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"Warped", Chapter Seven

I have been very bad and not updating my ElJays with this. Sorry! At least I've found the cheat's way to code it... ;)

Warped
Chapter Seven

There had been a collective flicker of dismay when Skywarp almost walked square into the clueless Coneheads, returning from their one successful mission of the day, but thankfully they’d been too interested in gloating over the chips of green armour they’d scrounged as trophies to notice the dimmed-out optics of the anxious Seeker who’d taken shelter behind a bulkhead, so determined to be utterly silent he’d even turned off his air-conditioners.

Skywarp had made his successful escape from Nemesis barely half a breem before Megatron returned, his moonlit contrails still hanging in the air as the returning party landed gracefully on the docking tower. The tyrant now stood over a monitor in the command centre, arms folded, watching as the purple blip on the screen departed for the United States, apparently pushing its engines as fast as they’d go. Not that speed made any difference to its trackability; the blip remained resolutely at the centre of the screen, co-ordinates and contours scrolling rapidly beneath it.

“Do you want us to go fetch him back?” Ramjet wondered, watching the screen (and secretly anxiously wondering if he similarly wore a transponder somewhere).

“Not yet. Watch where he goes, but for now that is all you do,” the silver warlord instructed, quietly. “Following him will be a waste of fuel and time, while he still doesn’t know what he’s doing. You could spend hours just doing big circles. Besides…” He glared down at the white jet. “Your track record in bringing back miscreants is somewhat… unimpressive.”

Ramjet had the good sense to back up a step or two. “Um, yeah. Sorry about that, Boss. We just-”

“Ramjet?”

“…Boss?”

“Be silent. I don’t want to hear your excuses again. If you remind me of your idiocy too many times, you may end up filling that nice empty cell we have in the brig.”

Ramjet hastily swallowed his protests. “Yes Boss.”

“The whole point in allowing him to ‘escape’ was so we can follow him,” Megatron explained, irritably. “I want to see what he elects to do. For this reason, no-one follows him, no-one contacts him, no-one challenges his actions.” He stared hard at each of his followers in turn, optics glittering dangerously, and all – even Thrust – wisely nodded their confirmation. “With any luck, he will lead us right to them.”

0o0o0o0o0

Skywarp pushed his engines to their very limit until he reached dry land. Being shot down over water had sounded like the least-good option that had been presented to him in a very long time, even worse than solitary confinement.

His processors were in turmoil. It was hard enough thinking cleverly about things when he was calm, and right now he could barely keep thinking in a straight line.

TC? Crashed in the desert, unreachable, overheating, burning out all his cortical relays, dying. Screamer? Dying in a pit of mud somewhere, temperature regulator flooded, probably shorting out every damn component in his chassis. The little ones? Primus, if the big ones didn’t stand a chance, what was happening to them? And Pulse? Not even started looking for her, yet, she could already be in a million tiny bits scattered across the whole of Cybertron. And there was only one person he could think of that fitted the description of “big green femme”, after he’d heard Ramjet and Dirge gloating about their one successful run, while he’d been flattened against the bulkhead, praying to an absent Primus that they didn’t catch him oh please don’t let them catch him…

To think this had been some sort of master plan for removing the sparklings from harm’s way! The simplest of tasks, don’t blab to Megs, and he couldn’t even manage to keep his sodding vocaliser offline. All he’d done was get everyone kicked off the cliff, and it had been so beautifully done he might as well have put the boot in himself. He almost laughed at the painful absurdity of it, but managed to keep his vocaliser under control, knowing the laughter would probably dissolve into incoherent, painful static at any moment.

All dead. All dead. All dead, and all because of you. You stupid fu-

Stay optimistic, he told himself, stamping on the hyper-critical little voice determined to get him to fling himself under something heavy and go join his trine-mates in the Matrix. The idea of being alone – oh, sweet Primus, alone; the word tolled like some distant funerary bell in the back of his mind – was almost incomprehensible. No Screamer to frag off until he was at the point of actually screaming. No TC to confide in, to admit his stupid concerns to. No support, no backup, no strength and solidarity. No-one. No-one.

You’d know if they were dead, he told himself, firmly. You’ve been part of your little hive-mind of three for so long, you’d know if they were dead. He knew he was just lying to himself, but it was a comforting lie, so he clung to it. They’re still out there, waiting for you to go rescue them. Because you can do that. At least, if there was no-one else out there, you could, if you didn’t have to watch out no-one was out for your tailfins to take as trophies. I bet Megatron's already sent the hunting parties out with my name on the bounty.

Guess I could go to Cybertron, he thought, miserably. Plead my case to the Policedorks, and see if they’ll come help me look for the guys. But what would I tell Hardline? Pretend I don’t know those Coneheaded idiots smashed Sepp to bits? He’ll squash me if he finds out.

It was already dark when the twinkle of human habitation finally appeared below him. Skywarp throttled back on his engines; it felt a smidgen safer to do so, now he was over land, and a radar ping confirmed there was no-one following him. It might not be very fuel-efficient, crawling along at this reduced airspeed, but it meant his energon might last that little bit longer, and long enough for him to source an alternative fuel supply. The remains of a cube that Rumble had scrounged out for him had given him just enough of a flush of strength to get away, but now he was right back down to vapours.

He could pull off the national grid, of course, which was by far the easiest option, but his batteries would only hold the charge for so long, and he’d have to sit there doing nothing for altogether too long. Plus, if any Squishies found him… well, he’d just have to run for it, before they returned with aggression and weapons.

Alternatively, he could steal fuel, preferably of the aviation variety. (His need to stay alive and on the move was greater than the Squishies’ need to drive big vehicles, after all. Wasn’t as if they’d miss a few gallons every now and then.) It wouldn’t be a patch on proper energon, and it’d probably leave residues caked over all his pumps, but his converters would make short work of it and make it utilisable. He could survive on it well enough for a few Terran months, until he worked out what in Primus’ fragging name he was going to actually do

Down below was a remote automobile refuelling station, a little pool of warm light next to a clustering of houses. Perfect timing. He dipped his wings and glided down.

He landed as noisily as physically possible and made sure all the humans were aware of his presence, kicked the roof off a building for good measure, and chased them all away without even having to let it slip he was completely weaponless. Once the last wailing little squishy had fled down the dark street, he parked himself under the canopy, and helped himself to the nozzle on the closest fuel pump.

“Primus, I can’t believe I’m actually doing this-…” he whined to himself, examining the grimy bit of metal, knowing what he had to do but really, really not wanting to do it.

He steeled his nerve, and set the nozzle between his lips-

Harsh, foul smelling automobile fuel hit his pumps like a kick from Megatron himself; everything made a horrible grinding noise, and he forced himself to permit it through the valves that insisted it was far too low-grade to be useful. It was hideous stuff, but he was desperately low, and with no energon in sight this would have to do.

He managed to get three quarters of a tank before he really couldn’t take any more, and doubled up next to the fuel pumps making retching noises, trying to convince his analytical plates not to purge what they insisted was toxic. Primus, this is even worse than Blue. At least Blue was clean! It was like he imagined it would feel to stick his nose into Motormaster’s engine sump and drink the oil from there, which only made him feel worse.

The humans had begun to re-emerge from hiding, when he finally got shakily back to his feet to leave, and they were all armed, by now. The gunshots from the smaller handheld weapons spanged noisily but harmlessly off him, but he knew that it wouldn’t just be handguns if he hung around much longer - the human army could probably be relied on to come to the rescue, if the Autobots themselves didn’t catch wind of his thievery and come to chase him off. He could already hear police sirens in the distance.

Not wanting to take any chances, he engaged his thrusters, and ‘staggered’ skywards. He felt heavy and sluggish, lumbering into the air like a low-level cargo carrier, not the sleekest and most efficient of all Decepticon air-warriors. It felt like the fuel itself was punishing him for his thievery, burning thick and tarry through his secondary engine core, but sometimes a mech just had to just take what he could get, right? What was it the squishies said, beggars can’t be choosers?

First stop, find Screamer, he decided, heading north. He’ll know what to do. If he’s still alive.

0o0o0o0o0

Footloose’s first conscious thought upon waking was where Seem?

The appropriate memory sectors were all booting, though, and she recalled Seem was with Dacker, wherever he was. Both lost – like everyone else. Ama, Seem, Dacker, Sta’zim, herself... She sat up, glumly, and twisted the foily thermal regulator blanket between her hands for a minute or two. It wasn’t often she woke up on her own – if she wasn’t in the presence of her (steadily growing) family, at least Seem was there, grumbling about not done recharge, sit still. At least there was someone with her – Atchet had his chin resting on his arms, which rested folded across the top of a pile of data-readers, and Jas was sitting cross-legged on the next bunk along. At first, she thought he was awake, and was about to say her hellos, but then she noticed his optics were offline, and a charging cable ran down from his shoulders.

She peered at her new ‘family’ for several long moments, and mouthed her fingers, warily. Jas seemed friendly, but he might not like her jumping on him, and she might knock him over and break him while he was offline. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same without Seem to cajole into joining in. So… good morning-s would have to wait.

Accompanied only by the soft slap of deforming air, she orped herself to the floor and set off to investigate the big vessel. It was a funny orangey colour – not like the tense purple Nem’sis, and not much like the dull grey of Cy’tron, either. She quite liked it – it felt sunny, and friendly. Maybe the mechs here would be nice, too? It wasn’t nice going places were people were tricksy and nasty. The corridors were quiet, and empty – Jas had said to not tell about Day Skawar, so there must be more people around to not-tell, but as they weren’t about, she figured everyone else that lived here must be busy. Out at work, like where Spot or Ausep or Hack went in the daytime.

“Ooh.” Walking into a larger, emptier room, she was confronted by a big, big screen along one wall. This must be Tel’tran-1, Jas had told her about it as he took her away from those nasty Suishies. Maybe it could help, there was a big brain inside it!

With more than a little bit of effort, she climbed carefully up onto Tel’tran’s control console – no more orping in public until Jas said it was safe – and examined the big keys. She’d have to use her whole hand, to push some of these.

“Hello Tel’tran!” she greeted, sitting back onto her heels on the clear spot at the centre of the panel.

“Hello, Button,” the supercomputer replied, evenly. “How can I assist?”

“Help fine Dacker?” she requested, leaning forwards. “Is lost!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand your request. Please clarify?”

She pouted, thoughtfully. “Dacker lost,” she repeated, more slowly. “Need help to find. Tel’tran help look?”

It understood her well enough that time. “Where would you like to look first?”

“Have fix!” she explained. What was that word? She’d only heard it once or twice, and not very clearly. “Have tri-… triangle-… lations?”

Tel’tran seemed to understand well enough. “Input the triangulation co-ordinates you would like me to show you on the panel which is flashing,” it instructed. “Sky Spy will provide the appropriate visuals.”

She dabbed her palms down on the big keys; she had to use her whole upper body weight to get them to press, but they made satisfying clicks when she did so. “Done.”

“Please wait.” Numbers scrolled briefly, and a little diagram of a sphere cut into segments rotated at the side, then it flattened out across the screen and a picture took its place. “These are the real-time images corresponding to the location of your choice.”

Footloose studied the picture, curiously. It didn’t look much like where she and Sta’zim had crashed – that place was all mud and wet, and green and brown in colour like old copper. This place was rocky and pale-coloured, dry and devoid of vegetation; it was obviously late afternoon, shadows stretching away across the sandy-coloured mountainside.

And there was nothing there. At least, there’s was nothing she wanted to see; there was a set of bluish scuffmarks across the battered rocks, and some small chips of debris, but no Dacker, and no Seem. That couldn’t be right, these were the exact trianglelations that Sta’zim had told her! Find Dacker, he here. But not here! “Gone?” she wondered, disappointedly, out loud. “Gone where, Tel’tran? See bigger?”

Not being sentient did not make the computer an idiot. Although the little femme’s instruction was somewhat cryptic, it made a logical estimation of what she must want – what she was looking for was obviously not in its visual field, so it zoomed out a little and made the overall area it was looking at bigger.

She cocked her head over to one side; the scuffmarks made a bluish line, she noticed. Maybe if they followed the line… “Can look down, Tel’tran?” she wondered, and watched as the screen scrolled slowly and more of the line appeared.

“Tunisia, huh?”

She looked up, startled, and found Jazz beside her; her fingers crept back into her mouth. “What I chew?”

“Tunisia,” Jazz repeated, being more careful to enunciate the word properly, and hunkered down so he was on her level. “It’s what that little bit of Earth is called. Is there something there that you’re looking for? Can I help out?”

She shifted a little. “Have trianglelations,” she explained, evasively. “Tel’tran show.”

“Triangulations for what?”

There was an almost imperceptible flicker in her optics, and she seemed to shrink down on herself.

“Heyy, I can keep a secret,” he reminded, with a reassuring smile, sensing what the matter was. “What were you looking for? Maybe we can find it together.”

Footloose hesitated for a long time, and at first Jazz was sure she was going to refuse to tell. “Tel’tran look smaller?” she requested, at last, and using the same logic as before, the supercomputer zoomed in on the section of broken mountainside. She gestured an arm in a point, and peeked sidelong to watch for Jazz’s reaction. “Sta’zim say Dacker here, must find. But is gone.”

“Dacker… is Thundercracker?” Jazz asked – it made more sense, now. Knowing one of the trio usually meant you knew the other two simply by merit of the fact they rarely did things solo.

She gave him one of those long, wary looks. “Jas say not to tell,” she reminded.

“I can keep a secret,” he confirmed, tapping a conspiratorial finger to his lips in a ssh-gesture. “I won’t tell anyone who you’re looking for, if I was right?”

She nodded. “Tee See,” she enunciated, carefully. “And Seem. Both lost. Suishies said to help find, but took away.” She gave him another of those probing looks, and added, carefully, as if testing him; “Jas say to help find…”

“But I took you away as well, huh?” He gave her a sympathetic little smile, then settled on the closest chair behind the terminal and wasn’t entirely surprised when she invited herself to sit on his lap. “Well, I promise I’ll let you go home, when we find your family. Good enough?”

“And not to make of candies,” she instructed.

“What?”

She looked up into his perplexed face. “Suishie hoomings say to sell and make of mints,” she explained, earnestly. “Is wrong, am not food!

Jazz smiled. “I don’t think they were going to try and eat you, Button. It’s just a saying. Humans have lots of sayings that don’t make a lot of sense from a logical point of view.”

“Stupid hoomings,” she groused, folding her little arms.

“We-ell, I don’t think I’d go so far as to say they’re all stupid…”

They sat and studied Teletraan-1’s visuals together for another few breems, until the Ark began to get a fraction noisier, the resident mechs rousing themselves from recharge.

“We best get you back to the medical bay, before everyone else wakes up and crowds us,” Jazz suggested, gently. “We’ll only annoy Prowler, sitting here in his seat so he can’t work.”

“What prowler am?”

“Oh, you’ll get to meet him – and everyone else – a bit later,” Jazz promised, patting her antennae. “First of all, though…” He leaned down closer to her little audios, and wondered, in a conspiratorial whisper, “one last thing before we go. Whereabouts did you and Star crash?”

Footloose gave him a sidelong glance, and returned her fingers to her mouth, anxiously. “Secret,” she replied around them, with a little headshake. “Keep hid, keep safe.”

“I won’t tell,” he promised. “But we ought to check he’s still there, right? Check no humans have found him?”

She hrm-ed softly, then nodded, and gave the co-ordinates. Sky Spy zoomed down closer, and revealed the smallest slivers of red and blue paint, gleaming through gaps in the foliage. Didn’t seem to have moved even an inch since she’d last seen him. “Still hurt,” she observed, quietly.

“…would you like for us to go fetch him?” Jazz asked, carefully. “Help make him better?”

Footloose sucked on her fingers and considered it for a very long time. Starscream had told her she could get help to go looking for Thundercracker, but hadn’t said the same about himself. And she knew he didn’t like Autobots. “No,” she replied, at last, very quietly. “Jas Autobot. Sta’zim not Autobot. Be unhappy.”

“All right,” Jazz smiled, reassuringly. “We won’t go get him yet. We did best get you back to the medical bay, though.” He lifted her to his shoulder, rising from his seat. “And a bath. You’re still mostly mud-coloured.”

Footloose made little grumbly noises, but didn’t refuse quite so openly as she had previously. Her joints were all gritty, and getting clean might not be so bad, anyway, she reasoned. “We call Day Skawar now?” she wondered, quietly, as Jazz carried her back to the makeshift nursery. “To come get?”

“We probably ought to wait for him to contact us,” Jazz demurred. “I’m not sure how to get hold of him, to be honest, and I don’t want anyone else listening in.”

Footloose gave him a long, probing look. “That big matter?” she asked.

“Well, as I recall, a little spark told me that she was to keep hid from Megatron,” Jazz reminded, brows canting lopsidedly. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to tell him you’re hiding here with us, in case he tries to come get you.”

She shrank back against him. “No Meg’tron,” she agreed, quietly. “Stay here, safe with Jas. Day Skawar come here, be safe also.”

Jazz smiled at the painful irony in it. “You know, I never thought I’d agree that quite possibly was in his best interest,” he commented, quietly.

“…Jas think Day hurt?” she wondered, lip wobbling.

Jazz gave her a serious look. “I won’t lie to you, Button. I think there’s a good chance he’s in trouble, if your uncles have been shot down as well.”

She clicked softly, the little staticky noises of distress just audible under the stutter of her fans. “All lost,” she said, faintly, and dimmed her optics, miserably. “Ama, Day, Seem, Sta’zim, Dacker, me, all. Oosie make things go bad, should be good and stay home.”

“Hey, hey, don’t get upset, Button,” Jazz soothed, boosting her up a little. “It’s not your fault. We’ll sort things out, and get you home-”

“Wow, Jazz – that’s one tiny robot you’ve got there! Where’d it come from?”

The unexpected exclamation made them both jump. Footloose jolted, startled, and shrank back against Jazz’s chassis, tucking her head up against his throat. “Suishie,” she pointed out, in her native tongue, in a tight, frightened whisper. “Said no Suishies, Jas!”

Jazz made sure he had a relaxed smile in place before replying. If he was unconcerned, perhaps she’d get the idea as well… “This is Spike,” he explained, as the small male human approached, head perked curiously to one side. “He’s a good friend of ours.”

“But is hooming!” She stared down at Spike without moving, as if she could blend into her guardian’s armour and go unnoticed.

“That’s right. He’s a nice human,” Ratchet confirmed, emerging from behind his desk. “He helps us out around the Ark.”

Jazz shared a look with the approaching medic, hoping introducing her to Spike would work; the young man was about as inoffensive a human as they knew, and might be just what they needed to teach the little female that not all humans were bad. For his part, Spike had kept his distance, respectfully, noticing the infant’s frightened body language and guessing what all the clicks meant.

Footloose jammed the top of her head harder up under Jazz’s chin, looking away. “Tricky hoomings. Say one thing, do different,” she argued, softly, looking like she was trying to crawl under the top of his armour.

“Now now,” Ratchet scolded, gently. “Completely ignoring the point that Spike isn’t the unkind sort, anyway, do you really think we’d let him hurt you? Come on, Button, no-one will do anything to you while we’re here.”

“Scary Suishies,” she repeated, gazing fearfully down at Spike, and sucked her fingers.

“You know, guys? Maybe I should just go, this time,” Spike suggested, glumly, backing off. “I’m only scaring her.”

“One second, Spike…” Jazz lifted a hand in a stay gesture. “Button? If I said to you that Spike was nice, and only wanted to say hello, would you believe me?”

Footloose hesitated for a very long time, fingers still in her mouth. Suishie hoomings were tricky, she already had experience of that… but Jas was nice, was her friend. She didn’t think Jas would lie to her. Which meant that the Spike-hooming must be nice, like they said? She worried at the underside of her fingers with her denta for a moment or two, before finally nodding. “Jas not make lies,” she agreed, quietly, keeping the fingers of her free hand tight on Jazz’s thumb as he crouched to let her down to the ground. “Hello Suishie Spike hooming.”

Spike smiled, confusedly. “Er, hi,” he replied, holding out his hand and looking askance at Jazz. “What’s ‘swishy’ mean, Jazz?” he wondered, quietly, while Footloose inspected the hand, wondering why it was being held in her direction.

Jazz made a face.“…I’ll explain later.”

“Spike hooming warm,” Footloose observed, using her own fingers to examine Spike’s. “How his brain not stop?”

“Humans work better if they’re warm,” Spike explained, knowingly. “Being cold makes us cratchity…”

“Good thinking, Jazz,” Ratchet complimented, watching the two small figures begin to discuss their nothing in more earnest. “I’d begun to worry I’d have to keep them separate, after what you told me last night.”

“Ah, that's not good thinking, it's just... well, she’s young.” Jazz waved it off, feeling Footloose’s grip on his thumb beginning to relax. “One bad experience won’t keep her down forever. I bet you she’s fallen off a dozen tall things, but still goes climbing, right?”

“Whoo, Jazz, what have you and Prowl been up to in secret?”

Ungh. Trust Sideswipe to shatter the peace. Footloose startled straight back into Jazz’s arms at the unfamiliar voice, alarmed, and peeked up over his shoulder at the newcomer; this wasn’t a hooming, though, and she calmed down a lot more quickly.

“Isn’t she the tiny one! Couldn’t you find a protoform a bit bigger than this, Jazzman?” Sideswipe wondered, crouching and listening to Jazz’s clucks of amusement. “Hey, Sunny! Come look at this!”

“Am Button,” Footloose told him, earnestly. “From Cy’tron! I am stay with Jas.”

A breem or two was all it took for pretty much every mech aboard to have crowded into the medical suite to investigate the source of the commotion. Ratchet looked like he was having to keep his vocaliser offline altogether to avoid yelling at everyone to get out; the repair bay had accumulated so many mechs, all curious over their little visitor, that now he couldn’t do any work. At least they were having the required effect of calming her.

Jazz watched from the sidelines as the sparkling got passed around the crowd (squeaking excitedly at all the attention) – all these friendly, interested, chatty machines were distracting her from the alarming “Squishy”, and she seemed to have almost – but only almost – begun to just consider him another member of the crowd, not a dangerous xenobiological.

“Have you told them?” a deep, gentle voice wondered, from somewhere above and behind.

“Not yet, Optimus.” Jazz shook his head, not looking up, knowing what the unspoken part of the question was. “Letting them get to know her as an inoffensive and curious little sparkling seemed prudent, before they find out whose progeny she is and get any, ah… wrong ideas.”

“Good, good. Those had been my thoughts as well,” Optimus admitted, reassured. “I very much doubt our friends would react badly to her, but they may not take kindly to the idea of letting her go back to her family.”

“Not that her family are in a very good place either, if my hunch is correct.” Jazz followed the larger mech down the corridor, back towards Teletraan-1, where Prowl had probably already set up camp to review the previous evening’s reports. “I know for sure at least one of them is in pretty bad shape, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they all are.”

Optimus looked down at him, and narrowed his optics. “Can you elaborate?”

Jazz sighed. “Well, I told Button I’d keep it secret, but I figure a couple of hints won’t hurt. Two have been shot down, and the third is probably suffering the brunt of the warlord’s anger.”

“Not a pleasant concept, Jazz, even when it comes to Decepticons,” Optimus mused, grimly. “I daren’t think what it might mean for us, if Megatron catches wind of the fact we have the little one…”

As predicted, Prowl was already in the monitoring room, cycling slowly through the reports the remote systems had compiled for him. “Good morning,” he greeted, distractedly.

“Good morning to you too, Prowl,” Optimus replied, amiably. “Do you have anything for us, yet?”

“Maybe, but it may be nothing. Teletraan-1 reports there was a disturbance at one of our monitoring stations, some time yesterday evening,” Prowl explained, glancing up. “I was just about to direct Sky Spy to give us some visuals.”

“Carry on.” Optimus nodded. “Can you pin down the nature of the disturbance?”

“Not conclusively, but I get the impression that Decepticon jets were heavily involved.” Prowl wrinkled his lip, unimpressed, and stabbed at the keys with stiff, irritable fingers. “Looks like the usual Seeker idiocy. Perhaps target practice, with an unattended monitoring point as the target.”

What had once been a rocky valley with a well-defined dirt track around one bank and a river along the bottom had turned into a bit of a warzone for a few small segments of its length. The cliffs bore the dull black scorchmarks of high-intensity weapons-blasts, and the bank had subsided all the way down into the bottom of the ravine for a good hundred or so yards, damming the little river and turning the clean waters turbid with silt.

“All that effort for a relay station,” Sideswipe observed, from behind. “I guess it’s a bit reassuring to see they still couldn’t hit the side of a house, even if they tried real hard.”

“I thought you and Sunstreaker were taking charge of the little meet-and-greet going on in the medical bay?” Prowl challenged, not looking up.

“Nah, too many guys in there. Besides, I felt like seeing what was up, because I heard the magic word.”

“Seekers?”

“That’s the one.”

Prowl gave him a hard look. “Well, seeing as you clearly have nothing better to do, maybe you’d like to go and see if there’s anything worth salvaging from the monitoring station…”

0o0o0o0o0

I WISH he would just shut up.

Mitchell hadn’t slept well. To start with, he never did very well in this sort of stifling desert weather, and just to compound it, Vallory was out like a light – a very noisy, snoring light; the lazy ass sounded like a freaking truck, himself – on the bunk opposite him. The arms dealer had been reduced to laying staring at his watch, and was waiting for the alarm to go off so they could all get back on the road again when the soft skshh of machinery attracted his attention. It was an odd sound – not one he could readily place, a sort of shifting sibilant noise, like a hundred tiny hydraulic pumps all operating at once, old gears moving and badly-lubricated plates sliding against each other. It vanished as rapidly as it had started up, replaced by the dull thump… thump… of large feet carrying a heavy body. Mitchell hastily kicked his own feet into his shoes, and rolled off his pallet to see what was going on.

He glanced around the corner of his tent to find Deuce’s truck was missing – which struck him as odd, but mostly because the Collector’s operative had told him numerous times that revealing his true nature in front of any of Mitchell’s team was not on his itinerary. For him to be breaking his own self-imposed rule, it must mean either he’d been given some new instructions by their employer, or – heaven forbid – something had gone wrong. His large footprints were imprinted clearly on the sandy ground, though, a line of big oblongs leading away around the vehicle lot, so answers wouldn’t be too far away. Mitchell followed the trail – albeit warily, not really wanting to know what he’d find at the end of it.

Around the corner, tucked away between the two lorries, with a tent at the front and a wall at the back to prevent too many prying eyes from seeing, sat the dark blue truck – although now it was a dark blue robot. As the weapons dealer watched, it materialised a small vial of strange green liquid out of nowhere, and gave it a shake, sending threads of eerie glowing lilac curling through it… then uncapped it, and swallowed the contents with a grimace.

“What are you up to?” Mitchell challenged.

Deuce jumped, unaware that he’d been watched, then gave the human a sour look and waved the vial, accusingly. “Medication.”

Mitchell folded his arms and lounged against the front wheel-arch of the lefthand lorry. “What, our atmosphere making you sick, huh?” he sneered. “Need some antibiotics for that poor delicate constitution?”

Deuce gave him a leer that reminded him strongly of bared teeth. “They’re neuroleptics, actually,” he explained, grimly. “Tranquilisers and mood stabilisers. I have an, ah…” Green eyes glittered, unnervingly. “ ‘Unstable personality disorder’. Too many aeons spent abusing various chemicals.”

Mitchell actually unfolded his arms and straightened up, alarmed. “What? Nobody told me you were-… that is, you mean you’re, ah-”

“Sick? Crazy? Mentally unstable? Criminally insane?” the robot interrupted, irritably, and waved a dismissive hand. “Apply whatever slang you like to it, human. I might be mentally ill, but it’s controllable.” He returned the sneer, although it looked painful. “What, you don’t think machines can have psychoses?”

“I, ah… guessed they could just fix your programming-”

Deuce smiled, bitterly. “Do you know how complex our programming is? Far more intricate than your squashy pink processors.” He waved a dark finger at Mitchell’s head. “Alter one part of one program, and you alter another dozen as a cascade consequence. There is no ‘quick fix’.”

“So how does that stuff work?” Mitchell gestured at the glass container still in Deuce’s fingers, not bothering to correct him on the intricacies of his own 'squishy pink processors'. “I can understand it in chemical-based life-forms, like us humans, but if you’re all programs, how does a chemical alter how you function?”

“It’s viral.” Deuce stared down at the glowing dregs in the vial, and shook his head, visibly calming. “I get a good two or three Terran days of stability from one dose, then my firewalls purge it back off. I hoped to be back home before I needed the next dose. I don’t know if you’d understand the concept, but, ah…” He forced another of those feral, pained grins. “I don’t particularly like being watched, and especially not by a hyoo-mun. I’d prefer that the only party to my weaknesses was me.”

“And your-… ah, our… employer,” Mitchell added.

“Yes.” Deuce sagged – almost imperceptibly, but it was there. It was worrying, to see such a powerful brute of a machine shrink when their master was mentioned. “Yes, and them,” he went on, hollowly. “I don’t have a whole lot of secrets left, where they’re concerned.”

“Is that why they’ve got such a hold on you?” Mitchell wasn’t entirely sure he liked the idea that this mechanical sociopath was so subjugated by his employer; he knew from experience that people like that were often very easily persuaded into unsavoury things, and didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it.

“Partly. Our joint employer was the one to release me from prison, if you must know,” Deuce explained, softly, turning the vial between finger and thumb. “I owe them a debt of gratitude, and of course they supply my medications. Chemistry was, ah… never my forte. Not like-” He swallowed the words, and forced a sneering smile. “That is to say, I can’t design the chemicals, but I’m fairly experienced in what they do…”

By the time the alarm went off for the fourth time and Vallory finally emerged from the tent, grumbling and rubbing his head, Deuce the robot was Deuce the truck again, his ‘holoform’ already sitting in his cab, arms folded across his steering wheel. “Do you guys ever sleep?” he challenged, cigarette hanging from his lips, his words accompanied by the fnik-fnik-fnik of a cheap lighter.

“There’s ‘sleep’, and then there’s what you do, Val,” Mitchell argued, pithily. “I’m surprised you could even hear your alarm. How the heck does your girlfriend sleep over your snoring?”

Vallory shrugged, finally getting the lighter to work. “Earplugs.”

0o0o0o0o0

“Whoa, talk about a landslide, here…!”

Sideswipe put his hands onto his hips, and stared over the ruined landscape in front of him. Sky Spy’s visuals just didn’t do justice to actually seeing the destruction up close and personal; what had looked like sand and gravel from the orbiting satellite’s imagery turned out to include great slabs of rock, and boulders easily the size of his own head.

“Primus-damned Seekers,” Sunstreaker groused, standing up behind him. “Just once, I wish they’d keep their nosecones out of our business.”

“Aw, lay off, Sunny.” Sideswipe, already halfway up the pile of debris, bounced a clod of mud off his brother’s head. “You’re only sour because it means you have to get your hands dirty.”

“That sounds like a perfectly acceptable reason to be sour, thank you,” Sunstreaker retorted, returning fire with a rock. “Let’s just get finished here and head off. I feel the urge to discuss Prowl’s choice of duty assignments with him...”

“Well that’s weird,” Sideswipe murmured, genuinely sounding puzzled, once they reached the other side of the landslip and uncovered the monitoring station – hardly even dented by the bouncing rocks, and certainly not badly scorched. “The little thing Prowler’s obsessing over hardly got hit.”

“So we tell him that, and go back.” Sunstreaker was already turning away down the track. “And give him a hard time for the next three Terran orns for wasting our time.”

“No, hey, wait wait wait, that wasn't what I meant…” Sideswipe waved his hands around. “I mean, don’t you think it’s a bit odd?”

“I think if Seekers are involved, we should take that as a given. Come on, Sides-”

“You can go ahead if you want, I want to see what they were shooting at.” Sideswipe was already digging, shovelling away handfuls of dirt and sending more boulders cascading into the ravine. “As it clearly wasn’t anything of ours.”

“Sides! They were just being their usual glitching selves! They were probably just raising the Pit because they felt like it!” Sunstreaker spread his hands, exasperated.

“What are you still hanging around for? I thought you were going back.”

Sunstreaker sidestepped the cascade of grit, gave a beleaguered sigh, and joined in his brother’s digging. “All right, but you owe me for this. Big time. And if there’s nothing here you are getting your aft kicked big time, as well.”

“I knew I could always count on your sunny disposition, Sunny,” Sideswipe quipped, accidentally-on-purpose shovelling dirt square into his twin’s face.

They had been digging for a cycle or two – and Sunstreaker had almost reached his break point, where he carried out his threat to leave Sideswipe to do all the hard work alone – when the red twin stopped working anyway.

“What?” A distinctly beige-coloured Sunstreaker called up at him.

Sideswipe had paused his shovelling, and crouched down. “I think I’ve found what they were shooting at.”

“What?”

Sideswipe crouched and brushed grit away, and revealed a set of large, dexterous green fingers. “There’s someone under here!”

“Someone? But we haven’t had any reports of missing persons…” Sunstreaker peered warily down at the digits. “It could be a trap, Sides.”

“Oh, pssh, like they’re that clever.” Sideswipe threw up his hands. “Come on, let’s see if they’re still alive. Put your back into it-!”

0o0o0o0o0

Mitchell’s team reached the little Egyptian town of el-Hagg Qandil just shy of sun-up. It had been another night of hard driving, and even Deuce looked somewhat “staggery” as he led them down the dirt road to the little cluster of tents on the outskirts of town, but the relief at finally reaching their destination was palpable. Everyone – Mitchell included – descended like vultures on the shady parts of the tent-village, and all that could be heard for several long minutes was the hss of cans being opened and sighs of relief at the cool and rest.

“So when do we make the final delivery?” Mitchell wondered, sitting next to Deuce’s holographic driver and watching as the non-existent man took a draught from his bottle of non-existent water. “We going to wait until sundown?”

“I thought it would be best,” Deuce agreed, watching the fine skeins of new sun threading their way between the gaps in the cliffs. “Your men are tired. I should not like them to crash at this late stage.”

“You mean you’re tired,” Mitchel corrected, amusedly. “I saw the way you wove along the road earlier.”

Deuce wrinkled his nose, unimpressed. “I am low on fuel, yes,” he confirmed, irritably, “but I have reserves stockpiled in el-Hagg Qandil, I need only to fetch them.”

Mitchell chuckled and relaxed down in his chair, setting his feet up on the table.

…Their captive machine caught them completely blind-sided. One moment and Mitchell was discussing the intricacies of the delivery with Deuce, and the next second and there was a yell of alarm that the robot was loose, and a splintering kick from a strong black foot sent three of Mitchell’s most loyal flying like windblown leaves. No need to ask if they were all right – only one hadn’t instantly been reduced to wet pink rags, and he lay shrieking and bleeding out in the dust, a fountain of dark red gushing from a ruptured femoral artery.

“Who in fuck let it escape?!” Mitchell bellowed, bolting for cover even as the flier homed in on his voice and pursued him. “Someone put the bastard down again, already!”

Deuce took unexpected charge of the situation – he had already unfolded himself and was sprinting for the truck with the EM-cannon, only too aware that spooking the humans could mean he got shot with it, instead of the Decepticon. Reassuringly, people scattered out of his path, terrified of the blot of morning-stained shadow bearing down on them, and when he tore the flimsy canopy off the truck the cannon was unattended…

Thundercracker looked up just in time to catch the briefest glimpse of glowing green optics staring him down, before a bolt of crackling blue power thumped through the air between them and slugged him dead-centre of the chassis, strong as a kick from an irritable Menasor. He felt himself toppling backwards, relays choking up, freezing out, but when his head finally impacted the dirt with a dull crunch that could be felt yards away through the substrate, he was already unconscious.

0o0o0o0o0

“…tc…? …teee seee…? …thuuuun-der-cracker…?”

There was a voice calling his name. He grunted, feebly, and shifted his shoulders. It was a voice he felt he ought to recognise, but he couldn’t place it, and a raw, distorted groan like that should have been easily recalled. Maybe it was something to do with the heat. Everything was so hot, so sluggish. It was like trying to think with a brain full of sump oil.

“…tee-see… are you okay…? …TC…! …speak to me…!”

He homed in on the voice, regardless of who it belonged to. It obviously knew him well enough to want to use his nickname, and seemed concerned about him, so he figured it was possibly safe to think it was friendly. Right? He struggled to get his optics online, chasing his recalibrating systems and directing the slow recalibration in more useful directions. Recalibrating his gyroscopes could wait until he’d got a good look at where he was, and could attempt to defend himself…

“That’s it, TC…” the voice encouraged, seeing the sullen maroon as his vision came back online – still all blurs, but resolving. “Doing good… Here, let me help you sit up…” Fingers hooked shakily underneath his upper arm; there was the scuffle of feet across the floor, and a shoulder applied itself to his armpit, scooting him with difficulty back into a rough-hewn wall.

At first, he completely failed to recognise the spectre that had sat back on its heels in front of him, and not just because his vision still hadn’t cleared; it looked like a reject from a recycling facility. It had probably once been brightly coloured, but it was now a grimy beige and grey, covered in scrawls of black Cybertronian handwriting.

The recognition that followed an astro-second or two later was like a physical kick in the energon converter; he actually recoiled. “Primus-…! Tell me that isn’t actually you, Pulse-”

Pulsar forced a smile, although the left half her face didn’t seem to want to keep up with the right half. “I can if you want. I don’t know it’d help, though,” she rasped, her once lightly-accented voice now the harsh croak of a steel raven.

The spindly little gravity bike had seen some very better days. Her right arm was missing altogether, wires and the remains of a fluid handling system trailing pathetically from the exposed socket, and someone had hacked into the enamel of her shoulder-guard to alter the wording of her insignia. What used to simply read ‘Police’ had been turned into a particularly indecent (and rather unkind) description of her supposed promiscuity. Her optics were dull, looking almost completely offline; one was greyed out, sightless, and the other was dim and spiderwebbed with so many cracks that her actual vision must have been nothing more than blurs. She certainly had no depth perception, any more.

“What in Primus name has that crackpot done to you?” the jet breathed, horrified, unconsciously reaching forwards then recoiling further away.

“He says I’m his work in progress,” she rasped, softly; her vocaliser was mostly buzz, the words difficult to discern through distortions. She forced a smile; painful, beaten. “I’m looking good, right? A real improvement over last-… over last time.”

With her harsh new voice, it was difficult to tell if she was being sarcastic, or had been drugged up until she believed it. Thundercracker hoped it was the former; even drugged past the point of caring, no-one could think they looked better now than they did with all their faculties intact and attached.

“So where are we?” He asked, quietly, studying their sparse room – carved directly out of the rock, it looked like, all dull gingery-white and jagged edges. A door just narrow enough that he’d be forced to pass through it sideways led into a corridor, but an ephemeral, flickering violet implied some sort of energon-bars blocked it.

“Underground, somewhere. I don’t know. I’ve never been outside the complex – not awake, anyway. I just know it’s hot, down here. It’s cooler in the corridors, but he doesn’t want us functioning at peak efficiency.”

He? Thundercracker reviewed his memory record, and recalled the stark, brilliant green optics that had stared him down, across the top of the cannon. And who should choose that very moment to disengage the bars and enter the cell but-

You,” Thundercracker snarled, and threw himself at Deuce.

The truck gave a yelp of alarm and went to bolt, but the Seeker collided hard with him and sprawled both of them to the floor. “Wait, wait, I can explain!” he wailed, but his assailant was offering no quarter. The fact that the truck was heavier than the jet by a good third as much again didn’t seem to matter – Thundercracker had him pinned, and delivered three good solid blows around his audios before the mech could defend himself.

“You tell me right now, what in all Primus’ sweet names is slagging well going on?” Thundercracker howled, full volume, and Deuce yelped audibly and clamped his hands down over his audios. “And where is Seem?!” He grasped the truck’s antennae and used them like hand-holds, lifting his head and crunching it hard back into the rough floor.

“TC, TC! Wait, wait, stop it-” That was-… slag, the femme was in on this?! But how could she be, all smashed to bits like that-

His assailant’s momentary inattention was all Deuce needed to gather his strength and flip the jet off him; he didn’t go straight into the offensive, though. He actually scuttled out of the way, whimpering.

“Deuce has been helping me,” Pulsar explained, shakily. “He’s the only reason I’m still mostly in one piece.”

“So-… what?” Thundercracker sat back on his heels, and stared long and hard at the curled, whimpery figure by the wall. “If he’s helping-… who in Primus-…”

He never got the chance to finish his sentence.

“Evening, friends,” a voice drawled, from the doorway, and everyone turned to look. Holding an unconscious, floppy Slipstream to his chest like a macabre shield was a face from the past. A face that Thundercracker had certainly never counted on seeing again.

“Mister Thundercracker,” Siphon greeted, and smirked, darkly. “Welcome to the Pit.”

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
jill_dragon
Nov. 3rd, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)
Ha, I knew it! Siphon you bastard, I guess Skywarp will have to drop you from further up next time! >:)
keaalu
Nov. 4th, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC)
Or just, y'know, make sure the enemy's dead and that he's not a potential vengeful recurring character before buggering off and leaving him in a ditch. ;)

Out of interest, how long have you suspected? As I'm never sure if I've left enough/too many clues. ;)
jill_dragon
Nov. 5th, 2008 07:45 am (UTC)
About Chapter Four when Pulsar recognized the voice that was talking to Deuce. That leave us a pretty short list of suspects with Cali out of the picture. Although in Chapter Two when you mentioned 'long fingers' pulling out Pulsar's vocalizer it sounds similar to how he force-fed her the drug so I had some suspicions.

That and the fact that I remembered that you went out of your way at the end of SBM to describe Siphon's personality as a closet sociopath AFTER he was supposedly dead.

Besides it's in all the old movies, whenever someone falls off a cliff they ALWAYS come back. ;)
_silverfox
Nov. 3rd, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
“The whole point in allowing him to ‘escape’ was so we can follow him,” Megatron explained, irritably. “I want to see what he elects to do. For this reason, no-one follows him, no-one contacts him, no-one challenges his actions.”

I predict that at some point somebody is going to regret giving and somebody else obeying this order. ;)


Aww, Footloose is just too cute. :) Good to see she's finally managed to communicate her task to somebody, but I wish Jazz had gone to fetch Starscream anyway. I hate seeing him lying around like that.
jill_dragon
Nov. 3rd, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)
Well I suspect Forceps is going to chew Jazz and Prowl out for not helping Starscream when the Twins get her back to the Ark. ;)
_silverfox
Nov. 3rd, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
If she's still coherent enough to do so.
jill_dragon
Nov. 3rd, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC)
Well she's going to wake up and find out eventually. ;)
_silverfox
Nov. 4th, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
Ah, but what condition will poor Starscream be in by then?
keaalu
Nov. 4th, 2008 11:31 pm (UTC)
*models halo*

I cannot confirm nor deny any rumours of character death. It'd only be spoilers. ;)
jill_dragon
Nov. 5th, 2008 07:47 am (UTC)
Bah! Starscream doesn't exactly have a great track record for staying dead even when he IS killed. *imagines a Ghost!Starscream haunting Skywarp (poor bastard)*
_silverfox
Nov. 5th, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC)
Hm ... I wonder whether sparklings are scared of ghosts.

... No keaalu! Don't take me too seriously! *prefers Starscream alive*
_silverfox
Nov. 5th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
AAAAAAHHHHH! ;)
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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