concrete floor ruptured and splashed like water. Several eternal moments passed before the red eco barrage stopped. Then the clamor of dozens of boots marched down the ruined stairs. Krimzon Guards hoisting riot shields began to pour into the room, and the Underground fighters opened fire. Jak managed to get a shot off, catching a break in the wall of shields, but their line held firm. They returned fire, forcing everyone to duck low.

The blonde spared a cursory glance to assess the field. He was next to Daxter and Nic, the latter of whom wielded a pistol with shaking hands. Lil and Gabe were paired up near the left wall, and Tess shot from the right behind a toppled zoomer. Another rebel he didn’t know knelt nearby, and two more were already slain, their bodies thrown across the debris in a haphazard tangle of limbs. Torn, his left arm wounded, had overturned the map table and shielded Kor and both young and old Samos as best he could. The elder was leaning dangerously close to the line of fire, and with a violent twist of his gut, Jak realized he was calling for Keira. Using the bunk Ryker had been laying in as cover, she had pulled the comatose man to the floor and crouched over him protectively, taking aim when possible. It would be of little use. The bunks were nearest to the entrance, and the KG line would be on them in seconds.

Jak was about to throw himself to their defense when something collapsed against his shoulder. He looked down to see Nic, a grisly hole glistening in his forehead. Blood sputtered from his mouth along with a final, helpless whimper. Though he usually grinned like a fool, bursting with optimism and naivete, it was a terrified expression that would be forever frozen on his youthful face.

He was dead.

The pandemonium raging all around Jak disappeared as he drowned in a sea of scarlet.

A heartbeat later, every single pair of eyes was riveted to the demon in the room. He ripped through shield and armor and flesh alike with long black claws, and dark eco crackled through the air like lightning. The KG turned all their firepower on him, and the Underground fighters still alive looked on in dreadful awe. Keira recognized him from the wanted poster that had disturbed her in the streets of Main Town, and though she could hardly believe it she realized that meant Jak was one and the same with the pale-skinned berserker who was now slaughtering every enemy soldier in sight. Though she wanted to look away, she couldn’t. She watched, helplessly captivated by his savage efficiency. He moved so fast he was tearing apart the next body before the last one could hit the ground, and he snarled in pure ecstasy. He was enjoying it.

When the last guard fell, the monster smiled. A violet ray traveled through his cinder grey hair and around a twisted horn, illuminating splattered gore as it went. His pitch black eyes raked around the room, surveying the petrified rebels pressed up against the walls. He remained tense as a coiled spring, ready to strike.

Daxter stepped forward, gloved paws spread in supplication, and the onlookers sucked in a collective, frightened breath. “Jak, buddy,” he spoke in a thin voice, “You beat the bad guys. You can change back now.”

The beast roared in defiance. He would do nothing of the sort.

Cowering, the ottsel insisted, “It’s alright. The danger’s over.”

The monster regarded him for a moment, his dark glower as cold and merciless as the vacuum beyond the stars, before suddenly charging forward and knocking him aside. Daxter flew toward the nearest wall with lethal speed, but at the last second his diminutive body was engulfed in a glowing sphere of green, and he was set safely down on his feet.

“Samos?!” he cried in surprise.

The sage walked out from behind the overturned map table, green eco sparkling around his knobby hands. He adjusted his glasses with a grunt.

“Something’s wrong! He should’ve changed back by now!”

“Indeed,” Samos said, “That’s the problem with dark eco. Powerful it may be, but it warps the mind and body.”

The monster bellowed, infuriated, and leapt at his new foe. Immediately he was stopped in his tracks by an even greater eco ball. It whirled around him, a cage of chartreuse light that sizzled with raw power. Though he fought against it, he fell to one knee.

“Be still, Jak!” Samos commanded, “Find yourself!”

The berserker threw up his arms and doubled over in an effort to protect himself, his skin burning. Just when it seemed he might be subdued, purple electricity began to build around him like a ghastly aura. Heaving with the effort, he slowly stood. His muscles bunched and quaked as the dark eco expanded and pushed against the confines of the green ball.

Samos ground his teeth together, and sweat beaded on his wrinkled brow. With all his might he pushed back, lime energy surging ever brighter from his fingertips.

A tortured howl ripped from the monster’s throat, and the dark eco ballooned into a boiling vortex, stretching the green eco to the breaking point.

The room erupted into a blinding supernova of chartreuse and violet.

As soon as she regained her sight, Keira was horrified to find her father had fallen back, spent.

The demon hunched down and launched toward his prey, claws raised to strike.

Without thinking she threw herself between them.

Time ground to a near total stop. Jak found himself looking at Keira, and her large emerald eyes stared back in abject shock. Her small hand gripped her left arm where a sheet of blood seeped from a vicious laceration. Before he could piece together what he was seeing searing heat exploded in his torso, and he staggered. Frowning, he turned to see Torn’s smoking gun aimed at his back. The auburn-haired man scowled, a bleached blue blaze of icy fury.

He shot me, Jak realized, his head light.

It was then he noticed the dozens of Krimzon Guard cadavers strewn across the floor. In slow motion, his attention shifted from their mutilated bodies, to his own hands, slick with red, and back to Keira.

Hideous understanding dawned on him.

With a harrowing rattle of his lungs, Jak breathed, “Keir—”

He was cut off by an overpowering, bubbling sensation in his throat and hacked up hot liquid that oozed down his chin. Swaying, he clumsily wiped his mouth and saw black smearing his quivering fingers. The room lurched and spun, and he collapsed into an oblivion as dark as the blood that flowed from his body, Keira screaming his name.

Chapter Text

It was a morning for firsts. Keira had never traveled very far into Dead Town. She had never known what the Sacred Site was much less seen it with her own eyes. And she had never piloted a robotic exoskeleton.

The Titan Suit was truly an impressive piece of machinery. It stood over ten feet tall, it’s torso serving as a cramped cockpit. Double-jointed legs zig-zagged to the ground from its sturdy waist, and three mighty prongs sprouted from its wrists instead of hands. A striking yellow and blue paint job was icing on the cake.

Gripping the controls tight, Keira turned to the left and bashed down a brittle wall. No matter how many times she did it, the exhilaration of demolition amplified so far beyond her body’s normal capabilities was just as thrilling as the first.

Tess appeared at her side, morph gun at the ready, and scanned the hallway beyond. Seeing no threat, she vaulted through and completed a sweep before indicating all was clear with a thumbs up.

Keira returned the gesture with a convivial grin, surprised at how easy it was to do so. She hadn’t expected to enjoy this mission. It had only been less than twenty-four hours since Jak entered Mar’s Tomb, and so much had happened it felt like a lifetime ago. She had been up half the night, which did nothing to help her frayed nerves, and she wore one of Tess’ jackets in place of Vivian’s. The precious garment, her one talisman, was so torn and bloodied it required extensive mending.

But there was no time for wallowing, a fact for which she was most grateful. As per her father’s instructions, the Life Seed must be recovered, and despite the special measures required by the isolated nature of the Sacred Site, the mission was going very quickly. Metal Head activity was low, and with a weapon’s expert along to watch her back, Keira could focus on forging a path. Together they snaked around the sun-blanched buildings, Tess sniping the occasional Metal Head and Keira bulldozing through obstacles, but only the latter gasped when they rounded the last corner.

Nothing could have prepared the mechanic for the sight of her desecrated home. Everything was wrong. Its structure was broken and stripped, its interior exposed like abandoned carrion, and it was all the more disturbing for being surrounded by a crumbling skyline and stinking swamp where once there was paradise.

Shaking her head, Keira collected herself enough to take stock of the situation. The hut was on a tall island with a good thirty feet of thin air surrounding it on all sides. The bridge that used to connect it with the shoreline was long gone.

The bridge, she thought as she noticed an immense pillar near the edge. She approached the column of concrete in a few clamorous footfalls, the germ of an idea taking root as she went. She took a moment to judge the angle and with a mighty one-two punch, she shattered its base. The pillar groaned and tilted until it crashed into the island. A flock of small birds nesting in the askew rafters burst into flight, angrily chirping in protest.

After disengaging the Titan Suit, Keira climbed down and led the way across. A peculiar, hollow feeling yawned in her chest when her booted feet stepped on the ground she once knew so well, a feeling that only intensified when she stepped inside and surveyed the ruin.

“You used to live here?” Tess asked, her wide brown eyes plainly incredulous.

“Yeah… This was my workshop,” Keira said as she gazed around the room. A vehicle lay in a toppled heap against the wall, every nook and cranny of it covered in dull red rust. She knelt next to it and reached out, gently resting her hand on the coarse surface.

“This looks like some sort of zoomer,” Tess murmured.

“The A-Grav zoomer to be precise,” Keira pointed out, “my invention.”

“Huh. I thought zoomers had only been around for about…” the blonde paused as she counted centuries on her fingers, “Wait, don’t tell me you invented zoomers.”

The green-haired girl shrugged. “I suppose I did.”

Floored by the revelation, Tess examined the vehicle with renewed interest, muttering to herself.

Keira stood and walked into the next room. The skeleton of a dresser sat to her right, the remains of a bookshelf replete with virtually disintegrated tomes to her left. Against the far wall was an ancient bed. The blankets were mildewed scraps, the mattress and pillows punctured where rodents had burrowed inside. The frame, like so much of the wood in the hut, was rotten.

A creak behind her signaled Tess crossing the threshold. Without looking over her shoulder, Keira said, “Here. This was my room.”

Getting on her hands and knees, she probed the floorboards beside the bed and lifted up an old plank. It crumbled into dozens of pieces, too weathered to have structural integrity. Unruffled, she reached down and pulled out a small metal box. Though it was badly corroded and its paint peeling, a seashell motif was still discernible.

“What’s that?” Tess questioned.

“My box of treasures,” Keira replied as she tried the latch. No good. The rust was too thick. Removing a couple tools from her belt and putting in some elbow grease she was able to force it open. Then all she did was stare, and Tess peered over her shoulder.

The inside of the box was pristine, its few contents unharmed by the passage of time. Keira delicately picked up each item in turn, first reaching for a worn plush lambit. “I don’t remember my mother, but she made me this stuffed animal when I was a baby. I used to carry it around with me everywhere. It would always get dirty or torn, and my father would always do his best to clean it up like new.” She placed the ragged doll back in the box as if it was sewn of gossamer silk.

Next, she lifted up a small wrench, chipped and bent but otherwise clean. “This was the first tool I ever got. Daddy gave it to me when I was five, and I drove him nuts trying to ‘fix’ all his plants.” Smiling at the memory, she returned the wrench to the lambit’s side.

Last of all was a tiny bag made of fine, embossed yakow leather. Colorful beads adorned its drawstrings, and a sliver of pure light shone out from its cracked mouth. “And this… this is something from Jak. Something special.”

When Keira didn’t elaborate, Tess prompted, “What is it?”

“Nothing. Just… something special.” She pulled the drawstrings tight, sealing the beam inside, and carefully placed the bag back in the box before closing the lid. Then she looked at Tess for the first time since entering the hut and found the bartender staring at her with a strange expression.

“What?” she asked.

“It’s funny. Even with two Shadows, and you and Jak and Daxter all saying you know the older one from the past… and that’s where you’re all from… It didn’t seem real until you opened up that box just now.”

Keira ran her fingers along one of the seashells, its texture rough and flaky. “Well, now you know why I kept it a secret. You would’ve thought I was crazy if I told you.”

“That’s not true,” Tess objected.

“You sure about that?”

“...Ok, maybe I’d think you’re a little crazy, but… I wouldn’t just dismiss it either. I’d want to help you.”

The mechanic raised a sardonic blue eyebrow. “Perhaps with a trip to the Krimzon Asylum.”

Tess struck a peeved pose, hooking her hands on her hips. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, I know, I’m kidding.”

Keira tucked the box securely in the crook of her elbow and stood, absorbing what had transpired so far. She couldn’t help but remember all the times she wanted so badly to unburden herself of the truth of her past. Surely the decision she committed to again and again was the right one, and yet… In the two years she had known Tess, her unwavering loyalty and support had been there whenever she needed it. Surely the blonde meant what she said, and that reassurance was a soothing balm for Keira’s troubled soul. She turned toward the taller woman, a grateful smile on her tired face. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but… you’re a good friend.”

“You’re only just realizing this?” Tess teased. Then her attention drifted to Keira’s arm, encircled by a gray sleeve instead of a blue one. Though there was no remnant of injury, the bartender’s red-lipped grin faded and her brow creased with concern.

Keira’s pleasant feelings rapidly soured, and she left the bedroom in a huff. “Last I checked my arm is totally fine.”

“It’s not your arm I’m worried about.” Tess trailed behind.

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.”

Unable to contain herself, Keira whirled around and boiled over. “I’m not anything! I don’t know how to feel, I—” Sharply inhaling, she forced herself to calm down. “Please,” she begged, “I don’t want to talk about it. Not yet.”

Tess looked as though she wanted to press the issue further, but she nodded in acquiescence.

The pair made their way up to the second story. It was there, inside Samos’ lab, they found the Life Seed. The name didn’t do it justice. For a seed it was absolutely massive, a sprout the size of a baby’s arm curling out of its unfurling tip. It pulsed with glittering energy, a sure sign of the power that drew the Metal Heads.

Their charge in tow, Keira and Tess retrieved the Titan Suit and proceeded to make their way back to the city. By the time they stepped through the shield wall gates, the sun was approaching its zenith.

“Phase one complete,” Tess announced, “now we just need to make a quick report.”

“Can you do it?” Keira requested, “My new communicator isn’t the most reliable.” When she was arrested, all the items on her person—including her communicator, what money she carried, and her green eco revolver—were confiscated. The former was at least easy to replace, but the Underground didn’t have the luxury of consistent quality control. The device had already proved prone to dipping in and out of connections and would undoubtedly require some form of tinkering before long. She was also drained such that the fewer people she interacted with today the better.

Mercifully, Tess took out her own communicator and made the call without pushing back. “Torn, baby,” she purred into the receiver, “it’s me. We have the cargo.”

Her brain buzzing with exhaustion, Keira allowed herself to zone out for the short duration of the call. She felt the weight of her box of treasures under one arm and the Life Seed under the other, finding neither terribly burdensome. On the contrary, they were both comforting. If it wasn’t for how fatigued she was she would be over the moon to find the box five hundred years later, and even wrapped in a protective sack the Life Seed’s aura was easily discernable as one and the same with her father’s. She gripped them a little tighter, tangible, precious pieces of her lost home.

“Hey,” Tess said, breaking her reverie.

“Huh, what?” The green-haired girl blinked a few times before comprehending that the call was concluded. “Where to now?”

“...He’s awake.”

Keira’s stomach did an unsettling flip inside her belly, and she swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. “Oh.” She gave Tess a significant look, as though her friend could somehow spare her the inevitable.

“You should go see him.”

That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “I guess so…”

Though her smile was sympathetic, Tess took the Life Seed from Keira. “Here, we don’t both have to deliver this to Onin. Why don’t I finish things up myself so you can head back to HQ?”

“Right,” Keira remarked, an acid tinge to her tone, “Thanks.”

“Anytime,” Tess said with a wink.

They parted ways, each having come in her own zoomer, and it was all too soon Keira found herself standing inside what had previously been the Underground’s largest safe house. Now it functioned as a temporary base of operations, and it was an even sorrier sight than the last. The main room, maybe half the size of the old Headquarters, was fit to burst with mismatched furniture and haphazard towers of absconded supplies. The Shadow stood head down over a central table littered with sheaves of paper, and Torn was spooning soup into a bowl over by a meager hot plate in the corner. He turned at the sound of her entrance, dark circles under his eyes. “Keira,” he said, sounding more gravelly than normal, “perfect timing.”

He beckoned her to his side with a curt jerk of his chin and handed her the steaming bowl. “He’s in there.” The Underground strategist waved her toward one of the abutting rooms and turned his back to join Samos. They immediately slipped into a hushed conversation and paid her no further mind. Keira was grateful for their lack of attention. It meant no one would question how slowly she walked or how her hand lingered on the door before opening it.

Taking a slow breath in and out, she walked into a room hardly bigger than a closet. There was just enough space for a single stack of beds, and in the bottom bunk, she found a brunette man in old pajamas, his unkempt hair longer than she remembered. An IV drip was attached to his skinny arm, delivering a stable flow of green eco-infused liquid, and his sunken eyes were closed. The moth-eaten blankets did little to mask how bony he was, a sad state of health made all the more crushing to behold by the uneven rise and fall of his chest. Keira hung back, frozen with apprehension before at last summoning the courage to speak. “Knock knock.”

Ryker’s thick lashes fluttered open, and his golden gaze slowly focused on her. He frowned, evidently confused by her presence, before jolting up in surprise. “Keira!” he croaked.

The movement was too much too fast, and he sagged back onto the creaky mattress with a groan. The mechanic took a hasty step forward, almost fumbling the hot bowl of soup in the process. “A-are you alright?”

“Fine, I’m…” he petered out, his eyes glued to her face, “Sorry, I… I was expecting Torn.”

“He was busy with the Shadow, so…” She gave a little shrug. After believing him to be dead for so long, anything she could think to say seemed inadequate. In the pregnant silence that followed, Ryker regarded her with thinly veiled disbelief, drinking in her appearance like a parched man would an oasis mirage. Uncomfortable under such intense scrutiny, she had to restrain herself from fidgeting and self-consciously cleared her throat.

“How are you feeling?” she finally asked.

He managed a weak smirk. “Like hell, but that’s better than I’ve been in ages.” His voice was hoarse. Whether it was from his screaming the night before or something else Keira wasn’t sure.

Again, words failed her, and so the burden of his stare grew heavier. He hadn’t looked away once as if she was an apparition that might disappear at any moment. She awkwardly scratched behind one ear and struggled to maintain eye contact. “What, is there something on my face?”

“I…” he paused, drawing a long breath, “I just can’t get over it.”

“What?”

“Actually seeing you.”

“...It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” She stirred the soup, unearthing a curling plume of steam.

“You grew your hair out.”

Her brow crinkled in response.

“You look good,” he said, a glimmer of his old singsong charm returning.

The flirtation was so unexpected that a coy blush bloomed in her cheeks. “Thanks… you look…”

His mouth twisted in a humorless smile. “You can say it, I look like shit.”

“You don’t—”

“I do,” he insisted. Though his volume remained low, his tone was razor-sharp.

Sensing a change of subject was wisest, she took a tentative seat on a rickety stool next to the bed and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“I could eat something.”

She offered him his meal, careful to make sure it wouldn’t spill, and it turned out her caution was well warranted. Though he managed to grip the bowl with his shaky hands he didn’t have the strength to hold it up. Its contents would have sloshed all over the blankets if she hadn’t still been supporting it.

“Here.” She shifted to sit beside him on the edge of the mattress, readied a spoonful, and raised it to his lips. He reluctantly accepted the bite, but when she prepared the next he turned away, grimacing.

“Maybe I’m not so hungry.”

She lowered the spoon till it clinked on the bowl’s rim. “If it’s the taste—”

“It’s not.”

She sighed, starting to get annoyed. “What’s the matter? Aren’t guys supposed to love it when girls feed them in bed?”

A muscle spasmed in his clenched jaw. “...I don’t like you seeing me like this.”

“Like what?”

“Like a pathetic weakling!” He spat the words at the wall like they were poison.

Keira considered his self-denigration, so excoriating despite his frailty and felt her own defensiveness rise in opposition. She firmly countered, “You’re not pathetic. And you’re not weak. After everything you’ve been through, I—” An image of him writhing and wailing in the injection chamber flashed in her mind’s eye, and she convulsed. “...I’m just glad you’re alive, Ryker.”

He stubbornly refused to meet her eyes, an embarrassed flush coloring his hollow cheeks.

“Well, you have to eat sometime, and if it’s not me feeding you it’s probably Torn.”

His nostrils flared in a small snort, and he, at last, looked at her at again. “I guess that would be worse,” he admitted.

With that power struggle settled, the mechanic resumed feeding him.

“Sorry it’s just canned,” she gently apologized.

He swallowed and gave a little shake of his head. “It’s way better than what I’ve been eating.”

As she scooped up another spoonful there was a muffled clamor in the ceiling from settling pipes, and Ryker twitched in agitation. “Every damn time there’s a new sound… I’m not used to this place,” he grumbled, ashamed.

“You don’t have to explain. To tell you the truth, I’m not either.” Her hand stopped halfway to his mouth, her eyes darting to his. She realized she had no idea how much he had been told since resuming consciousness. “Have you been… caught up?”

“About the raid last night you mean,” he clarified, a shadow crossing over his face.

She nodded.

“I have.”

Recalling herself to the task at hand, she resumed feeding the invalid brunette and willfully narrowed her focus on the spoon. Maybe then he wouldn’t see the turmoil brewing inside her.

“I know that after we were sprung from the fortress the KG hit us hard,” he continued. “Forced their way in with a bombot. I know that might have been the end of the Underground right then and there if it wasn’t for this… guy… transforming into some sort of monster.”

Now it was her turn to refuse to meet his probing gaze.

“He hurt you, didn’t he?” The anger in his raspy voice was almost enough to make her flinch.

“He didn’t mean to,” she deflected.

“So what?” he countered right back.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Tell me—”

“Drop it , Ryker.”

The warning barb in her command was enough to stay his interrogation for a few moments but not his concern for her or his enmity for her attacker. He glared at her, teeming with frustration. “...What’s his name?”

She glared back, weighing whether or not she should answer, before deciding it was pointless to withhold information he could easily learn elsewhere. “Jak.”

“Well, you can bet that if I ever meet this Jak when I’m awake he’ll regret it.”

“If it wasn’t for him, we’d be dead or worse.”

The only sound came from the muffled discussion outside as they stared each other down, their bodies as rigid as their disagreement. When Ryker didn’t say anything else, Keira readied another spoonful, scraping the side of the bowl with irritation. This time no steam rose for the soup was growing cold.

When the laden utensil was inches from his mouth he suddenly demanded, “Why did you have to go and join the Underground?”

She nearly spilled on his chest, surprised to find herself the target of his ire.

“What the hell were you thinking?!”

Dropping the spoon back in the bowl with a clatter, the exasperated mechanic responded, “I thought it was Vivian who didn’t approve.”“She’s dead.”

The gravity of his statement pulled her down into the old grief she knew so well, and she felt her throat constrict. She blinked at the half-eaten soup in her lap, her dry eyes pricking with sorrow. “...You two were captured. I was all alone, and the Underground was the only thing I had to go on. What was I supposed to do?”

“You could have left Haven.”

“And go where? Kras City? That’s assuming I could even make it across the Wasteland without running into Metal Heads or marauders.”

“At least you wouldn’t end up in the fortress yourself.”

Something about his raw tone compelled her to look back up, and she immediately wished she hadn’t. The full force of his suffering hit her like an out of control air racer, the agony in his expression so palpable that her heart twisted in answering anguish.

“What if you didn’t escape? What if they killed you? What if they pumped you so full of dark eco that you wasted away into nothing?!” A coughing fit seized the distraught man, and he crumpled onto his side, gripping the sheets with a white-knuckled fist. It was so violent Keira feared he would hack up a lung. She hastily set the soup aside, but it was a futile measure. There was nothing she could do. The only recourse available was to anxiously hover over him and wait, and she pressed her trembling fingers against her bared teeth.

When at last the fit subsided he cracked a watery eye at her, his sides still heaving. “Don’t,” he wheezed, “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Ryker—”

“I don’t want your pity!”

Stung by his vitriol, she swiveled and turned her back, the mattress’ old springs whining beneath her shifting weight. She breathed deeply, endeavoring to reign in her wildly beating pulse. Of course, Ryker’s behavior would be erratic after enduring unspeakable horrors in the fortress. Of course, this conversation was always going to be difficult. Even so, she didn’t know how much longer she could take confronting all that had happened to him… and what it meant for her.

They sat in silence for some time before Ryker spoke again, barely above a whisper, “The one thing that kept me going all this time was the thought that you were alive and safe somewhere. That Viv and I managed to protect you.”

Keira inhaled, a final steadying action. “It’s not your job to protect me… and if I could do it all over again I’d make the same choice.”

When no rebuttal came, she stood, straightened her borrowed jacket, and made to leave without looking back. “I should go.”

“Wait.”

She halted by the door.

“I just want you to know that I…” he gulped in a vain effort to control his strangled speech, “I missed you, Hagai.”

His words, as much a sideways plea for forgiveness as a stark expression of affection, roused such powerful feelings in her that she shivered. Though she couldn’t bear to look at him, she responded in kind, her voice thick with emotion, “I missed you too, Ryker.”

 


 

Jak blinked bleary-eyed at an unfamiliar ceiling. It was made of plain plaster, off-white and peeling—all in all completely unremarkable aside from its novelty. Similarly novel was the firm bed in which he lay and the soft pillow cradling his head. Judging by the lamplight it was sometime after dark, but it was difficult to discern much else. He might have sat up to survey his surroundings if he had the capacity, but as it was he could hardly move. So leaden was his sore body that shifting even a pinky finger took conscious effort. He felt like a waterlogged rock inside a murky aquarium, weighed down and divided from the muffled world around him.

“Jak, my boy, you’re finally awake.”

He rolled his sluggish eyes toward the voice, and his clumsy lips slowly formed a name in response. “Samos…”

The Sage of Green Eco sat in a bedside chair, wearing not a prison uniform but a secondhand shirt, waistcoat, and shorts in various shades of brown. Even with the added height of his old six-inch wooden sandals, his feet dangled without touching the floor.

“JAK!” Daxter cried as he leapt on the bed, “Good to have ya back, big guy! We thought you were a goner for a minute there!”

Samos nodded in relief. “You’ve been sleeping for nearly a day.”

“How do you feel?” the ottsel asked, his excited grin especially toothy.

“Fuzzy… heavy.”

“So me if ya put on a few pounds.”

The corner of the blonde’s mouth twitched in the shadow of a smile. “Funny joke… Why’ve I been out so long?”

“I’m sure you needed every minute of it,” Samos said, “You lost a great deal of blood, and there was some lung damage, but… your body’s ability to heal itself is truly miraculous.”

Jak frowned, confused. “What happened?” he asked, beginning to wonder if the little green man was being evasive.

“Don’t you remember?”

Narrowing his eyes in concentration, it was a few moments before he recalled the searing heat he had felt the night before. “That’s right,” he murmured, “Torn shot me.”

“That he did,” the sage verified, awkwardly scratching his white beard.

Jak’s green brows furrowed deeper as he struggled to corral his hazy memories. Torn shot him because… “Keira—”

“Is fine,” Samos preemptively confirmed, “She’s just fine. I was able to heal her and the rest of the injured before we abandoned Headquarters.”

Jak threw the old man a questioning look.

“Setting aside the damage to repair, the Baron knows where it is. Staying wasn’t an option.”

It was then Jak understood that they must have somehow been traced back to the Underground base after he and Lil freed their companions from the Krimzon Guard Fortress. There was no other explanation besides pure coincidence, and a wave of self-loathing swept over him like a fetid tsunami. “So where are we then?” he asked, deflated and defeated.

“The Shadow’s residence in the South Garden. There’s a temporary headquarters near the Water Slums, but it’s smaller than the old one and… I’m afraid you wouldn’t be welcome there. Torn won’t allow it. He thinks you’re… unreliable.”

“You mean dangerous,” Jak corrected, his tone rancorous.

Samos quietly regarded him before rubbing his temples and giving a weary sigh. “Daxter, would you give us some privacy?”

“ ‘Privacy?’ Anything you’ve got to say to Jak you can say to both of us!” The ottsel’s defiance withered under the sage’s baleful glare. “But now that I think about it nature’s calling. Be back in a few!” And with that, he hopped to the ground and waddled out the door.

Samos fiddled with his glasses and looked at his student with something like contrition, and it dawned on Jak what sort of conversation he was in for. Wanting no part of it, he looked away and stubbornly pretended to fixate on an old poster.

“...You’ve gone through some changes since I saw you last,” Samos began, sounding uncharacteristically gentle.

“That’s one way to put it,” Jak muttered.

“Daxter tells me you were immediately arrested when we arrived in Haven City two years ago.”

“Does he.”

“And you only escaped one month ago.”

The teenager pressed his lips together in a bitter line.

“You were injected with dark eco, just like what we saw in the fortress. It would kill a normal person, but you, being a skilled channeler, survived. And now you can turn into a berserker.”

Samos paused, providing him a window in which to respond, but he didn’t take it.

“If there’s anything else you’d like to add—”

“What do you want me to say?!” Jak lashed out, unable to contain himself any longer, “That I’m a monster? That the dark eco will destroy me? That I’m fucking broken?!” His volume spiked with his anger, and, to his instant regret, he tried to sit up. Overwhelming, white-hot pain lanced from his back through his chest, and he fell back on his pillow with a groan.

The sage patiently waited for him to recover and break the silence.

When he finally did it was in a low monotone. “Can you heal me?”

Samos knew he wasn’t asking about his gunshot wound. “I’m afraid I can’t.”

“Bullshit… You’re the Sage of Green Eco. You cure the sick and mend broken bones. You can heal anything.”

“Not this.”

Jak’s fingers gouged deep into his blankets. “Would your answer be any different if I was one of your stupid dark eco infected ferns?”

“Perhaps I could help if the poisoning was less severe, but… the dark eco’s hold on you is absolute. Your altered blood and body’s rejection of other types is proof enough of that. If I tried you wouldn’t survive.”

The finality of the sage’s words snuffed out a last fragile flame of hope Jak didn’t even know he tended, leaving behind a tenebrous hollow as large and empty as a cavern. Crushing despair overwhelmed him, sprouting and spreading like toxic mushrooms in the dark, and his head began to spin as he spiraled into an abyss with no bottom. And it was there a terrible understanding seeped into the cracks of his mind.

“ ‘Find yourself, Jak,’ ” he hissed through gritted teeth, “That was the last thing I heard you yell in the rift.”

Samos sagged a little in his chair, his eyes mournful behind his thick spectacles.

“How long have you known? Since before I was born?”

There was no answer, and Jak began to tremble with rage.

“What the hell were all those years of teaching for if you weren’t actually going to prepare me for anything?”

“Do you think you ever would have traveled through the Precursor Ring if I told you your future?”

“I don’t know… and I don’t care. At least then I would’ve had a choice.”

Unable to deny the truth of his betrayal, the old man held his tongue.

“You knew,” Jak growled, his fury building on itself like a hurricane picking up speed, “You knew all this would happen. You knew that I’d be tortured until I turned into a monster. You knew that people would die last night… You knew I’d hurt Keira!”

Samos could only stare back.

“How could you let it happen? How could you let me become this?!”

At some length the sage knit his stubby fingers together, bolstering himself. “Jak, my boy… I meant what I said about the grave nature of my predicament. If I choose differently than I did before, then what I know to be the future may not happen. Even if I was able to preserve the ultimate goal and somehow spare your suffering, there are potentially infinite unforeseen consequences that could wreak untold havoc. Time travel is a tricky, unpredictable thing.”

Samos’ moralism was the last thing the young renegade wanted to hear, and he scoffed in disgust.

"When I was in the Shadow’s shoes... my older self never warned the Underground about the attack, so I didn’t either. If only I knew the right thing to say now…”

“Unless you can undo all of it, there’s nothing you can say,” Jak spat with all the venom he could muster in his weakened state.

The old man exhaled, his face maddeningly composed. “I know I can’t ask you to forgive me… I can only hope I’m maintaining a necessary continuum for a reason. Good experiences and bad ones… both shape the people we become. I believe that you were meant to be the person you are now. That when time has allowed you to heal it will all be worth it. I have to—”

Samos’s voice broke, and he hung his log-topped head, unable to continue.

Jak didn’t know what to say. Since before he could remember the sage had always been there, a larger than life figure of authority, a teacher and surrogate father who invariably knew the answer to all the world’s problems. To see him like this, shoulders slumped and quaking, so vulnerable and full of remorse… he seemed so small. And that made Jak feel more alone than perhaps anything else could.

With a loud sniff and a phlegmy cough, Samos pushed off the chair and straightened up, his keel once again even. “Now then,” he instructed, “get some rest. You may be out of the woods, but there’s plenty more mending to be done.”

Jak might have told the sage to shove it, but he felt much more taxed from their conversation than he had realized. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open, and so he stared at the shabby ceiling in silent protest. He managed to hold out until Samos left the room before drifting into a deep but uneasy slumber.

Chapter Text

When Jak awoke again he was alone. Stark light filtered into his small room through the drawn blinds, and he wondered how much time had passed. If the state of his body was any indication it must have been a while. Gingerly engaging the muscles of his back and chest was painful but far from debilitating. Probing under his pajamas, he found his torso free of medical dressing. The open wound left by Torn’s bullet was gone.

Steeling himself with a deep breath, he slowly rose into a sitting position, pulling himself up first by gripping the blankets and then a knee. Never in his life had he ever felt so weak. Every limb seemed as hollow and brittle as an old log, and if it wasn’t for the voracious hunger gnawing at his belly he might continue resting. Instead, he tried to stand up and promptly collapsed back onto the bed, overwhelmed by a rush of blood to his head. He waited out the dizziness with his eyes shut tight and stubbornly tried again, determined to move under his own power. Though he felt like a gentle breeze could blow him over with ease, he somehow stayed upright.

Jak staggered toward the chair Samos had sat in the night before, now serving as a supportive island halfway to the door. As he gripped the back with his trembling hands, he noticed his clothes were folded in a neat pile on the seat. He took a moment to unfurl his blue jacket. Much like his wound, there was no evidence he had ever been shot in the first place—the bullet hole was mended and the blood stains washed away. Another ravenous pang spurred him onward, and after draping the garment on the chair he exited the small bedroom and stepped out into a wall of humidity.

To say he found himself inside a kitchen wasn’t quite accurate. While it had all the usual trappings of such a room, nearly all the available counter space was occupied by an exotic menagerie of plants. A pitched skylight above bathed them in sunshine, broad, life-giving rays toward which they angled like attentive schoolchildren. They sported leaves of all shapes, sizes, and colors and spilled out of clay pots large and small. Some were festooned in vibrant blossoms that perfumed the thick, tepid air. A few even moved of their own volition.

Daxter looked up from the small table where he sat poking the snapping jaws of a carnivorous indigo flower with a fork. “You’re awake!” he exclaimed.

Just as Jak nodded an affirmative his strength faltered, and he stumbled and sagged against the wall.

“Woah!” The ottsel jumped down to the olive tiled floor and ran to his side, alarmed. “Should you even be up?!”

“I just need some food,” Jak grumbled, waving him off, “I’m starving.”

“Alright, alright, but sit yer butt down first.” Daxter hovered around his feet as he slowly made his way to the table, waiting until he was safely situated on a stool before leaping up to the stove. A little pot was keeping warm over a low flame. The diminutive animal ladled some of its contents into a waiting bowl and delivered it to the invalid.

“Samos said to give this to you. It’s supposed to help ya recover, which probably means it tastes terrible,” Daxter said, wrinkling his nose at the porridge.

Jak sipped a small spoonful. It tasted bland but nutty, pleasant enough that his stomach immediately gurgled for more. He proceeded to wolf it down, not caring that he was burning his tongue in the process.

“Woah, not so fast!” Daxter warned, “Samos said if you eat too fast you could make yourself sick.”

“Fuck Samos,” Jak snarled.

The ottsel clamped his furry lips together, unsure of how to respond. Normally he was the first in line to complain about their teacher, but the current situation was anything but—he had never seen his friend so furious with Samos. Deciding silence was prudent, he drummed his gloved paws on the tabletop and pretended nothing was said at all.

For his part, Jak felt bad enough for snapping that he marginally slowed his pace. “How long was I out this time?”

“Less than a day. It’s a little after four in the afternoon.” Daxter tapped his wrist as though he wore a watch.

Jak shook his head between bites, amazed.

“What?”

“I can’t believe I’ve spent most of the last forty-eight hours sleeping.”

“I can. You were bleeding out like a stuck hip hog. Yer lucky those dark eco powers of yours include super healing or I’d have to find a new best buddy.”

“If I didn’t have them in the first place Samos could’ve taken care of it on the spot,” the blonde countered.

“Yeah, maybe,” Daxter trailed off, contemplating the point, “But he was already pretty drained from his showdown with… well, you. And there were a lot of other injured folks. Guess you were in such rough shape you would’ve gotten first priority though.”

For the first time since he started eating, Jak’s spoon stopped, clanking against his bowl. “I fought with Samos?”

“Yep. You weren’t changing back like you usually do, so he tried to stop you. If Keira hadn’t gotten in the middle you might’ve…” Though the sentence went unfinished, the meaning was clear. Would his transformation have ended in time if it was Samos’s flesh his claws were tearing asunder?

Rather than dwell on such a grim line of thinking, Jak elected to focus solely on his meal. For a few moments, the only sound was the clinking and scraping of his utensil.

“So,” the ottsel began in a conciliatory tone, “the talk with ol’ log on the head didn’t go so great.”

“Nope,” Jak firmly responded. He had no intention of rehashing the confrontation, and Daxter was wise enough not to press him further.

“Well, you just missed Keira. She left here with him and the Shadow ten minutes ago.”

Again, Jak stopped eating. The thought of the green-haired girl made his chest tighten painfully, and he stared at his orange friend with wide eyes. “Keira was here?”

“Yeah, she—”

“Was she alright?”

“She was, and—”

“How did she look?”

“Would you just let me talk?” Daxter admonished before continuing, “She seemed kinda low, but her arm’s just like new. She sat with ya for a few minutes.”

Jak waited for the ottsel to elaborate, his foot jiggling with impatience. When a few beats passed he prompted, “And?”

“ ‘And’ what? She sat there while Tweedlegreen and Tweedlegrump talked about the Life Seed and didn’t say anything! All she did was stare at you.”

Jak imagined what emotions might have played across Keira’s beautiful face—worry, sadness, maybe ambivalence. Hopefully not disdain. His throat constricted as he considered his own warring visions of her. Corrosive memories of the illusion inside Mar’s Tomb bubbled up like acid, making it all too easy to picture her looking upon him with contempt. He couldn’t stop himself from asking, “How did she stare at me?”

Daxter indignantly threw up his paws, griping, “I don’t know, she was hard to read! If you’re so curious you should just ask her yourself!”

Though it was a flippant suggestion, Jak considered it very seriously. After what he did to her during the raid, the thought of facing Keira filled him with anything but anticipation. Indeed, he was gripped by such powerful dread that his first instinct was to avoid her at all costs, and yet… He couldn’t run away from her anymore, as he had ever since practically the moment she stepped into Headquarters. If he did so now, having committed such an unforgivable sin, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. No matter how his worst impulses attempted to sway him, no matter how afraid he was, he had to see her.

“One more question,” Jak finally, reluctantly replied, “Where did they go?”

“The Great Tree in Haven Forest. Keira and Tess got the Life Seed from Samos’ hut yesterday, and now they’re gonna use it for some ceremony. Apparently, it’ll give young Samos his sagely powers.” The ottsel said the words with mocking derision. “Just imagine… Today’s the day Samos becomes the mystical pain in the butt we’ve known all these years.” He shivered in disgust.

“Alright then, we’re going too,” Jak declared as he stood on shaky legs.

“What? Why?!”

“Like you said, if I’m so curious I should ask Keira myself.”

“I didn’t mean you should literally go see her right this second! No way I’m letting you out of here, big guy. You’re in no shape to leave right now!”

“We’re going,” Jak repeated as he turned to get dressed. He would brook no argument. He had to know she was alright.

 


 

“Is this really necessary?” the Shadow asked, eyeing the mountain warp gate with suspicion. “He could just use his powers to float me up to the top of the canyon, and then I could skip this teleporting business entirely.”

“Absolutely not,” the Sage of Green Eco countered, his voice gruff, “You’re much too heavy for me to carry you such a distance.”

The younger Samos tugged his waistcoat down his potbelly with an indignant harrumph. “I suppose I am asking too much of a man as old as yourself. You’re almost dead anyway.”

“Well, if you'd taken better care of yourself, I wouldn't be in the state I am now!”

Torn sighed in irritation, as weary as any parent of squabbling children might be. “What was the point of repairing the warp gate in the forest of you’re not going to use it?”

“Oh, he will,” Keira said, saving an especially stern glare for her father, “They both will.”

Given that her words were in part directed at the leader of the Underground she wondered if she was being too bold, but she soon dismissed the concern. Perhaps she was more assertive now that she once again wore Vivian’s jacket—she had labored for hours cleaning and stitching up the bloodied outerwear to the best of her abilities.

Having just set the warp gate’s destination, she dusted off her hands and gestured at the swirling ring of aqua energy with exaggerated pomp. “After you, gentlemen.”

Torn led the way, and though they continued grumbling both little green men obediently followed suit. Keira was the last to leap through, and she dove in head first. Time and space folded in on itself as she cut, weightless, through the sparkling current of the rift. Much like water, her hair, skin, and even clothes became saturated with energy, tingling and tickling until she was covered in gooseflesh. She didn’t share her father’s antipathy for teleporting, but it was a strange enough sensation that she could never stop herself from holding her breath. Her lungs were just starting to protest when she reached a burst of white light that marked the other side, and she somersaulted onto the soft grass of the forest floor.

Not everyone had such a graceful landing. The log atop the elder Samos’ head had gone askew, and the younger brushed dirt off his rump. Once they regrouped, the quartet set off through the towering trees. No one spoke, but Keira didn’t mind. She was enjoying walking in companionable silence beside her father, and there was more than enough natural beauty to hold her interest. The late afternoon light had shifted to a golden, buttery hue, casting the forest in a warm glow. The natural particulate of the lush air lazily danced through the sunbeams along with flutterflies and other winged insects. Most striking of all were the leaves shielding the western sun, blazing like thousands of paper lanterns.

After a bend in the path, their destination came into view. Atop a steep hill crowned in Precursor ramparts sat a deciduous giant, the Great Tree. For countless generations, it had stood watch over the forest, a grand sentinel of an ancient world. Its gnarled trunk was wider than most streets, and its leafy crown rose far above the rest of the canopy. The closer they drew to it the more dominating its presence became. When they set foot on the gently curving ramp that led up to its base, the tree’s twisting branches already loomed directly overhead. Keira’s attention became lost in the rich tapestry of leaves as they made their final ascent.

Upon reaching the top, she was wrenched back into the present when Torn’s trigger hand flew to his holstered pistol. “ What is this?” he exclaimed.

To everyone’s utter shock, Jak and Daxter were waiting under the tree, a massive root serving them as a bench of sorts.

“Great yakow horns!” the elder Samos cried, “What are you doing here? We left you at the house less than an hour ago!”

“You guys must’ve taken the scenic route. We thought you’d beat us here for sure,” Jak said with a triumphant smirk. Although the journey to the Great Tree had been harrowing in his weakened state, the young renegade shrugged as though it were nothing. “Anyway, I needed some exercise.”

“ ‘Exercise’? You shouldn’t be out of bed!”

“I told him,” Daxter asserted, “I told him we shouldn’t go anywhere!”

The ottsel stumbled when Jak elbowed him to stop.

Torn looked as though he might pull his firearm out at any second, and he stepped in front of Keira and the time twins in a protective stance, his smoky voice radiating menace. “Are you going to go berserk again?”

There wasn’t a trace of humor in the younger man’s face when he retorted, “Why don’t you make me angry and find out?”

“Boys, boys,” the Shadow placated, “there’s no need to do anything rash.”

“Too bad he didn’t think of that when he shot me,” Jak growled.

“The Underground has no use for freaks who turn on their fellow soldiers,” Torn spat back.

Jak made to stand up, but he did so too aggressively and fell back onto the tree root with a thud. Samos exclaimed his admonishment, but the blonde waved him off. Moving with greater care, he stood and firmly planted his feet, doing his level best to project strength. “I’m feeling fine. I just… felt like I should be here for this.”

Young and old Samos exchanged an unconvinced look while Torn, still gripping his gun, watched Jak like a hawk. Keira also stared at him, and given how evasive he was by default she was taken aback when his eyes found and held hers. Though there was an underlying diffidence, his gaze was as searching and unyielding as a pair of cobalt spotlights. Unable to endure it, she focused on the ground instead and felt like a coward for it.

“Well we don’t have time for dawdling,” Samos said, sounding especially cantankerous, “let’s get going.” And with that, he began to instruct the Shadow on what to do with the Life Seed.

Keira tensed when she heard footsteps. Jak approached her, his movements stiff and unsteady, and she could scarcely believe he had left his bed. It was plain as day how poor his condition still was. Annoyance that he would be so careless with himself flared inside her like a lit match, and she crossed her arms defensively.

“Keira,” he said by way of greeting, his countenance now meek.

She waited.

He looked like he had no idea what to say. After some deliberation, he settled on, “How are you?”

“I’m alright. Better than you it seems,” she replied more tartly than she meant to.

“Like I said, I’m feeling fine,” he lied.

“Oh come on, Jak, you look like you’re about to fall over. You almost died.” Vivid memories of the ghastly ordeal came crashing back like boulders tossed by a cyclone. Her screaming his name over and over. Him laying unresponsive in a pool of dark blood. She involuntarily convulsed, her lips curling back in distress. “...You should take better care of yourself.”

“Well,” Jak muttered as he awkwardly scratched the back of his neck, “I needed to talk to you. And not over a communicator.”

At that Keira’s breath caught in her throat. Surely he meant to bring up how he had lost control and injured her, and she became acutely aware of the visible mending on her jacket sleeve. The experience had so rocked her she had done nothing but avoid any and all discussion of it, even with her father. She knew enough about the distorting dangers of dark eco to understand that if Jak bled the substance and could transform into some sort of berserker then it didn’t necessarily follow that he meant her harm. More likely than not she was collateral damage, a tragic casualty of an impossible situation. Even so, she was plagued by doubt. There was once a time when she believed with her whole heart Jak would never do anything to hurt her, but now—

“Can we…” the blonde interrupted her train of thought, nodding his head toward the ramparts in a sheepish request for her to step away with him.

Keira blinked back, astounded. If her senses weren’t deceiving her, he was making his first honest effort to truly connect with her in the roller coaster ride that had been the four days since their reunion. A nervous flush crept up her cheeks, and she began to fiddle with the hem of her jacket. Hoping she wasn’t too obviously flustered, she spared a glance around the circle and found that no one was paying them much mind. The Shadow sat in a meditative pose, his eyes closed in solemn concentration as the Life Seed hovered in front of him, Daxter was busy examining his claws, and the elder Samos engaged Torn in low conversation. Whether the sage was making an effort to relieve some of the ex-KG commander’s tension or attempting to give his daughter some semblance of privacy wasn’t clear. Regardless, the only person stopping her now was herself.

Without looking Jak in the eye, Keira ambled away from the group in silent acceptance. He followed, but his continuing silence elicited a restless sigh. “What did you need to talk about?”

He hesitated, again at a loss for words. “...About your arm—”

“You wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t jumped in the way,” she cut him off.

“I… I’m not sure,” he admitted, his voice tremulous, “I’ve only ever attacked the Baron’s forces in the past, but… I never remember what happens.”

She could see him repeatedly clenching his fist in her peripheral vision, a further sign of how agitated he must be. Still, she was determined to stare elsewhere, in the general direction of the ramparts.

“I just want to say—”

“You don’t have to say anything. I think—I know that wasn’t you.”

“That’s no excuse!”

He said it with such force that she looked up and was captured by his intense blue gaze. There was something about the way he looked at her that sparked a glimmer of hope in her aching chest.

Jak took a deep breath, gathering himself. “...I’m sorry.”

They were only two little words, and yet his remorse was so earnest and his vulnerability so naked that Keira’s hope was realized. At last, he looked not like the hardened renegade of Haven City but the kind hero of Sandover Village. He wasn’t totally lost to her after all. Her heart swelled, and without even being aware of it she beamed a radiant smile of forgiveness.

 

 

Before either of them could say anything else an ethereal resonance drew their attention back to the foot of the Great Tree. The Shadow was levitating, the Life Seed’s energy swirling into him until his flesh glowed a brilliant lime green. His brow was deeply furrowed, his closed eyes rolling back and forth as though he were having a nightmare. The sound and light built together in a final, powerful crescendo before dissipating as quickly as they had come, and Samos gently touched back down on the soft ground. The transference was over.

When he opened his eyes they shimmered an otherworldly chartreuse, and he appeared to still be far away. He began to speak, his pace slow, “The Life Seed gave me a terrible vision… The Baron is planning to destroy the Precursor Stone. He aims to crack it open somehow. If he does this, the energy released will be beyond comprehension.” With every word his volume and urgency gradually increased. "It will destroy the world and more… ending all life. The plants are crying out for protection! We must stop the Baron! Stop him, however we can!”

The Shadow looked expectantly around the circle and was met with blank shock. No one knew what to say to such overwhelming, grave tidings.

“...We’re already doing everything we can with what resources we have,” Torn said, tiredly running his hand down his tattooed face.

“There has to be something we haven’t thought of!” the afroed man demanded.

The only response came from the birds placidly chirping in the canopy above.

He rounded on his older self. “Surely there’s something useful you can tell us!”

Samos only shook his head, eyes closed and mouth clamped shut. He would not cross the line of revealing the future.

The Shadow cursed in frustration and proceeded to nervously pace across the grass.

“Well,” Keira began, drawing everyone’s attention, “we could win the NYFE Racing Championship.”

“...What would that accomplish?” Torn asked.

“It would provide us an opportunity to get up close and personal with Praxis in the winner’s circle.”

“And how exactly are we going to do that with only two races to go and no driver?” The ex-KG commander’s pale eyes narrowed to dangerous slits.

“Actually,” Keira swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, “we already have one.”

Taking the cue, Jak stepped up beside her and stood akimbo. She straightened her shoulders, bolstered by his solidarity.

Torn looked back and forth between the two of them, nostrils flaring and a vein throbbing in his temple. He appeared on the verge of flying into an apoplectic rage. “Just how many races has he competed in?”

“Enough that if he places second or better in the final two races he’s clinched the title,” Daxter answered, joining his friends with his chest puffed up.

“He can barely stand right now, and you expect me to believe that he’s just going to sweep everything right at the end of the season?!” the Underground strategist yelled, gesturing with such violence that his auburn dreadlocks swung about, “Never mind that you’ll be a sitting duck in the middle of the stadium—this is no better than a suicide mission!”

Jak retorted, “You hate me anyway, right, so what do you care if I get killed?”

“Which he won’t,” Keira interjected, “I’ve got some R&D in mind to make sure of that, and if it doesn’t pan out we can pull the plug. Either way, opportunities like this don’t come around often.”

Torn stared at the trio, his chest heaving with fury, before turning to the Shadow. “What do you think of this insanity?!”

The little green man adjusted his spectacles. “I think we need every chance we can get, even if it’s one of the longest shots I’ve ever heard of.”

Outraged and outranked, Torn sneered and turned away to fume in silence.

Though she had a feeling she’d regret it, Keira pointed out, “Lucky for us, there’s more we can do to improve our chances. We just got ourselves the perfect coach.”

Her statement was unexpected enough that the entire group shot her a round of perplexed glances.

“A ‘coach’?” Daxter echoed.

“Who do you mean?” the Shadow asked.

Summoning all her confidence, she answered, “Ryker.”

Chapter Text

 

It was two days before Jak recovered enough to undergo training, and that gave him more than enough time to brood. As such, when he found himself waiting for Keira and Ryker to arrive at the scrapyard in South Town, his mood was especially foul. He sat sulking on an abandoned zoomer while Daxter inspected the nearby rubbish for hidden treasures. It was a lovely, balmy day, the kind where perfectly fluffy clouds floated across the deep azure sky, but for all he appreciated it might as well have been stormy and gray.

This was the logical thing to do. If he was going to clinch the NYFE Championship, he needed all the help he could get. Knowing that, however, did nothing to soothe him. When Keira suggested Ryker as a coach the prospect took all the wind out of his sails. He didn’t care that the guy was once a brilliant racer robbed of a very real chance at beating Erol two years ago. He hadn’t known Ryker in any state of consciousness, and he didn’t want to. Not after the way Keira acted after they escaped the fortress. Especially not now that he had imagined every level of intimacy that could explain why she did.

He mentally replayed the events at the foot of the Great Tree as he had done ad nauseum. At first, there had been such a strong sense of relief—and something like a moment of true happiness. Keira’s incandescent smile penetrated the fog of guilt and self-loathing that shrouded him, allowing warmth to swell in his chest. In a peculiar way, he felt found. It was as if she was really seeing him for the first time since they lost each other in the rift, and for once all the ugliness in his life ceased to be important.

Then Samos had his vision, the catalyst for the plan that brought him crashing back to reality. Keira’s coaching idea was immediately embraced, and Jak was expected to fall in line. Who could reasonably argue with the assured rationale of an experienced industry insider like her? Even now, he remembered the words she said with perfect clarity.

“Ryker’s the best racer I’ve ever seen.”

Sure, he needed all the help he could get, but that didn’t mean he was going to be happy about it.

He stiffened when a two-seater dragging a small trailer pulled into view, Keira at the helm and Ryker at her side. Judging by their drawn visages, Jak imagined they were on the far side of an unpleasant discussion. It seemed no one was very happy to be at the scrapyard.

“Yo, Keira!” Daxter waved with easy enthusiasm.

Almost no one, the surly blonde thought to himself, scowling.

“Good morning, Dax,” Keira responded, pasting a sunny grin on her face as she climbed out of the zoomer. Her green eyes flitted to Jak’s, cautious as a bird. “How are you feeling today?”

“Ready to go,” he replied, his terse words absent of any of the tenderness he felt the previous afternoon.

She gave a small nod in response, her smile weaker than it was before.

Daxter hopped on the zoomer’s striped hood, all the better to address the passenger who hadn’t yet spoken. “So you used to be a hotshot on the track, huh?”

Ryker looked at the diminutive animal like he might an uncanny curiosity, softening the narrowed gaze with which he had been observing the proceedings. “I guess you could say that.”

“You guess? You were one race away from beating the ginger maniac weren’t you?”

“He means Erol,” Keira translated.

“I was,” Ryker confirmed, “and I would’ve done it too.”

“Yep, definitely a hotshot,” Daxter observed.

“Damn straight!” The brunette’s mouth curled into a wry grin. “Winning over guys like Erol demands a little overconfidence… Not to be too blunt about it, but I wasn’t expecting to meet a talking ottsel.”

“Wasn’t expec—Keira didn’t tell you about me?” Daxter gaped at the young woman in question, incensed.

“Must’ve slipped my mind,” she said, offering an innocent shrug.

“Some friend you are! I was thinkin’ I’d finally take ya on that date I’ve been promising ya all these years, but forget it. Now you’ll never know the pleasures of Orange Lightning!”

“My loss,” she said, her words dripping with sarcasm before she went to unload the trailer.

The miffed animal grumbled under his breath as he turned back to Ryker, who was now thoroughly amused. “Anyway, the name’s Daxter.” He extended a gangly arm for a handshake.

“Ryker.” The racer genially accepted the offered paw, though it was small enough by comparison that he did so with his index finger rather than his hand.

Jak watched the exchange with blistering irritation. As far as he was concerned, Ryker’s amicable overtures weren’t to be trusted.

“And this ray of sunshine is Jak.”

Daxter indicated him with a thumb, and he tensed as Ryker’s gaze—more like glare—settled on him. It was bracing in its naked belligerence, a glittering topaz admission of acrimony. He scowled right back, and they nodded at each other in begrudging acknowledgment.

“You better deliver on this coaching business,” Daxter continued, “I don’t want my buddy to wind up just another grease stain on the track.”

That earned him a censuring look from Jak.

“What?” he indignantly exclaimed.

“I’ll do what I can,” Ryker responded, still baldly staring at the young renegade, “but really it all depends on him. I could give him the best training in the world, but it’s meaningless if he fails to utilize it.”

The insinuation that Jak’s work ethic wasn’t up to task stoked the competitive fire building deep inside him, and his scowl blazed to match. He vowed then and there that he would follow every instruction to the best of his abilities, and in so doing he would make the racer eat his words.

Then Keira came into view, and Jak did a double take. She was pushing a shabby wheelchair. Obviously, it was for Ryker, but it was a jarring notion nonetheless. Though still far too skinny, he already appeared to be putting weight back on, and his color was much improved from the grayish pallor permeating his unconscious form three days prior. Was he still too weak to walk? Why else would the chair be necessary? Certainly, it was unwanted. Once it was wheeled to a stop beside him all the emotion evaporated from his features, leaving him stone-faced.

The mechanic braced herself against the frame of the zoomer, evidently to assist Ryker in getting into the chair. Not about to stand by while she helped him like a personal nurse, Jak sprang forward. “Let me.”

They both blinked back, startled by the offer, and Keira began to protest, “No, you don’t have to—”

“It’ll be easier this way,” he insisted. There were no further objections, and after some awkward wrangling in which both men avoided all eye contact, Ryker was comfortably situated. Through it all his legs hung limp like a ragdoll’s, leading Jak to wonder if he was even capable of using them.

Several beats of uncomfortable silence followed until Daxter, ever the icebreaker, piped up, “So when do we break for lunch? Lunch sounds good.”

“Daxter, it’s nine thirty in the morning,” Keira pointed out, “We haven’t even started yet.”

“Well, we should have an early lunch,” the ottsel persisted, “There’s some good fish tacos nearby.”

“We’ll see.” Keira rolled her eyes before returning to the trailer.

Seeking to keep the conversation from drying up too fast, Ryker asked, “So how is it you can talk?”

“Because I’m a human. Or at least I was until someone—” he shot a biting glare at Jak “—thought it’d be a good idea to go mucking around Misty Island. I fell into a pool of dark eco and turned into this. Then we went on this whole big journey to change me back, but it turned out the one guy who could do it was a crazy supervillain out to destroy the world. We had to put him down, so here I still am—two feet tall, fuzzy, and running around in the future without a pair of pants… God, I miss pants.”

“Wait,” Ryker muttered as he stared at the ottsel, “You’re from the past too.” The tenor of his voice had changed completely as if he was remembering something he’d rather not.

“Sure are. Grew up in Sandover Village, same as Keira.”

The racer glanced toward the back of the trailer, a shadow passing over his expression. Then his eyes returned to Jak’s, golden and intense. “So she found you after all.”

“Meaning?”

“She avoided telling me most things about her past, but you definitely came up once.”

The young renegade‘s glower darkened in response, and he refused to look away first. He was sure of it now. Whatever Keira and Ryker shared, it wasn’t just friendship.

Their staredown was interrupted by a loud cough from the mechanic, who had returned with the air racer. “Well,” she said, her voice nervous, “we should get rolling.”

After a practice course was demarcated through the scrapyard with small flags, the coaching commenced. Jak and Ryker faced each other, pugnacity crackling between them like a brewing lightning storm.

“Ok,” the chestnut-haired man began, “what’s your resume?”

“My ‘resume?’ ”

“What’s your racing experience?”

“I do a lot of getaway driving—”

“Just racing,” Ryker corrected with the speed of a biting whip.

Jak crossed his arms in an effort to bridle his rearing temper. “One NYFE race.”

“And you finished…”

“Fourth,” the blonde admitted through gritted teeth.

To his further irritation, his would-be coach sighed and ran a frustrated palm down his hollow cheeks. “Alright then. Well, I’ve got to get you whipped into shape yesterday, so give me a lap and show me your form.”

Jak mounted his air racer and did as he was told. When he pulled back up, Ryker eyed the stopwatch he held and whistled. “Looks like we’re going back to basics.”

“ ‘Basics’?”

“Yep. We need to shave at least four seconds off, and you’re so tense I’d say it’s a miracle you made it through one race. You’ve clearly got some raw talent, but you’re never going to tap your full potential without a strong foundation.”

“I don’t feel anymore tense than when I usually drive,” Jak lied.

“Then get off,” Ryker countered.

“Wha—”

“I said get off the zoomer.”

Stifling his growing desire to up and leave the scrapyard, Jak complied.

“Your back’s already stiff, isn’t it?”

“...A little.”

“That’s because you’re letting tension build up in your body. Too much tension, and you’ll get more than a sore back. Your entire performance will suffer. Now, get back on.”

Already questioning his commitment to following orders, Jak swung back over the leather seat and assumed a ready posture.

“Alright, slide further up so the tank back supports you. Further. Keep your core engaged and your butt planted. And loosen up your grip on the bars. Take a deep breath.”

Jak raised a green brow at the last instruction.

“If you want to be able to keep your reaction time good, you’ve got to keep breathing,” Ryker explained, “Never ever forget it. Now, take a deep breath. In… Out… In… Out… Good. Keep it up just like that and give me another lap.”

And so started a grueling first training session. With every circuit, Ryker would grill Jak on his technique, hurling out sharp instructions like knives.

“Keep your hands slow!”

“Stop snatching the brake!”

“Tighten up your lines!”

“Pin the throttle sooner!”

Jak took in every word, never talking back, never questioning, regardless of how consistently it stung his wounded pride. The only way to curb his mounting resentment was to harness it as motivation, a forge where he could fashion every needling barb into armor with which to do battle. He was determined to improve his skills and improve he did. As the minutes wore on his lap times grew incrementally shorter and the coaching inched toward more advanced techniques.

Throughout it all, Keira did her part by intermittently tuning the air racer. She adjusted the position of the handlebars, calibrated the fuel map, bolted on a supercharger, and on and on—all in service of customizing the air racer to best suit Jak’s emerging style. It was during one such point when Daxter was engaging her in conversation that Ryker wheeled up to Jak.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” he asked, tossing his chin to the side in curt invitation.

The teenager looked down his nose at the thin man, suspicious of what good could possibly come from a one-on-one discussion. “Sure,” he cautiously agreed and followed Ryker away from the group. Neither of them noticed the way Keira’s eyes darted after them.

“So,” Ryker said, his fingers turning the wheels of his chair with brusque efficiency, “you’ve known Keira a long time.”

Jak gave a gruff nod in response.

“I haven’t in the grand scheme of things. Just a couple years, and I spent most of that time behind bars.”

As they stopped next to a pile of broken appliances, safely out of earshot, the young renegade refrained from asking how long it would take to get to the point. The last thing he wanted was to hear any more references to their history together.

“I’ll make this quick,” Ryker said.

Here it comes, Jak thought, certain that the gauntlet was about to be thrown.

“Much as I don’t want to, I might regret it someday if I don’t say... thanks.”

Jak opened and closed his mouth in surprise.

Ryker didn’t look up as he continued, his words halting, “If you and Lil hadn’t infiltrated the fortress for the others... what they were doing to me... I wouldn’t have lasted much longer. So thank you.”

Disarmed by the racer’s genuine gratitude, Jak’s anger briefly dissolved. Though Ryker was unaware of it, no one knew better than he did what it was like to suffer through dark eco injections. “Uh… no problem,” he mumbled.

“But know this,” Ryker warned, meeting his rescuer’s stare with protective fury, “just because I owe you that doesn’t mean I will ever forgive you for hurting Keira. If I wasn’t like this, and if I hadn’t promised her I would behave… you would be the one in a wheelchair.”

Jak pulled back his shoulders and sucked in a slow breath. He considered the threat, imagining how a violent scuffle between the two of them might play out in meticulous detail, before responding in a neutral tone, “You could be in the best shape of your life, but it wouldn’t make a difference. If you took me on you would lose.”

Ryker huffed a silent, bitter laugh and shook his head. “...Maybe. I guess we’ll never know.”

Despite himself, Jak felt a pang of sympathy for the racer’s impotent rage and again wondered about his legs. He spoke as though he was permanently crippled, and the sour twist of his lips contorted further.

“You’re really the fucking guy, aren’t you?”

“Excuse me?” Jak asked, his eyes narrowing.

“The guy,” Ryker repeated, “The one Keira was always hung up on.”

A curious tightness constricted the younger man’s chest, and he looked to where the mechanic was engaged in her work on the air racer. As he watched her, a stream of memories flowed through his mind along with a tumultuous bevy of emotions. There were some of sweet friendship, such as when they played games together as small children, and others of reckless adventure, like when they almost got themselves killed trying to catch a lurker shark—but most potent of all were memories of ardent affection. Realizing his burgeoning feelings were there in the first place, flirting when he felt bold enough to do so, kissing within the pure glow of the light eco crystal—at that moment he felt as though he remembered every pining thought, every stolen glance, every whisper of a touch with a bruising clarity that was unattainable a mere week ago, and a pit of grief yawned open in his belly.

“...Yeah,” he at last confirmed, “I was.”

Ryker shook his head again. “ ‘Was.’ Unbelievable.”

“If you’ve got something else to say, spit it out.”

“...It’s funny. I always resented you for being in my way, but now that we’ve met it seems like you don’t have the balls to put up a fight.”

Jak fully faced the racer then, his fists clenched and his livid scowl devoid of humor, and was further infuriated by the way Ryker gazed at Keira. His adoration was plain for all to see.

“I never told her before… I love her.” He glared back at Jak, the tenderness in his molten gold eyes evaporating. Only boiling conviction remained as he growled, “I won’t make that same mistake again.” He held his rival’s gaze for good measure, his declaration a scalding promise, before going to join the others.

Jak’s fingers tightened till his nails bit deep into his palms. He wanted nothing more than to punch the wheelchair-bound man’s lights out.

The training session couldn’t wrap soon enough. By the time it finally did, the afternoon hours were waning and everyone was drained—especially Jak. He had thrown everything he had into it, fired up as he was by his burning desire to show up Ryker, yet his hard-won progress brought little pleasure. In the end, he only wished to be elsewhere. At least he could take some petty satisfaction that his coach’s power vanished when the time came to get back into the zoomer.

Keira climbed into the driver’s seat and praised the tired group with a forced smile, “Good job, everyone! We made a lot of progress today.”

“No problem,” Daxter responded, confidently planting his gloved paws on his orange hips, “you can always count on me and Jak to deliver!”

“Like you did any work,” Jak retorted, his fatigue rendering him especially acerbic.

The ottsel puffed himself up.“Never underestimate the value of emotional support!”

“We’ll meet again same time tomorrow,” Keira instructed, “So rest up.”

She fired up the engine, Ryker inclined his head in a sullen farewell, and they pulled away, churning up the dust of the scrapyard as they went.

No sooner were they out of sight than Daxter whined, “Yeesh, I’m glad that’s over! What a day! The last time things got that kind of awkward Ashelin showed up at the garage, and at least that was only five minutes.”

“Since when do you think that was awkward?” Jak demanded, “All you could think about was hitting on Ashelin.”

“Well, sure, but then Keira got all huffy and you were super flustered. I pieced it together.” The ottsel proudly rapped his knuckles against his leather-capped skull, but then he pursed his furry lips and scratched behind his ears. “Though now that I think about it, does that make you Keira and Ryker Ashelin or the other way around?”

“What are you talking about?” Jak asked, a puzzled frown puckering his brow.

“Well, obviously Keira is you because she’s the one caught in the middle. So that should make you Keira because you’re all jealous—”

“I’m not jealous!”

“That!” Daxter pointed at him with righteous zeal. “That right there is what I’m getting at! Most of the time you try and act like Ashelin—like you’re not interested at all.”

“That’s...” the agitated blonde trailed off as he considered his friend’s assessment. Only extreme situations—Keira’s imprisonment and injury at his own hands—galvanized him to act on his feelings for her. Barring such, what had he done to show how he cared? How much did he care in the first place? Ryker’s words burbled up in his mind, taunting and poisonous.

“...it seems like you don’t have the balls to put up a fight.”

Recalling the incendiary memory was no better than dropping a lit match in a vat of eco fuel, inflaming Jak so much that he couldn’t tolerate being in his own skin a second longer. Unable to stop himself from lashing out, he kicked an old speaker clean off its perch atop a rusty pile of rubbish. Daxter jolted into the air, his tangerine fur standing on end as the displaced device crashed and rolled to a noisy stop.

Jak scowled at the speaker, his booted foot smarting from the impact and his breathing heavy, before stalking toward his parked zoomer. “Let’s go.”

 


 

“These are all from this season?” The elder Samos inquired as he examined the garage’s shining display of trophies. Its shelves stacked twice the little sage’s height, and nearly all the available space was occupied.

Keira nodded. “They are.”

“Then you’ve won quite a few races, haven’t you?” Her father’s bespectacled eyes gleamed with parental pride.

“Oh, it’s not much,” she responded, bashfully running her fingers along a shelf, “and I can’t take all the credit. River was the one doing the driving after all.” Her sliding hand came to rest next to the newest addition, a polished steel cup placed the night before.

Samos eyed her in a sidelong glance. “Jak seems to be shaping up nicely.”

“He is… He actually finished first. We just might be able to pull this crazy scheme off.” She lightly dusted the trophy despite the burnished metal’s immaculate cleanliness.

“If anyone can do it Jak can. He’s always performed well under pressure.”

Keira nodded again, but her nostrils flared in a weary exhale. Though she knew her father was right, it was more difficult than ever to maintain a positive attitude. These days she always felt like there was dark, depressive cloud floating stubbornly overhead.

“Speaking of pressure,” Samos said, scratching his long white beard, “I’ve noticed that there’s been some, ah… tension between you two.”

“That’s putting it mildly.”

An affirming hum rumbled in the old man’s throat, but he otherwise waited for her to elaborate.

“...I don’t understand him. We’ve known each other our whole lives, but now it’s like he’s afraid to let me get too close. Anytime it feels like we’re making progress he shuts me out.”

“He didn’t seem so bad in the forest.”

“Yeah, well he was sorry about what happened in the raid. Then we started training with Ryker.”

“And he got jealous, as any smitten young man would in his position.”

Keira tossed her viridian locks, bristling at the suggestion. “He’s got nothing to be jealous about.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. Even in his current condition, Ryker’s a handsome and charming fellow, and he seems very fond of you.” When his daughter didn’t respond, he continued, “You don’t seem to mind him too much either.”

She shot him a pointed glare, as rough and raw as uncut emeralds.

“But then I’m only speculating,” he hastily added, “Like Jak, I don’t actually know your history.”

“Whose side are you on here?” she asked, gripping her elbows.

“Yours of course,” he replied with gravelly sincerity.

Keira shifted her weight and regarded the little green man through scrunched eyes. “Well, there’s not much to know. I worked with Ryker the first four months I was in Haven City.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard that much.”

“Alright, fine. We were friends and… we kind of had a thing.”

“A thing?”

“Yeah, you know… a romantic thing.”

“Oh, I see… Which means what exactly? A relationship?”

“Well, no… mostly a lot of flirting, but right at the end… stuff happened.”

“ ‘Stuff’?”

“Dad!”

“Sorry, sorry,” Samos apologized as he held up his gnarled hands, “Forgive my awkward questions. I just want to understand. As the Shadow, I… kept my distance. I had barely any idea about the dynamic between you three.”

Indeed, Keira had hardly spoken with the Underground leader since they escaped the Krimzon Guard Fortress. “Too freaked out by learning I’m your future daughter?”

The slant of Samos’ mouth was sheepish as he knit his fingers together. “It was a bit overwhelming, yes.”

The mechanic supposed it was a fair reaction. She couldn’t imagine how she might handle it if she was in his shoes. And it seemed his honesty was contagious—before she even realized it her thoughts turned to her own turbulent feelings, and she began to speak in a small voice, “The truth is… I’ve never stopped thinking about Ryker. I’m so glad that he’s alive and safe, and I… I care about him. A lot. It’s not hard to see myself with him, but… I’m not ready to give up on Jak.”

They stood in silence for a few moments, both staring at the cold, steel trophy.

“He may not be expressing himself well,” Samos said, “but I’m certain Jak still cares for you deeply. You meant so much to each other. Those feelings don’t just go away, even with all that he’s been through.”

“Then why is he so angry with me?”

“He’s angry with everyone.”

“Even you?”

The sage dipped his bearded chin. “Especially me.”

Keira chewed on her lip. She had often pondered just how much her father knew thanks to his younger time twin but had so far refrained from pressing him on the matter. He was famously stubborn, and so she was certain he would hold firm in his decision to avoid sharing the future. But perhaps the past wouldn’t prove similarly off limits. “Something awful happened to Jak in that fortress. The first night we met back up, he bled dark eco, and then again when Torn shot him. And he… changes.”

Samos looked at the trophy without saying a word.

“It’s because he’s been subjected to dark eco experiments, just like Ryker. That’s why he was so scared when we were in the injection chamber.”

Her father still didn’t respond.

“Isn’t that right?” Keira pressed.

At some length, the sage answered, “I think you would do best asking him about it yourself.”

“But he won’t talk to me. If you know—”

“My darling daughter, I wouldn’t tell you. Jak has suffered terribly. Perhaps I could have stopped it... but I didn’t. The least I can do at this point is keep from betraying his trust.”

Stymied and frustrated, Keira had no choice but to drop the subject entirely. She sighed and turned toward the garage lounge. “Well, anyway,” she muttered, “I have something else to show you.” In one fluid motion, she pulled the patchwork olive curtain aside, revealing the hulking rift rider inside.

Samos stepped up to the massive vehicle, his gait slow, and adjusted his spectacles. “So you really rebuilt it all,” he murmured.

“Almost. I’m still missing two artifacts, but I’m on track to get the Time Map soon. The Heart of Mar is still a total black box though,” she paused and gestured at her father, “I suppose you probably know something about that.”

“I can honestly say I have no idea. The Shadow doesn’t know the rift rider exists.”

She raised an indigo eyebrow at the little green man, unconvinced. “How convenient for you.”

He fidgeted a moment before changing the subject. “How are you getting the Time Map?”

“Well, it’s been a long road. First I tried dealing with Krew, but he wasn’t any help. Then I had to get information from Vin without blowing my cover, and he pointed me toward Gilda the Collector. I infiltrated her exclusive club—still have no idea how I pulled that one off without getting myself killed—and set up a deal where I’m spying on Krew’s NYFE gambling ring and feeding her inside information so she can try and financially ruin him.”

Samos blinked at her, his expression inscrutable.

“What?” Keira asked, suddenly realizing how very underhanded her actions must sound, “You’re not disappointed are you?”

“ ‘Disappointed?’ ” He chuckled at her concern. “My dear, I may have lived lawfully in Sandover, but when I ran the Underground I did what I had to when it served the cause. I engaged in subterfuge and dealt with criminals, including gang lords like Krew.” He clasped her hand in his, a supportive, warm touch. “You were thrown into this difficult future all alone, but you didn’t just survive these last two years by falling in line and keeping your head down. Instead, you utilized your ingenuity and grit, found new allies, joined the fight for the city, spearheaded a plan to overthrow Praxis’ regime, and rebuilt the rift rider from memory. I’m not disappointed at all. On the contrary, you’ve made this old rabble-rouser proud.”

Gratitude bloomed inside Keira’s breast like an unfurling flower, and a happy smile lifted her cheeks. After laboring mostly in isolation for so long, to be praised for her accomplishments was more validating than she could possibly say. She bent down and clasped her father in a tight hug. “It’s good to have you back, Daddy.”

Samos squeezed her shoulder blades and replied, his voice choked up, “It’s good to be back.” When they pulled apart his dark eyes shimmered with moisture.

Keira cleared her throat and returned her attention to the task at hand. “Well,” she pointed out, “finishing the rift rider is one thing, but we’re never going to get anywhere if we can’t find the Precursor Ring.”

Samos hammered his fist into his palm with a loud pap and exclaimed, “Of course!”

“What is it?” Keira asked, startled.

“The Ring! I completely forgot to tell you—it’s hidden deep within the Metal Head Nest.”

“...You can’t be serious,” she remarked, stunned by the news. If what the sage said was true, then finding the Heat of Mar was the least of her problems. The Metal Head Nest was incredibly dangerous and all but impenetrable. How on earth would she be able to transport the rift rider there without getting herself and anyone else involved killed? Then she frowned down at Samos. “Wait. Why is that ok to share?”

“Because I did before.”

“So then the Shadow will know about the rift rider,” she countered.

“Never mind that,” he groused, “Just focus on completing construction and winning the championship, and the future will get here soon enough!”

Chapter Text

“So there I was,” Daxter set the stage, his paws flaring dramatically, “toe-to-toe with five of the nastiest Metal Heads you ever saw! Slime oozing from monstrous jaws! Teeth sharper than daggers! Slowly, all ten of them surround me, but do I surrender? No! I summon my highly trained killer instincts, and pounce! Hiya! Hiya! Wha! Hah! And when the dust cleared, there were twenty less Metal Heads in the world!”

“Oh Daxter, you're amazing!” Tess said with exaggerated praise as she leaned over the bar. She was enjoying this, though not for the reason the ottsel thought.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll take another one of these, angel cheeks!” Daxter requested, waggling his empty cocktail glass and smiling with far too much confidence.

After giving him a condescending pat on the head, Tess set about fulfilling the order.

“Quite a story there, golden boy,” Sig interjected, leaning forward on his barstool, “I guess you should handle the next gig all by yourself then.”

“Yeah, well, you know,” Daxter backpedaled, “Jak here helped a little. And I’d hate to do all that running and jumping myself.”

Jak stroked his small green beard, smirking. “I think Sig’s onto something, Dax. You’d probably do better without me.”

The heavily armored man was smiling now. “And perfect timing, baby! I hear there’s more work in the sewers coming down the pipe.”

“Let’s not get hasty!” Daxter exclaimed in irritation, just before a drunken man bumped into him and sloshed beer on the bartop. “Watch it!”

The man mumbled something unintelligible and slinked off. It was a busy night at the Hip Hog. The air was thick with the reek of alcohol and cigarettes, and neon shafts of color danced through the smoky haze. Thrumming music blared over the speakers, forcing any and all conversation to near shouting volume. Even so, the patrons were unusually lively. Many of them crowded eagerly around the boxing ring in the middle of the floor, making it impossible to walk from one end of the room to the other without some awkward jostling.

Jak didn’t mind. In fact, when Krew called him in he rushed across the city with uncommon enthusiasm—a little debauched distraction was exactly what the doctor ordered. While his mission to become the NYFE Racing Champion was going well by every measure that mattered, he hated doing it. Being around Keira and Ryker during training sessions never got easier, and he couldn’t stop himself from imagining them together. The noisy saloon was the perfect place to drown out his anxieties.

“Looks like I’m gonna have to toss some butts on the pavement before the night’s done,” Sig noted, “Any more booze, and these sloppy Joes are gonna start tumbling like it’s a damn circus.”

“Hey, that gives me an idea,” Daxter said, his large eyes broadening to a cartoonish level of excitement, “Let’s do the thing!”

Jak’s answering expression was puzzled.

“You know, the thing—the thing where we do the balancing trick!”

“ ‘The balancing trick’?” Sig echoed, “Well, color me curious.”

But Jak was already shaking his head. “I’ll pass.”

Daxter barreled on, undeterred, “Loosen up a little! Didn’t you say you wanted to have some fun tonight?”

Caught by his own sentiment, the surly young man slowly stood up, and Daxter hopped to a ready position on his shoulder guard. “Alright!”

Jak shook out his arms and planted his feet wide, girding himself before he clapped a signal. Moving as one, boy and ottsel sprang into action, clasping hands so the latter swung down and back between the former’s legs. They let go once the diminutive animal’s trajectory circled upward, allowing him to soar toward the ceiling and somersault into an impressive single-pawed handstand on his friend’s forehead. He swayed and waggled for balance as Jak sidestepped back and forth, but the duo managed to maintain the pose for a good six seconds before bopping back to where they started. Sig and the returned Tess applauded, and Daxter bowed, victorious.

“Thank you, thank you,” he said, his grin so large nearly all his teeth were visible, “We’ll be here all week!”

“I’m never doing that again,” Jak countered as he resumed his seat at the bar, but he was betrayed by his own smile.

Daxter teasingly elbowed him. “Sure, sure, whatever you say, big guy.”

Before anyone could say another word, their attention was captured by the growing din of the other patrons. They began to holler and whistle at something or someone in a corner of the saloon. Swiveling around and craning his neck for a better look, Jak saw a red-robed woman, her face smeared with paint that roughly resembled a Krimzon Guard’s tattoos. She slinked toward the boxing ring and gripped the ropes, leaning back with campy theatricality. After wiggling her shoulders and batting her false eyelashes, she crossed into the ring, emphasizing the spread of her legs as she went. A driving, industrial song started to play, and the crowd’s catcalling intensified.

Daxter pointed at the woman, his tail stiff with excitement. “Is she what I think she is?”

Her seductive eyes swept around the room as she removed her robe, revealing comically skimpy leather and metal armor underneath.

“What do you think she is?” Tess asked.

The lascivious crowd whooped even louder as she proceeded to spin and gyrate around the exotic dancing pole mounted in the mat’s center.

“A stripper!” Daxter gleefully proclaimed. He jumped off the bar and scurried toward the ring, his cocktail forgotten.

Sig watched him go with an amused grin. “He’s not very hard to please, is he?”

“Nope,” Jak answered, “I guess it’s one of the better things about him.” Even so, he couldn’t help but feel embarrassed by how the ottsel positioned himself over the top rope, all the better to ogle the dancer.

Tess glared after him, irritated that she made a beverage for nothing. “Well, this won’t drink itself.”

Jak eyed the coral concoction with suspicion. “What is it?” he asked as he took a sip of his beer.

“Strawberry sex.”

Jak sputtered and narrowly avoided spitting all over the counter. “Why would he order something like that? It sounds... fruity.”

Tess’ gaze turned as cold as frozen chocolate. “Most novice drinkers like ‘em sweet.”

“Forget novice drinkers,” Sig proclaimed as he gripped the delicate glass in a huge, armored mitt, “These are delicious!”

The bartender’s chilly affect melted away as her red lips parted into a radiant smile. “I can always count on you to be the model of a secure man, Siggy.”

He raised the drink to toast in Tess’ direction, took a lingering sip, and placed it back in the counter with a satisfied ahh. “Life’s too short to worry about tongues waggin’!”

Jak watched the exchange, unconvinced.

“Come on, cherry, try it,” Sig urged, his one peridot eye twinkling, “Anyone who says they’re not a fan is just lying to themselves.”

With all the reticence of a picky child, Jak followed the older man’s example. To his surprise, the cocktail was light and refreshing, it’s pureed, pulpy texture pleasing on his tongue. He had to admit it tasted pretty good and would go down very easy if he had a whole one to himself.

“Not bad, right?”

He nodded his reluctant agreement.

Sig chuckled, but Tess, still regarding him with disdain, changed the subject. “So you won yesterday’s race, huh?”

“I did,” Jak confirmed, annoyed that racing was coming up just when he was managing to forget about it.

“That’s right, there’s a real possibility your skinny ass will be crowned champion this weekend,” Sig said, giving him a congratulatory thump on the back, “Odds are you beat Erol one to four.”

“How encouraging,” he replied in a thin voice, suppressing a winded cough.

“Somebody certainly thinks so. Word is a ton of bets are coming in with your name on ‘em.”

“...Really?”

“Really,” Sig repeated, “I tell you what, rookie, you don’t much sound like a man whose blood boils with a need for speed.”

“Yeah, well I’m not in it for the racing.”

“Oh, no? It can’t be the prize money. Krew’s contract made sure of that.”

Tess crossed her arms. “Maybe he just has a death wish.”

Jak frowned at the belligerent bartender. Why was she being so hostile? “I can think of easier ways to kill myself.”

“Like a bullet to the balls maybe,” she hissed.

“Hey, now!” Sig protested, “That’s graphic, baby!”

Jak paid the wastelander no mind. “Why do I get the feeling you‘re angry with me?” he asked, his frown deepening to a scowl.

Tess visibly bristled, her polished fingernails digging into her elbows. “Keira’s my friend.”

Jak opened his mouth to retort, but no words came out. There was nothing to argue with. Whether or not Tess knew every detail of all that had transpired since his reunion with the green sage’s daughter, she bore witness to the nadir of it all—his unabsolvable transgression in the raid. Even if Keira had forgiven him he deserved to be hated beyond reproach, an irrefutable fact that constricted his throat with guilt.

“Who’s Keira?” Sig asked, plainly confused. Regular though she was at the Hip Hog, he had never heard the mechanic’s real name.

“No one, Siggy.” The beautiful blonde turned on her heel to attend to another customer that was jockeying for her attention.

The armored man blinked after her. “What’s all that about?”

“No idea.” Jak tucked into his beer, hoping Sig would get the hint and drop it.

“Lady trouble, huh?”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” the young renegade grumbled, feeling like the universe was out to get him. How did the conversation keep returning to things he didn’t want to discuss?

“Even if it’s not your fault, just remember the magic words ‘yes, dear, I’m sorry, dear.’ You’ll be golden.”

Jak kept his lips sealed in a firm line.

Sig chuckled again and downed the rest of the strawberry sex cocktail. “You’re alright, kid. You’ll figure it out.”

Before either of them could say anything else, the extra large door to Krew’s office slid open, and the massive ganglord floated into view. He surveyed his domain with beady eyes and, when he saw that the stripper was no longer dancing but cooing over Daxter and scratching under his furry chin, sped toward the boxing ring.

“Hey!” Krew yelled, chins jiggling, “Back to work, toots!”

“She's working, beach ball,” the ottsel retorted on her behalf, “Quit yer yappin'!”

“Watch it, or you'll be yet another trophy hung on these walls!”

Daxter didn’t budge from the top rope, but the stripper resumed her routine. Satisfied, Krew floated toward the bar, fluttering his flame-accented fan as he went.

“Jak, step into my office, eh?”

Having never been invited into the back of the Hip Hog before, the young renegade stiffened and shot Sig a questioning glance. The older man nodded, though his expression was far from encouraging.

Guard firmly up, Jak followed his morbidly obese employer. The door closed as soon as he crossed the threshold, shutting out the din of the customers, and he took a moment to examine his unfamiliar surroundings. Krew’s office was sprawling, just over half the size of the saloon, and much of its furniture was scaled to match. The ganglord would have no trouble sitting on the double wide plush sofas or utilizing the tremendous varnished cherry desk, though it was difficult to imagine him outside of his hover chair given his tiny legs. In keeping with the decor outside, the finishes were dark, the lighting was low, and the art consisted almost exclusively of vanity portraits. Even a folding screen in the corner was painted with his singular, repulsive visage.

Snatching a lacquered box from an end table, Krew held it open for Jak as if he was an esteemed guest. “Cigar?”

“No, thanks.”

Tittering, Krew helped himself and took a long drag before speaking again. “I’m a magnanimous sort, Jak,” he began, plumes of stinking smoke curling out from between his crooked teeth, “generous to a fault. There are some that try and take advantage of my kindness, but in the end, I can’t help but reward loyalty.”

“Meaning?”

“You’ve proven yourself a valuable asset, my boy, very valuable indeed. Whether it’s with a gun or a zoomer, you always rise to the occasion. You did quite a bang-up job with last night’s race, eh?”

“Get to the point, Krew.”

Leering, the ganglord chomped on his cigar and puffed like a chimney. “I want you to throw the championship.”

Jak’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“Just let Erol win.”

“Why the hell would you want me to do that? You get all the prize money, remember?”

“That paltry sum is peanuts next to the killing to be made behind the scenes.”

“Wh—you bet against me?!” the teenager demanded, his anger flaring at the betrayal.

“Jak, Jak, it's just business. You've become a symbol to those townies. They'll bet everything on a glimmer of hope. What better time to make money? And if you cooperate you’ll get a lavish ten percent cut.” Krew held out an open hand, the rings on his stubby fingers glittering. “What do you say, my boy?”

Jak straightened up and crossed his arms. “I'd say you're going to lose a lot of money. Because I'm going to race, and I intend to win.”

The ganglord’s smile withered into a warning glower. “Think very carefully, Jak. I won’t ask you again.”

“I mean it.”

“You little!” Krew barked and reared toward the ceiling, looming against the rafters like a bellicose balloon, “You're becoming more trouble than you're worth. I wouldn't get too comfy if I was you! Everyone's expendable.”

Jak scoffed and would have left then and there if not for a third voice that asked, “In a hurry to die, 51007?”

He stopped breathing, every hair on his body standing on end at the invocation of his prisoner identification number, and whirled toward the folding screen. As the speaker stepped into view, the tattoo of his heartbeat whipped up into an enraged frenzy. It was none other than Erol, the commander of the Krimzon Guard, yellow eyes alight with malice.

“Or should I call you ‘Jak’? It certainly has a quaint charm to it.”

If looks could kill, the young renegade would have already struck his former jailer dead. It was all he could do to keep his itching fingers from reaching for his morph gun.

“Come now, you were so talkative just a minute ago. Don’t tell me you’ve gone mute again.”

“Fuck you,” Jak snarled.

Erol flashed a sadistic grin, relishing his opponent’s hatred. “Ah, so he does speak.”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“Just gathering information. When I heard some masked boy had the gall to swoop in at the very end of the season and steal my title, I had to learn more about him. And here you are!”

“Lucky you. I guess that means you’ll try and arrest me.”

Erol clicked his tongue and proceeded to circle around the younger man like a carrion bird. “That was the plan but… You're the talk of the town, Jak! You give the people hope—how pathetic. I would have enjoyed killing you in prison, but now it'll be so much more fun to take you on the track in front of the entire city. I can hear the roar of the crowd now as everyone sees their hope die!”

“Don’t count on it,” Jak growled, “If you show your face in six days it’ll be to watch me enter the winner’s circle in person.”

“Such bravado. I wonder if you’ll still feel it if the only person backing you up is yourself.”

Something about Erol’s cryptic statement inspired prickling dread in the pit of Jak’s belly. “...What are you playing at?”

The KG commander smirked with performative pleasure and continued his circling. “It’s a rare day when important details escape my attention, so imagine my surprise when I was going through some mind-numbing paperwork with my warden and I see a familiar face—it turns out the little tramp my forces picked up with the Shadow is the manager-cum-mechanic that’s been a thorn in my side all season, Violet!”

Jak briefly lost the ability to respire as he drowned in a sickening flood of panic. He could handle Erol on his own, but if Keira was also in danger…

“She gave a different name of course, and the one I know is likely false as well. Regardless, I’ll have to thank her. If she didn’t sign you then I wouldn’t have the opportunity to publicly destroy you.”

“Stay away from her.”

Erol’s tattooed face transformed into one of a predator toying with his prey, gleeful and grotesque. “I don’t think so. I would be remiss in my duty if I let two Underground roaches run free tonight, so I’ve already sent my guards to the stadium. It won’t be the first time I’ve cleared an infestation out of that garage. I look forward to learning her real name when I interrogate her… personally.”

Jak’s capacity to keep himself in check evaporated like dew in an inferno, and he lunged forward. The KG commander drew his pistol, but he was much too slow. In a dizzying succession of movements, he was disarmed, gripped by the neck, and slammed up against the wall. Red rivulets seeped into the young renegade’s vision as his blood boiled with a driving need to inflict further violence. He panted like a beast as his fingernails lengthened and his skin paled. Erol shrank away what little he could, genuine fear exposing the whites of his eyes.

“Don’t… do anything rash,” he ordered with some difficulty, a quavering note of desperation in his strangled voice, “If you kill me now… there will be no one to stop my guards.”

The threat spurred Jak to viciously bash his choking enemy against the wall a second time, but even in his half-wild state, he couldn’t ignore the truth of it. If soldiers were already on their way to arrest Keira, killing Erol would do nothing to save her. With a rattling breath, he dug deep inside himself and somehow summoned the strength to keep his rage from taking over entirely. Slowly, painfully, the tells of his impending transformation vanished.

“Call them off,” Jak growled through gritted teeth before throwing the redhead aside, releasing him.

For the moment it was all Erol could do to hack and massage his throat, yet once he looked back up it was not in surrender but triumph. No sooner had he done so than a large, armored hand closed on Jak’s shoulder and pushed him back.

“Wha—Sig?!”

“Sorry, rookie,” the wastelander muttered, his dark face contrite as he led his fellow hired gun away. He must have been summoned by Krew, who hovered on the periphery with obvious satisfaction.

Erol bent to retrieve his pistol, and Jak, sensing his imminent departure, cried, “I said call them off!”

“Don't get too cocky, outlaw,” the KG commander countered, “Soon we race for keeps, and your head will be my trophy!” And with that, he swept toward the door.

Jak tried to shrug out of Sig’s grasp and run after his retreating foe. “Call them o—” A swift punch to the gut robbed his ability to speak and knocked the wind from his lungs. He collapsed to his hands and knees, wheezing like a fish dropped on the sand.

“Like I said, Jak,” Krew gloated overhead, “it’s just business. And I can’t have you getting in the way. You understand, hmmm?”

The subdued blonde could only gasp for air in response.

“Now then, get out of my sight. I’ll call you again once you’ve had a chance to cool off.”

Jak required no invitation to leave. As soon as he was capable, he staggered to his feet and lurched out of the office. The bar was as rowdy as ever, enthralled by a new stripper in the boxing ring, but Erol was nowhere to be seen. Recovering more with each step, Jak cut through the throng as fast he could manage.

“Hey, Jak!”

It was Daxter calling, but he didn’t slow his pace. He charged headlong into the street, the pavement purple under the neon of the Hip Hog’s sign, but he was already too late—there was no sign of Erol.

Cursing, he leapt onto his parked zoomer and took off into the night like a bat out of hell. As he pulled away he just barely heard Daxter run outside, still yelling after him.

 


 

 

Keira bit her tongue in concentration as she spliced a new wire into the innards of her communicator. She had finally grown fed up enough with its less than stellar connections to take it apart and find whatever was wrong—a frayed strand of copper it turned out. As always with little jobs like these, she wondered why she didn’t fix it sooner. Surely putting it off wasn’t worth the irritation she had felt with nearly every call for the better part of a week.

Within minutes her work was complete, and the wall clock read half past ten. She’d have to wait until tomorrow to make sure the device worked since it was too late for a test call, but she didn’t mind. At present, she was more interested in getting some much needed rest, and a mighty yawn swelled out of her mouth.

Before long the mechanic was padding barefoot around her tiny apartment in her favorite pajamas, a faded and oversized gray tee that was worn soft and thin from abundant use. It swayed around her thighs as she filled a glass of water and crossed from the kitchen to the bathroom.

Along the way, she paused and stared at her dresser. Her toes tapped as she considered what lay within. Not tonight, she thought even as her disobedient fingers slid the top drawer open and retrieved what she attempted to refuse, her corroded old box with the seashell motif. Taking a seat on the edge of the bed and placing the box in her lap, she opened it and fished out the yakow leather pouch inside. She loosened the beaded drawstrings and delicately shook the bag over her open hand, releasing the precious treasure within.

The light eco crystal shone with a brilliance that belied its minute size and flooded the room in luminous rays of purest white. A wave of delightful sensation unfurled from where it touched her, swirling up her arm and throughout her entire body. She couldn’t help but smile.

Her bubble of contentment was unceremoniously popped when her door burst open and a frantic Jak barged in.

“Wh—”

“Keira,” he exclaimed her name with palpable relief, “You’re ok!”

“Of course I am! Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Erol said he sent his guards here—”

“Erol said that?”

“I tried to call but you didn’t answer. I thought…”

“I was just fixing my communicator.”

Keira waited for a further explanation, but none came. Jak didn’t say another word. He only stared at her with a strange expression.

“What is it?” she asked, stifling the urge to squirm.

“I can’t believe you still have that,” he murmured, sounding almost dazed.

Though the glowing crystal nestled in her palm was as light as a feather, its significance suddenly weighed as heavy as a cement block. “Wh… why wouldn’t I?”

He had no answer for her.

They stayed frozen like that, him standing at the door and her sitting on the bed, the light eco crystal gleaming on like a drop of solid sunshine in her hand. Then Jak let loose a tumble of words, “Well, I guess Erol must’ve been bluffing, and I just wanted to make sure you’re alright, so…” He fidgeted for a moment, clenching his fingers, then turned to leave.

“Wait.”

He halted without pivoting, keeping his back to her.

“...You were worried about me?” she asked, her voice hopeful.

“Sure I was. The last thing I want is to spring you out of the fortress again, and…” he paused, glancing back over his shoulder, “we’re friends.”

“ ‘Friends,’ ” she repeated. Though she had used the same label scarcely ten days ago, to hear him say it now was deflating. That’s all? she wanted to ask but thought better of it.

She slipped the light eco crystal into the safety of its pouch and placed it inside the box. “Believe it or not, I actually just got this back last week. It survived the last five hundred years in this.”

He half turned around, his forehead crinkling. “Where?”

Keira got up to return it to its drawer. “Under a floorboard in my room at the so-called ‘sacred site.’ No wonder they call them storage solutions.” She wrinkled her nose, immediately regretting her last sentence. What an inane thing to say. If Jak agreed, she couldn’t tell. When she faced him again he was busy surveying her cramped quarters.

“It’s not much, is it?” she asked, clasping her antsy fingers behind her back.

“Better than where I’m staying.” His gaze settled on the old Axle’s Garage sign mounted kitty-corner to the bed, its distressed turquoise letters emblazoned on a field of yellow. “What’s that?”

“A little piece of history,” Keira replied, “That was the name of this place back when Vivian ran things. Way before that too. Axle was her father.”

“Looks pretty beat up.”

“Yeah, well the KG broke it in half when they ransacked the place.”

Jak’s jaw tightened as he took in the shiny line down the sign’s middle. “So you repaired it?”

“Just like the rest of the garage, yes.”

A stuffy blanket of silence settled over the room, and Keira wondered if he was reminded of Ryker. It occurred to her how often their interactions were littered with uncomfortable pauses like this one. Usually, she would do her best to ignore it or paper over it by changing the subject, but not tonight. Tonight she was tired of dancing around their problems.

Her mouth twisted in a rueful smile. “We’re not very good at talking with each other, are we?

Jak’s frown diminished in surprise at the straightforward honesty of her question. Then he averted his gaze and tightly gripped one elbow. “I’m not good at talking with anybody.” There was a note of profound sorrow in his voice.

“You seem just fine with Daxter,” she pointed out, barely containing her own sadness.

“...More like he’s just fine with me.”

“And I’m not, is that it?”

Jak looked at her again, his manner diffident. Though his roiling emotions were plain to see, he refused to put them into words.

Keira waited a few moments more before shrugging in resignation. “Well, you couldn’t speak to me at all until a couple weeks ago. I suppose it’s only natural it’ll take some getting used to.” She wondered if that would be the end of it when an idea occurred to her. She rounded the half wall into her tiny kitchen to grab a dusty bottle off the top of her fridge and hold it up for Jak to see. “Nova Brothers Starshine. Want some?”

He raised his green brows at her, puzzled by her sudden offer.

“It was a tradition with River. After every first place finish we would celebrate with a shot.” She turned the bottle in her hands, running her fingers over the gold filigree letters in quiet grief. “We never got a chance to open this before she… Anyway, you left so fast yesterday I didn’t have a chance to bring it up.”

His eyes darted from hers to the bottle as he weighed whether or not to accept. She was beginning to fear he would say no when he took a step toward her. “Alright.”

Keira flashed a happy smile and set about pouring their belated victory drinks. When she handed Jak his glass she raised hers high. “To winning it all!”

Charmed by her enthusiasm, the corners of his own lips tugged upward as he clinked his shot against hers. Then they tilted the small vessels to the ceiling and quaffed the starshine whole. It seemed the illustrious Nova Brothers reputation wasn’t without merit. The clear liquid had the smoothest finish of any Keira had tasted, and its fiery warmth was pleasant as it settled in her stomach. Jak, however, grimaced and coughed.

“Wow,” he choked out.

“It’s good, right?” she asked, a playful flush blooming in her cheeks. “Way better than that time Daxter snuck us some booze.”

“If you say so.” Jak gave his empty shot glass a watery glare. “I can’t really tell the difference.”

“Oh, come on, he probably got us some bathtub gin from Precursors know where. This, on the other hand, is the finest starshine in all of Haven City. Very exclusive.”

“I don’t care how fancy it is, they both burn like crazy.”

The mechanic couldn’t stop herself from giggling at his obvious inexperience. “Well, at least now we don’t have to worry about my dad catching us.”

“I’ll cheers to that.”

Struck by the ease with which they reminisced, Keira glanced at Jak and found his countenance a mirror of her own. Then the beating of her heart quickened. As she stared into his cerulean eyes she began to feel something, a gravitational pull that beckoned her into a closer orbit. Only half aware that she was doing anything at all, she shifted her weight onto her toes and leaned forward a fraction. He bent his head ever so slightly, and her breath hitched in anticipation.

“Erol’s going to race,” Jak blurted, ending the spell.

Keira blinked, uncomprehending. “What?”

“Erol’s going to race,” he repeated, “He’s not going to let me win the championship without a fight.”

As the unsettling news sunk in, she squeezed her arms close into her ribcage, bolstering herself. “Why didn’t he just arrest you?”

“He wants to beat me in front of the entire city. Krew wouldn’t complain. If he got his way I’d throw the championship so he can make a killing gambling.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That I was planning to win.”

Keira felt sick. “Sweet Precursors, Jak, you’re playing with fire! Why didn’t you just lie?”

“Because fuck them both, that’s why,” he spat as if he tasted poison.

She buried her face in her hands, suddenly exhausted by the whole situation. “Well, that ups the stakes. You did great yesterday, but the training’s going to be more important than ever now.”

“Is it?”

“Of course it is! You’re going to take on Erol, the most dangerous driver the NYFE league has ever seen. The only way to win now is a clean first place finish, and it won’t be easy. At least Ryker has plenty of experience racing against him.”

“I’m sure he’s got plenty of experience with lots of things,” Jak said, the line of his mouth bitter.

Keira faltered. “What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean.” He met her eyes then, projecting such vitriolic jealousy that she winced. “I see it every time you’re around him. You two are clearly close.”

“Wh… What does that have to do with anything?”

Incensed that she didn’t outright deny it, Jak scoffed as he once again turned to leave, “Absolutely nothing!”

“Like you’re one to talk!” Keira shouted after him, her own blood beginning to boil, “What about you and Ashelin then?”

He whirled back around, fuming and fierce. “ What about her?”

She clasped her hands below her chin. “ ‘That wasn’t half bad for your first try,’ Jak. ‘I appreciate you helping out with that tanker,’ Jak.” Her voice steadily grew louder. “ ‘I bet you’d love to pin some medals on her chest, huh,’ Jak!”

“So she thanked me for my help and gave me a warning! Daxter was an ass about it. So what? There’s nothing going on between us!” he asserted even as he compulsively pictured the gorgeous Ashelin, her eyes the same color as Keira’s.

“Could’ve fooled me with how you were falling all over yourself that night!”

“You have absolutely no clue what you’re talking about!”

“And you do?” Keira demanded, “You think Ryker’s the one I really want!”

“Who wouldn’t? The way you hovered over him at HQ, how weird you act whenever he’s around, every time you talk about what a great, fucking racer he is—”

“I don’t want Ryker!”

“Then stop being so damn hard to read!”

“Oh, that’s rich! You wanna talk about hard to read? Even the old Jak always blew hot and cold—”

“Why do you still have the light eco crystal?”

Keira’s mouth hung open, reeling from his sudden change of subject.

“Why do you still have it?!”

“I just told you!”

“You told me how you got it back, but that doesn’t explain why you didn’t just throw it away on the spot!”

She cringed, the implication that she would by extension discard Jak like a piece of trash cutting her deeply. “Why?” she cried, “Why are you like this?! It’s like you have no problem competing over me like some caveman whenever Ryker’s around, but when I’m right here in front of you all you do is push me away!”

The truth of Keira’s words struck Jak into silence.

She stomped up to him, jabbing her finger toward the crystal’s resting place. “You want to know why I have it? Because it’s one of the few things I cherish more than anything else in the world. Because you gave it to me. I could never just throw it away!”

She gripped his red scarf with trembling fists and drew so close that he could smell the starshine on her breath. “Let me be very clear,” she yelled with every fiber of her being, “I want you, Jak!” Her voice broke, and all the anger she felt wilted under the strength of her feelings for him. She finished, now in a gentle murmur, “I always have…”

The two stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, Keira’s confession hanging between them, as unavoidable as it was true.

Jak tried and failed to string two words together. To look in her beautiful eyes now with all his defenses gone was to panic and hope and live and die all at once. They shimmered with moisture, reflecting his own anxiety while also boring into him, pleading with him.

She wanted him.

So couldn’t the gap of the past two years be closed?

He struggled to maintain dominion over himself as he felt his fury buckle—fury borne of imprisonment and torture, fury that burned in a consuming lust for vengeance, fury that stoked his hatred for the world and himself. The weight of her imploring gaze stripped him of it, robbing him of the will to resist her.

And it was then he realized that he didn’t want to.

Jak pulled Keira into a tight embrace and stole her breath with a desperate kiss. An answering moan escaped from her, a muffled, high-pitched noise that obliterated what little capacity he had left for rational thought. All his pent up passion tore loose, and he slid his tongue into her warm mouth, penetrating and exploring as he yearned to do in the most intimate corners of her flesh. She yielded to him like melting butter and responded in kind, her hands snaking around his neck and twining in the green roots of his hair. He groaned against her, the pressure in his loins building to a fever pitch. When her teeth raked his lower lip, he lost himself completely—he banded his arms around her, lifted her off the ground, and surged forward, sending them both tumbling onto her bed.

Though Jak could scarcely breathe, there would be no coming up for air. He needed Keira now as he had never needed her before. It was impossible to taste her enough, hear her enough, feel her enough, and each escalation sent him careening toward the next.

She fervently unbuckled his goggles and tossed them aside, freeing him to bury his face in the pale column of her neck. Intoxicated by her fragrant skin, he reached under her shirt to grab a heaving breast. Her taut nipple peaked against his gloved palm, and her mouth crashed back into his. She wrapped her slender legs around his waist, pressing and begging. He thrust his hips into the apex of her thighs, again and again, the way she quivered and sighed enthralling him. With every passing second, the barrier of their clothes grew more intolerable, and she began to fumble with the clasps of his baldric as he dragged her shirt up above her waist.

Keira’s repaired communicator blared out, interrupting their ecstatic throes like a bucket of cold water. They lay there for a few tense seconds, panting and eyes locked. Then Jak remembered who and where he was, and he shook his head in an effort to clear it. He rolled off her, ignoring the screaming protest of his body, and sat on the edge of the bed, slumping and bracing his elbows on his knees.

The mattress shifted as Keira also sat up. She placed a tentative hand on his back and spoke in a tremulous voice, “I don’t have to an—”

“It might be important,” Jak interrupted her.

She jerked back as though he had stung her, but she didn’t make a move to answer the ringing device.

Jak ran his hands through his mussed locks, his fingers tingling, and recalled all that had stopped him from letting Keira in in the first place. Her unguarded surprise when they reunited had torn him to pieces, dashing his hopes that seeing her again would restore the self he had lost. Ever since he was terrified of exposing any vulnerability to her, an uncontrollable compulsion that drove him to run from the connection she sought. He hurt her then, and he almost killed her when he went berserk during the attack on Headquarters, something for which he could never forgive himself. Surely he would only continue to be a hazard to her health and happiness if they grew closer. She deserved better than a broken monster like him.

If he walked away right now, it would be for her own good.

At last, the ringing stopped.

Keira stared at Jak, viridian hair disheveled and emerald eyes wide and shining. She gripped the hem of her shirt so tightly her knuckles blanched, and shivers vibrated through her petite frame. Seeing her like this, on the verge of fracturing completely, sent a wave of such intense self-loathing crashing over him that he could barely stand it.

She swallowed. “Can we—”

“I can’t do this.”

Jak stood and ran out of the apartment before he could take it back.

Keira flinched as the door slid shut, her lips still swollen from the urgency of their kissing.

The wet desire between her legs had grown cold.

She didn’t know how many minutes ticked by as she stayed rooted to the spot, stunned and holding her shirt with cramping fingers. Eventually, she stared down at the blankets, still rumpled from their passionate abandon. It was there Jak’s goggles lay in a heap of scratched metal and scuffed leather. He had forgotten them.

For the first time in two long, lonely years, Keira dissolved into tears. She wailed, heart bleeding and broken, as she crumpled in on herself and squeezed the goggles to her chest.