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"Warped", Chapter Nine

Phew, this took a while to get to. And I'm STILL behind on my NaNo, AND my art, so I'm going to be playing crazy catchup on that all afternoon. Bah!

Anyway. (As an aside, I was all how-coincidental! the other day, when I had to go help out in a REAL gamma camera the other day, where a patient had collapsed. Admittedly, I was just there because they had to give her some diamorphine and I'd countersigned the book, but eh, whatever. ;))

Okay, I'll shut up and get on with the story.

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Warped
Chapter Nine

Forceps was juust beginning to return to normal cognitive function when Jazz finally finished discussing options with Ratchet.

“Yo, Sepp.” Jazz span the stool around and straddled it, leaning his arms against the backrest. “Feeling up to a little gentle interrogation yet?”

Forceps narrowed her muggy optics at him, guardedly. “Regarding what?” She looked to still be a little sedated, but Jazz figured that was probably good, from an interrogation point of view.

Silently, Jazz pointed a finger at Footloose, who was still away on the sideboard, trying to get the fish to glitter at her.

“…what about her?” Guardedness turned into open distrust.

“Okay, I’ll be as succinct as possible. We just want to be absolutely sure of her, ah… parentage.”

Forceps treated him to a very long, very suspicious look. “I think you know whose she is,” she suggested, evasively, shifting her gaze to check for security cameras. “Are you trying to catch me out, Jazz? Because that’s quite an underhand thing to do, if you are.”

“No, no, nothing of the sort. What I was meaning was… well, she’s, ah… definitely not yours, right?”

“I believe we’ve gone over this ground already.” The big femme folded her arms across her chest, suspiciously, and let her gaze drift sideways to Ratchet, who was wearing an expression of studied ignorance and trying to pretend he wasn’t listening. “What’s he been telling you?”

“To be honest? Nothing,” Jazz confirmed. “Well, maybe dropped a couple of hints when I asked, but that’s it.”

“He shouldn’t be saying anything, because it’s not his business,” she snapped, hotly, instinctually knowing what he meant now, retreating back under her mask of irritation.

“Whoa, steady on, we’re just worried about you. The disharmony flagged up in one of the routine healthchecks he was running, and I asked him what it was,” Jazz soothed, holding up his hands in a surrendering gesture, hoping she wouldn’t pick up on the way he edited the truth a fraction. “He didn’t approach me with it, I stuck my nose in.”

“And why should it worry you?” she challenged. “What exactly do you suspect me of hiding?”

Jazz held her gaze for a moment or two without speaking. “We wanted to be sure you’re not just here to get your little ones back,” he said, earnestly. “Because if they’d been snatched by any, ah, ‘former allies’, and you need sanctuary, someplace safe to hide yourself and them for a while? You know we’d be happy to help.”

She matched his gaze for, a while. “Well, you’re right in that I am here to fetch the sparklings home,” she admitted, reluctantly. “But not for the reason you’re suggesting, and certainly not because they’d been stolen. Those ‘former allies’ were trying to drop them off at the space bridge, if you must know. When they didn’t turn up, I came through to see what was wrong.”

“…and that’s all it is?”

For a second or two, Forceps just stared at him. “Why would I lie about something like that?” she managed, at last.

“We-ell, for all we know, you might have got some strange idea in your processors like a need to protect the kidnappers! Because I know you’re kinda enamoured with a certain owner of a pair of red wings…”

“I consider him a friend, yes!” She cast her gaze skywards, exasperated. “But not to such a degree that I’d go so far as to bear a sparkling with him!”

Jazz smiled and shrugged apologetically. “Stranger things have happened. Senior Decepticons and low-ranking Autobot police officers aren’t known for their intrinsic compatibility either, you know,” he reminded, gently.

She sighed, tersely, and grumbled her vents. “While I accept that is a fair point, does she really look like she’s part-me, part-Starscream?” she scolded, quietly. “Come on, she’d be a noisy, bossy grump, and act a whole lot older than she is!”

“Well, to be honest, she doesn’t look much like the product of Skywarp’s loins either, you know? She’s not an aggressive, impulsive little fighter who leaps in feet-first and thinks about things once it’s too late to do anything about it.”

“You’ve obviously never had to extract her from the furniture when she’s teleported without watching where she’s going.”

Jazz gave her a curious look. “Voice of experience?”

“You have no idea…”

There was a low slup sound and Footloose emerged from the ether somewhere above their heads; apparently used to having sparklings dropping on her from great heights, Forceps automatically put her hands up and caught the incoming youngster, who squeaked indignantly at having been caught out.

“And I suppose you like it on this mud-ball world, you little troublemaker,” Forceps growled, relieved at the convenient change of subject, while Footloose wriggled herself comfortable in her lap.

“Mud ball,” the sparkling agreed, and wrinkled her tiny nose in disgust. “Make dirty, then Jas make to have bath. Nasty!”

“What child does like having a bath? Seems pretty traditional here,” Jazz observed.

Footloose giggled, and used her fingertip to draw in the dust on her aunt’s pale chassis. “Need to make bath also, Aunnie Ausep,” she said.

“It has a ‘tuh’ sound in it, remember, Lucy?” Forceps reminded.

“Yes Aunnie Ausept,” Footloose agreed, emphasising a click at the end of the surgeon’s name.

The big femme tch-ed and cuffed her gently around the audios. “What’s the verdict, then, doctor?” She directed her attention up at the approaching Ratchet. “And I mean about my legs, nothing else.”

“I wanted a closer look first of all,” the medic demurred, ignoring the challenging tone of voice and setting his databoard to one side. “I know where the damage is, just not how easy it will be to replace.”

“So long as that’s all you look at,” she warned, darkly, catching Footloose’s arm before the sparkling could leap onto him.

Ratchet just smiled, dryly, and helped the sparkling to the floor, only half-listening to her demands to help out. “Only your legs,” he promised. “I don’t want anything else you’re going to go silent over to worry about!”

0o0o0o0o0

Skywarp’s search wasn’t going so well. He’d been following a good logical grid pattern (for a change), and was slowly combing his way across Starscream’s flightpath, but hadn’t as yet found so much as a tiny chip of red armour. His continual low-level greeting signal on their private communications band hadn’t picked up a response, either, which was what was particularly worrying. Even if Screamer was dormant, recharging, his automatic basal systems should respond to the ping, which suggested he was completely offline.

There was nothing to say, of course, that the Squishies hadn’t found him. And damn, that would be seriously the worst situation possible, even worse than the Autobots picking him up – for them to have Screamer and probably Footloose as well, and all that technology, and…

They haven’t got him, he reassured himself. I’d know, because they’d gloat about it… wouldn’t they? They’d put it on their news, or something. Triumphant Squishies in their success against the evil Decepticon invaders, or some silly old rubbish like that. …um, maybe I better check “Area 51” anyway...

Of course, things would have been far far easier if Hook hadn’t given him that stupid warning, which he’d very much taken to heart – no transforming unless you want your wing to fall off! Carrying out his search untransformed meant there was no disguising his outline, no hiding what he was – he was quite obviously a Decepticon (or was he even one of them any more?), to any human or Autobot who cared to look. The only way to hide his outline was to hunt by night, but that meant he had to fly low, and his visual acuity was greatly reduced. Flying by day was better for just plain seeing stuff, but he’d discovered it meant the Squishies shot at him a lot more. He could have transformed and stayed transformed, he figured – a small dark aeroplane shape way up in the sky was a lot less conspicuous – but that wouldn’t have helped him fuel up. Could hardly hide out on a Squishy airfield and hope they failed to recognise him to enough of a degree to refuel him – not with this familiar paintjob, and all those Deception sigils for all to see. And what if his wing had spontaneously detached? Wasn’t like he could go beg some human mechanic to weld the damn thing back on!

And lastly, as if to outdo all the other little bits of hurt, his chest was already feeling painful, tarry and tight all through his abused pumps. This horrible automobile petroleum he was trying to get by on was really doing a number on his fuel-handling system. What in Primus did they put in the stuff, anyway? Going to have to find an alternative fuel source. Maybe aviation fuel would be better? There was a small airbase near here; he didn’t have to try and blend in, if he was quick enough he could be in, refuel and out before they could bring out the surface-to-air missiles. Wouldn’t clean the gunk off his turbines, but it’d hopefully stop it building up quite so fast.

The air was sharp with the feel of moisture against his derma; casting his gaze in the direction of the breeze, he could just make out the clouds moving in, blotting out the stars. Typical. Rain. The one type of weather he wanted to avoid… Oh well. He was getting low on fuel anyway, and it wasn’t like he could see anything.

Up ahead was as good a place to put down for the night as any; moonlight picked out a rickety old shed with a few rickety old power lines to light the solitary sullen white lightbulb, and a rough gravel parking lot on which was parked a solitary car with two Squishy passengers. He wrinkled his nose – the pair were smooching, looked like. That, or one was a zombie, trying to eat the other's face. Well, so long as they kept out of his vents, he’d keep out of theirs. That was fair, right?

Skywarp glided down with an unnatural lack of grace, and landed square on both thrusters with a whump hard enough to make the ground shake, startling the two squishies into a hasty, squealing retreat.

He ignored them, and the way their vehicle peeled away out of the parking lot, scattering gravel like grapeshot against his legs. So they might report him, big deal. Who’d believe a story about a solitary Decepticon coming to just sit on an empty hillside and stare gloomily out over the city, not attacking anyone, not stealing anything? He parked his aft heavily on the grassy margin to the lot, and vented hot, dusty exhaust, sighing.

“This is stupid,” he groaned, rubbing his temples, staring out over the twinkling lights of the city below and watching as the curtain of rain slowly pulled across them. “There’s got to be an easier way of doing this.”

Yeah, his cynical subconscious agreed. Go plead your case to the Autodorks, I bet they’d love to take you in – they just looove lost causes like you, you big blob of stupid. Give ’em their chance to be all magnanimous and noble to their fallen enemy. Great idea.

He sat out on his silent hillside with his knees tucked up and his chin propped in his hands until the rain caught up with him. It pinged down against his chassis and sizzled quietly over the exposed circuitry in his right wing, reminding him he probably ought to go and take shelter.

…if said ‘shelter’ doesn’t collapse on me, he mused, grimly, standing before the shed and giving it a critical look. The rickety old building was open on three sides, and full of badly-stacked logs – one good shove and they all tumbled away to one side, conveniently also blocking the road.

He settled himself on the dry ground beneath the worn old roof, and subconsciously crossed his fingers that it’d hold up. The lightbulb above his head was a convenient little added bonus – or rather, the two long cables powering it were. He tugged them down, roughly, stripped them to bare wires, and – with no small degree of difficulty and a lot of swearing – managed to tuck the frayed ends into his charging hookups.

The current was low, and fairly weak, but it was clean and felt like balsam to his tattered emotions. He sagged back against the rickety rear wall, and listened as it creaked but miraculously held up under his bulk, then sighed exhausted, sooty air from his vents, and slowly drifted into dormancy with the rain beating a frustrated tattoo against the old roof.

0o0o0o0o0

Back at the Ark, ‘helping’ Ratchet had the desired result of tiring Footloose out. She had finally calmed enough to sink into an exhausted torpor against Forceps’ chest, fingers back in her little mouth, curled up. The surgeon looked equally torpid, maintaining a dopey consciousness solely to keep the sparkling from sliding to the floor.

“Here, let me take her,” Jazz offered, and gently prised the tiny shape away from the big green female. “You need to offline a bit, yourself.”

“Yes doctor,” she replied, sleepily, and he had to look harder to check if she was being sarcastic, or was just that close to entering unconsciousness to mistake him for Ratchet. (He decided on sarcastic.) “I didn’t think this would be how my introduction to this mud-ball world would end up going,” she confessed, drowsily, watching as Jazz settled Footloose into the smaller portable berth alongside and made sure all the connections to the charging grid were patent. “I had hoped it would be among friends, not shot in the back.”

“I guess that’s just what you have to prepare yourself for, when you associate with Decepticons,” Jazz replied, not entirely sure why he felt obliged to half-apologise for them. “How long d’you suppose before you’re back on your feet?”

“A few orns, according to your medic,” she confirmed, tiredly. “I’m not sure if he’s being genuine, or doing it on purpose to keep me from chasing after injured jets.”

“Knowing Ratch, probably a little of both.” Jazz gave her a rueful grin, and hopped lightly to the berth opposite, settling with legs crossed and hands in his lap. “Listen, Sepp? About earlier? Sticking out noses into your private affairs wasn’t something we’d had any major plans to do,” he apologised, quietly. “We were just worried. I mean, if things carry on the way they have been, we’re going to have bigger problems to concern ourselves with, and, ah… well, we really don’t want any more surprises. It’s gonna be hard enough to explain whose she is as it is now, imagine trying to explain she’s the Screamer’s.”

Forceps wrinkled her nose in a sarcastic little smile. “I’m more amused by the concept that you think hiding Lucy’s parentage from your fellow Autobots will help prevent surprises,” she accused, dryly.

“Egh, well, fair point,” Jazz admitted, echoing her cynical grin. “Truth be told, there’ll probably be a full-scale riot when certain folk find out. But,” he waved a finger. “We hope we’ve got a contingency plan in place by then.”

“What like?”

“Um, well, not sure. But we’ll think of something!”

“You mean you’ll cook something up on the fly.”

“Like I said, we’ll think of something!”

0o0o0o0o0

It hadn’t taken long for Thundercracker to notice that his broken-up cellmate seemed to spend a large proportion of her time looking floppy and dormant. The rest of her waking hours she spent seesawing dramatically between mostly lucid and functioning normally, and so drugged-up she could barely tell which way was “up” and certainly wasn’t very aware of what anyone was doing. There was very little pattern to it – it didn’t always coincide with a visit from Siphon, certainly. Apparently the various combinations of sedatives he used on her lingered in her system for varying periods of time, but only actually kicked in when they left her reserve tanks. She could go from sitting, talking normally into an uncoordinated, confused heap in the time it took to finish a sentence.

It was a discovery that made him particularly anxious – if such a disabled, harmless example of a machine was considered dangerous enough for Siphon to feel the need to maintain her in this barely-conscious state, how long before someone like him, with the actual capacity to do some damage, had to endure the same treatment?

By contrast, little Slipstream had mostly avoided Siphon’s attention altogether. It seemed like the tanker had been completely thrown by the arrival of the youngster, and still didn’t really know what to do about him just yet, so was concentrating on those he already had plans for – and Thundercracker figured that the longer they could maintain the current status quo, the better.

All three were fully awake, for a change, when Deuce appeared in the corridor with more of that murky brown so-called energon, the next morning. Slipstream was already close to the doorway, having been quietly watching the shifting lights on the computer opposite the cell, but he didn’t move from his spot in the sand at seeing the newcomer. He simple sat and watched Deuce release the field and edge through the gap, then followed him across the sandy floor and settled in an oddly protective position in front of his dam, all the while maintaining that silent eye-contact. The truck shifted uneasily under the intense, curious lilac stare, and kept his gaze averted.

With a little effort, Thundercracker managed to ignore his amusement at the way their warder even seemed scared of the sparkling, and gave Deuce a wary glower as he carefully placed the cube down by his thrusters. “You can’t find anything that’s a little better quality?” he challenged, softly. “The little one can barely keep this purge-fluid down.”

Deuce resolutely avoided meeting his gaze, attempting to put his delivery down without getting too close to the Seeker. “This is all there is.”

“So what do you use?”

Deuce wrinkled his lip. “For your information,” he retorted, shakily, his optics flickering very briefly up to meet the hostile crimson gaze, before he lost his nerve. “I get the same murky brown rubbish.”

“So his one loyalist isn’t worth keeping in fair operational capacity with good quality fuel?” Thundercracker folded his arms, suspiciously. “You’ll forgive me if I reserve judgement on how far I believe you.”

“Huh. All I’m worth is a good kicking around, apparently. Certainly not worth good energon. Siphon keeps all that to himself, the greedy pile of old smeltings.” Deuce sounded like he was making an effort to sound resentful, but the frightened quaver in his voice destroyed the illusion. He flexed his hand, and worried uneasily at his palms. “Just… believe what you like, Decepticon. Makes no odds to me.”

“So the one he gets to do all his dirty work gets fuel so poor it barely keeps him on his feet?” Thundercracker accused, his voice low, and slouched forwards to snag the cubes. “Like I say. I’ll reserve judgement.”

Time oozed slowly past, but Deuce still failed to leave.

“Was there anything else?” Thundercracker gave him a dark look.

“Listen,” Deuce dropped his voice and glanced back over his shoulder, anxiously. “If anyone asks, you didn’t hear this from me, but-…” He managed to meet the Seeker’s hostile stare and not look away, for once. “I made the final payment to that human today, and he’s not happy with the money Siphon gave him for catching you. He thinks he deserves more, for grabbing the little one.”

“And you think this is relevant to me because…?”

“I overheard them talking about you. They think Siphon should sell you, so they can have the proceeds.” The navy-blue mech shifted, uneasily, as if scared of being eavesdropped on by his ‘employer’. “They were already planning on how best to lean on him, blackmail him into agreement.”

Thundercracker arched an eyeridge, and looked unimpressed. “Your efforts to scare me into obedience are going to have to be a bit better than that, Blue. Siphon has already explained his plans for me, he won’t kill me off just yet.”

Deuce grumbled wordlessly at the insult. “I’m not trying to scare you,” he griped, darkly. “Just warning you that if you were planning on sitting on your aft and hoping for a rescue? The ‘rescue’ might come too late.” He picked up the empty cube from the previous evening’s rations, and waved it, for emphasis. “The human’s got your guns up for sale already, if he gets a good enough price for them he might just come begging for more body parts. It might serve Siphon’s purposes better if you were just a head and torso.”

That rankled Thundercracker’s mood. He was up on his feet and advancing before Deuce realised he’d moved, and the truck shied away from him, scuttled away backwards on three limbs, one arm up to protect his face.

“Are you forgetting who you’re talking to?” the blue Seeker’s deep voice rolled out like a clap of his signature thunder, and he seemed to loom even larger than normal. “You may have me at the disadvantage, cooped up in here like some prize animal, but you can be sure I’m not going to just sit back and let you spout off these baseless threats.”

“Fine, don’t believe me, then,” Deuce whined, cowering, both arms up and crossed over the top of his head. “I only wanted to make you see that you need to concentrate on just getting out of here. Not fighting Tubes, not trying to see what he’s up to, just getting out! I’ve got enough criminal charges against me already, I don’t want to be an accessory to anything else.” His voice shook a fraction higher, and his optics briefly flashed a bright, emotional pale green before dimming back to their usual half-lit emerald. “I want you to get the frag out of my life, and stay out of it!” he whispered, shaking, inching his way along the wall until his transponder pinged the security gate and automatically released the field. “How you choose to have him kill you is entirely up to you. I just don’t want it happening anywhere I have to look at it!”

With that, he was gone; Thundercracker listened until the sound of running footsteps had faded to nothing down the corridor.

“He has been trying to help,” Pulsar rasped, softly, as the jet settled back down in their little cluster in the far corner of the room, and examined the cubes.

You’re beginning to worry me, a little,” he confessed, quietly, not bothering to meet her lopsided stare. “It’s not normally a good thing when the captive begins to side with the captor.”

She huffed a feeble laugh. “Now that’s a gross exaggeration. I just-… well, sort of… feel sorry for him,” she admitted.

Thundercracker gave her a quizzical look, at last, but she wouldn’t be drawn. Well, it wasn’t as if he’d have no time to question her further later. “Okay, Pulse,” he shuffled a fraction closer. “You even going to be okay taking fuel this way, any more, or has he smashed your pumps up too badly in there?”

She eyed the cube anxiously. “I think I’ll be all right,” she confirmed, faintly, although truth be told she wasn’t that sure… just didn’t want Siphon sat on her again. “I, uh…” Her optics flickered brighter, humbly. “Probably need your help with it, though. Until I get used to doing it one handed.”

“Fair enough,” he agreed, with a nod; her hand was too small to wrap around the sides of the cube, and would have to cup underneath it instead, which would take dexterity she lacked, right now. “I figure I better check it’s okay, first of all.”

“I wouldn’t put it past Siphon to use you to poison me, either,” she agreed, hunching her shoulders. “It’s the sort of twisted thing he’d do.”

Thundercracker ran the smallest possible sample of fuel across the analytical plates on the inner surface of his main intake, and nodded, slowly. “Okay. Seems clean,” he confirmed, reluctantly – which only made him more uneasy. It was as if they were trying to lull them into a false sense of security. It was that same poor-quality brownish stuff he’d had the last time, and he guessed that all kinds of toxins could be lurking in it and they wouldn’t know until it was too late. “Ready?”

So the cube wasn’t very good quality, it was infinitely better than the rubbish Siphon had been feeding her. Pulsar tightened her fingers on Thundercracker’s wrist and gulped down close to quarter of it before Thundercracker gathered his wits enough to stop her.

“Whoa, whoa, easy. Little mouthfuls.” He hastily drew his hand away, moving the cube back. “You go bolting that whole cube at once and you’ll overload your system. It’ll have adapted to running on low fuel by now – trust me, after some of the rubbish we’ve had to live off on Nemesis, this is experience talking. I don’t want you purging it all back at me because your diagnostics think you’ve overfilled.”

Please, TC, I need-” she whined, pulling on his hand, but he drew further back.

Sips,” he interrupted, firmly. “And you’re not gonna have the whole thing right now either. Not having you making yourself even sicker. Understand me?”

She fidgeted, and whined unhappily, almost involuntarily, fingers remaining tensed on his wrist, but let him stay in charge of the situation. It was a strange luxury just to be able to intake fuel like normal, without Siphon’s pipes all the way down her intakes.

He let her have one or two small mouthfuls before deciding she was done; granted, so he wasn’t a doctor, but he figured that scrawny chassis didn’t have very big reserve tanks in it.

Slipstream had sat watching patiently the entire time, and now patted Thundercracker’s arm to get his attention. “I need to have?” he wondered, reluctantly. “Nasty energon.”

“A little, yes,” the jet confirmed. “You need to keep your strength up to look after Ama. Right, Ama?”

Pulsar forced a sad smile. “That’s right,” she husked. What a sorry state of affairs to be in. Her sparkling – barely a couple of hundred orns old – pushed into a situation where he had to look after her. Some parent she was turning out to be!

Slipstream hummed dubiously, but sat obediently and let Thundercracker lift the big cube for him. “Yuck,” he commented, staring down into the brown murk, but was prepared for the volatile ‘taste’ and didn’t choke it down the wrong intake this time.

“So. What about Deuce?” Thundercracker suggested, quietly, not looking up.

“What about him?” Pulsar wondered, settling more comfortably against the wall.

“Did you hear what he said to me earlier?”

“A little of it. I know he upset your pride by implying you were worth more as scrap iron.”

The Decepticon wrinkled his lip in a sour grin. “So… how far do you think we can believe him?” he pushed.

The gravity bike was quiet for a long time, thinking. “I believe him in that he doesn’t want to be here,” she said, at last. “I think he realised it was a mistake as soon as Siphon enticed him away from the hospital, but didn’t realise how much of an error until he saw how much of a sociopath his liberator had become.”

“Do you think he genuinely want us out of here?” Thundercracker gave her a cautious look. “Because I’m finding it hard to reconcile with the Deuce I knew of, back on Cybertron.”

“I think,” she said, measuredly, after another of those long, thoughtful pauses, “that you’ll soon recognise that Deuce is as much a prisoner here as we are, like I did. No bars, perhaps, but trapped all the same. He can’t just leave because he has nowhere to go, and Siphon controls his supplies of medication.”

Thundercracker gave her a look. “Medication?” he echoed. “I hope you don’t mean Blue.” If Siphon’s found a way of replicating that…! Damn, the whole nightmare would just start over again.

Pulsar shook her head. “He’s been clean almost as long as Skywarp and me, but all his other little disturbances rose back up to fill the gap the Blue left. Last time I asked Forceps about him – which was getting on for a hundred orns ago, admittedly – she told me he’s still quite, um… psychologically unstable. Still can’t function very well without virals to stabilise his mood, to keep his neuroses under control.”

“And Siphon is using this to manipulate him?” Thundercracker guessed.

The broken Policebot nodded, grimly. “He’s built up a whole library of ways to get people to do what he wants. That’s one of his simplest tactics.”

The Seeker just happened to glance up at the right time to see her shudder and make a face; he didn’t feel inclined to ask what it was that she’d thought about. The longer he could remain in blissful ignorance, the better.

“I done,” Slipstream added, in the lull in conversation. “That okay, Dacker?”

“Yeah, you’re good,” Thundercracker confirmed, patting the small head. The sparkling had managed what probably amounted to half a tankful, so he was in no danger of collapsing for a while. “We’ll put these somewhere we won’t trip on them, hey…?”

Pulsar studied her fingers, trying to watch without making it too obvious as Slipstream inched his way closer, then backed off again. It was an awkward sensation, knowing her own sparkling was too scared of what she looked like to want to come close enough to touch her. Should have been more careful what you wished for, she chided, inwardly. Shouldn’t have spent all those orns wishing they wouldn’t climb all over her. Although part of her was actually glad he kept losing his nerve and backing off – having Siphon’s hands regularly pawing over her had left her reticent to have much physical contact with other machines. As a consequence, another part of her was deeply ashamed of the sheer relief she felt that she didn’t have to hold him, right now. He was too scared of looking at her, and she was too scared of touching him. How beautifully messed-up this had all got.

Slipstream settled on sitting with his back to the wall, next to her – where he could be close, but not have to look at her. Probably trying to imagine she was undamaged and normal-looking, she figured, sadly. He hummed her a quiet, soothing little harmonic, like he did when Footloose was in one of her funny moods, and she actually found a genuine smile from somewhere for him.

…Predictably, the peace didn’t last. Siphon reappeared in the corridor just under a cycle later. “You. Seeker.” He beckoned, with a quick little jerking flick of his spidery hand. “Here. Now.”

Thundercracker approached with a predatory edge to his stride. “What do you want, Tubes?” he wondered, irritably, holding himself in just such a way that he loomed quite nicely over the tanker.

Siphon obviously didn’t like having his position challenged. A ripple of numbness spread rapidly from the collar and down Thundercracker’s main motor column, and the Seeker had to put his hands out to steady himself on the rough-hewn doorframe.

“Mind you remember who is in charge here,” the smaller machine growled, threateningly. “Next time I’ll put you right down on the floor.”

Thundercracker managed to force a feral grin, and Siphon hissed angrily at being laughed at.

“I didn’t order you taken prisoner so I could admire your physique,” he snapped, at last, making certain Thundercracker could see him looking at the ragged margin to his broken wing. “For now, you’re here to be a surrogate.”

“A surrogate what?” Thundercracker challenged, managing to keep from rising to the bait.

“Not something you need concern yourself with. Now get a move on, I need to get you measured up…”

0o0o0o0o0

The days passed, and the status quo remained much the same for the various parties of machines across the globe. Siphon taunted uselessly, and his prisoners grew slowly more anxious about his ultimate plans. Forceps proved herself to be a terrible patient, as she had said she’d be, trying to get Ratchet to let her do some of the work on herself. Footloose kept up her quiet vigil, using Sky Spy’s old recorded footage to track Thundercracker across the desert, although most of the Ark’s residents assumed her to be trying to learn about the world, not methodically looking for one of their oldest enemies. And Skywarp kept up his own search, scouring his way all along Starscream’s flightpath, right the way across the United States, and slowly back again…

“So, um. Anyone know what in Primus’ name he’s actually doing?”

The teleport’s activity hadn’t gone unnoticed. It took several days of tracking, chasing human reports of very-disorganised and near-incomprehensible Decepticon activity, but Sky Spy finally found the errant Seeker, coming in for… well, what? Was it supposed to be an attack? …on a remote air force base. He glided down like a giant, malevolent crow in the darkening evening light, humans scattering away from him, and yet there was something odd about his approach…

Ratchet had apparently spotted it, too. “Why isn’t he shooting?” he wondered, although he had a somewhat testing tone to his voice.

There were grumbles along the lines of wasn’t-that-a-GOOD-thing? from most of the others, but Optimus picked up on the medic’s tone. “Sky Spy? Can you focus a little closer?” he instructed.

Obediently, the image of the dark Seeker on the screen enlarged, which threw up more oddities. Untransformed. Inelegant. Not even flying in a particularly even manner.

“Hm, thought as much. What a mess,” Ratchet said, grimly. “Teletraan, would you hold that image for now?”

Skywarp froze mid-landing, his arms up, swinging his thrustered heels forwards to carry his weight. His wings were still mostly in the way to get a good look at the rest of him, but Ratchet was satisfied.

“Here, you see?” The medic leaned forwards, and used a crimson fingertip to outline what he could see on the screen. “Look there.” He drew an invisible line down the side of the Seeker’s bare arms. “No cannons. And if my hunch is correct, that silver line down the back of his right wing is a hasty repair.”

“What exactly are you saying, here? You feel sorry for the guy?” Sideswipe challenged, from the back of the small assembly of machines, and folded his arms. “I’d say it looks like karma finally got up and bit him on the aft.”

There was a rumble of agreement from a handful of voices.

“I’m saying,” Ratchet corrected, “that it looks like more than the usual internal power struggle. When has Megatron ever sent him out on a mission looking in that poor a condition?”

“C’mon, Ratch, they’re always beating the bolts out of each other-” Sideswipe protested.

“That’s as maybe! But they’re also usually in good fighting condition when they head out on an offensive, not so… barely flight-capable.”

“So, what? Megs finally got tired of him lousing all his plans up and kicked him out for good? That what you’re saying?” Sideswipe wrinkled his nose, as if to say what he thought of that idea. “I think it’s just the usual Decepticon sneakery-”

The argument had begun to looked like it would have continued in a similar vein for considerably longer when Teletraan-1 provided a convenient interruption. “Warning, Optimus Prime!” The supercomputer replaced the still image with scenes of chaos. Flames guttered across the screen as aviation fuel blazed where it had spilled, and the three fighter aircraft that had previously been lined neatly up at the side of the screen had been smashed into a heap, as if a tornado had hit the place.

“Nice to see that even poor widdle hurted Seekers don’t have to be armed to still succeed in raising the Pit wherever they go,” Sideswipe sniped, and shot Ratchet a challenging look; the medic glared back, but otherwise didn’t rise to the bait.

“Hm. There’s something odd about this whole thing,” Jazz mused, quietly.

“I’ll say,” Sideswipe agreed. “We haven’t even attempted to find the creep, and put him back in his place, yet.”

Jazz gave him an abstract sort of smile. “That wasn’t actually what I meant… Teletraan-1? You were still recording Sky Spy’s output while we were looking at that still image, right? Could you re-run that last piece of footage, but without the pauses and magnifies and other alterations?”

“From when until when, Jazz?” the supercomputer asked, amiably.

“The beginning, when Ratchet asked for a pause. I want to see what was going on while we were talking.”

Obediently, the previous still image on the screen flickered back, and into life. Skywarp landed heavily enough to throw sparks as his thrusters impacted the ground, and stomped about for a minute or so, waving his arms; judging by his expressions and his postures he was making as much noise as he could. The humans made a spirited attempt to repel him, but they’d been caught off guard and were either armed only with handguns, which wouldn’t even dent the Seeker’s armoured hide, or unarmed altogether. The big mech grabbed the tail of one of the inanimate jets and used it to smash the other two out of the way, before the humans could get into them and counter him, and at last the remaining few brave souls fled off-screen.

Once he was satisfied the humans were gone, Skywarp (unexpectedly) went straight for the little fuel tanker standing at the sidelines – didn’t go after any of the weaponry, didn’t go after any special new technology the humans might have got, he went for the tanker so fast it was like they’d both been magnetised. He clawed the filling cap off the top, shredding the vehicle’s flimsy outer skin in his haste to remove it, and with a strength born of desperation scooped the little vehicle clean up off the tarmac and tipped it to get at the high-octane fuel it was half filled with. More fluid seemed to go down his front and onto the hard-standing than into his intakes, but that seemed an irrelevance.

Even Sideswipe actually frowned in vague concern at seeing the way the Seeker frantically drained the tanker; Sky Spy picked up almost every tiny hurt line on the pale upturned face.

“No energon converters, no Megatron, no other Decepticons,” Jazz pointed out, quietly. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to excuse his behaviour… but wouldn’t you say it looks like he’s stealing fuel just to stay standing?”

“If it were left to me,” Ratchet said, softly, “I’d say he looked like he was starving.”

Nobody bothered to correct him.

The reason for the teleport’s urgency became clear a moment or two later; the humans he’d worked so hard to scare off didn’t stay gone for long. There was the glitter of gunfire at the margins of the image, and Skywarp first flinched back, dropping the tanker and bringing his arm up to protect his face, then lurched around so fast he almost tripped over his own feet, and fled. The raw heat from his turbines ignited the spilled fuel, and the tanker exploded into an inferno; it was just a good enough distraction for Skywarp to make good his escape. Sky Spy tracked him leaving, for a moment or two, until there was the telltale lilac flicker of his teleport signature, and the Seeker vanished like an inkblot into black fabric.

“All right,” Optimus sighed. “Regardless of what has happened to him, we can’t turn a blind eye to this, because eventually he’ll kill someone – or worse. Silverbolt? Take your team and track him down, and see if you can’t ‘dissuade’ him from the course of action he’s been taking lately.”

The Aerialbot commander nodded, just once. “When you say dissuade…?”

Optimus recognised that leading tone of voice. “With words, if you can get your team to listen to you when it comes to not shooting at Decepticons,” he replied, dryly. “To start with, he’s unarmed – for all five of you to engage him in a firefight would be particularly unfair.”

“No more than he deserves,” Sideswipe griped quietly, in the background. “That lot wouldn’t hesitate to shoot us.”

“Yes, Optimus.” Silverbolt carefully ignored him. “Assuming we can find him, of course…”

Sideswipe hung fidgeting around the supercomputer’s main console and watched everyone gradually file out, now the meeting was finally over. His brother had been griping at him all day, about having some disturbing new information about their guests that he wanted to try and research in more depth, and this was the soonest they’d managed to find time to meet up.

“Remind me what we’re doing here, again?” Sideswipe challenged, when Sunstreaker finally emerged from the corridor.

“Going to look through some old records from before the war,” the yellow twin explained, settling in the chair in front of Teletraan-1’s main console. “I want to check something out.”

Sideswipe stood and watched over his twin’s shoulder. “I thought you said you’d found something out about the little one?”

“No, I said I’d found something out about our guest,” Sunstreaker argued. “The green one we dug out of the mountain.”

“The one with the unnatural allegiances.” Sideswipe nodded, cottoning on. “What about her? We already know she fixed the Screaming One up, a while ago – you think she’s a sympathiser to their faction?”

“I don’t think she’s just a sympathiser,” Sunstreaker argued,. “I think she is a Decepticon. Or at least was, at some point.”

“But we’d know if she was ever a Decepticreep, because she’d be on one of our lists of faction affiliation,” Sideswipe pointed out, folding his arms.

“Eenh, p’raps.” Sunstreaker didn’t look convinced. “Teletraan, how far back do these records go?”

“What time interval were you enquiring after, Sunstreaker?” the computer wondered, already humming softly as it worked. “Pre or post war?”

“Pre-war,” Sunstreaker confirmed, typing in the identifier numbers he’d swiped off Ratchet’s desk when the medic wasn’t watching. “And, I don’t know, maybe until a vorn after the official start of things. I want all known political and personal alliances for this machine.” He stabbed a finger down onto the ‘accept’ key, and glanced up at Sideswipe. “Let’s see exactly what she’s hiding…”

0o0o0o0o0

The fact they might be looking for Day had put Footloose into a mood even more excitable than normal. She stayed awake a whole cycle longer than normal, unable to sit still in her little berth, and Ratchet was at the point of losing patience and sneaking some knockout drops into her energon when at last she quietened and managed to offline. She jittered her excited way through her usual morning routine the next day – slink away from her ‘nursery’ in the medical suite before even the Oolies had woken up and begun to scintillate their pretty colours in their morning greetings, and scramble her way up onto Tel’tran’s console to check on Sta’zim. Still hid, still safe? Only once she’d ensured the red and silver was still there would she turn her attention back to Tunisia, and resume her search until everyone else woke up. It was only when Prowl finally came along to check the overnight reports that she’d vacate her seat on the console, and go say her good mornings to her friends and to see Septor’s fish – and today, she could see if they’d found Day yet!

“Good morning, Footloose,” Teletraan greeted, automatically, as she climbed up onto its control panel. “Would you like the same beginning co-ordinates as usual?”

“Please, Tel’tran,” she agreed, sitting back onto her heels and waiting for the familiar image to come up…

0o0o0o0o0

Jazz was dozing in the rec-room, head propped on one elbow, when he got an unusual wakeup that startled him rudely out of recharge and left him momentarily disoriented.

“Jas, Jas!” Something was yanking busily on his free arm, as if it wanted to take his fingers clean off, and a sharp, thin little voice cut into his awareness like the blare of a fire alarm. “Ja-as!”

He managed to coax his optics to focus, and found an agitated sparkling dancing from foot to foot on the table and trying to get him to wake up. Her blinkers were on, pulsing a blue heartbeat over the walls; was that an involuntary reflex? He’d have to ask. Whatever it was, it was kinda bright for such poorly-calibrated early-morning optics! He put out his hands and gently cupped her lights with his palms, with a tired smile.

“Now now, Button, what’s got you so worked up?” he soothed, as she leaned closer into his touch and covered his hands with her own far smaller ones.

“Gone, gone!” she mewed, unhappily, and he finally recognised the indefinable quality to her voice was fright. “Sta’zim gone, Jas! Looked with Tel’tran and not there any more. Been took, Suishies took, Meg’tron took-”

“All right, all right,” he hummed gently to her, gathering her off the table and standing, with her clicking against his chassis. At least her lights had gone off. “We’ll find him, okay? Just… calm down?”

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
_silverfox
Nov. 22nd, 2008 04:11 pm (UTC)
Now I almost wish there were a Forceps/Starscream sparkling. Sounds like such lovely chaos, especially when combined with Footloose ...
keaalu
Nov. 22nd, 2008 04:22 pm (UTC)
Don't tempt me... don't tempt me...

...

*...gets out drawing pad, scribbles...*
_silverfox
Nov. 22nd, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC)
Sorry, too much time spent in Good Omens fandom, I guess ... ;)
jill_dragon
Nov. 22nd, 2008 10:13 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I wonder what the Twins will dig up about Forceps. But seriously, when would she have had the _time_ to be a Decepticon, given that the impression I got was that pre-war she was in the Cybertronian equivalent of med-school as well as with Hardline at the time.

I am curious about this sparkling she supposedly had. What happened to it? Or is there some other explanation? As a fairly private person myself, I do agree with Forceps that it really is none of Rachet and Jazz's business.
keaalu
Nov. 25th, 2008 12:13 am (UTC)
Ahh, well, all shall be revealed. :) Besides, being in med-school doesn't mean you can't secretly take up a faction... *oops, secret, secret*

As for the "sparkling", well, you'll see. ;) I was thinking of writing that bit as a sorta stand-alone, but it's too spoilerish right now.
jill_dragon
Nov. 27th, 2008 05:33 am (UTC)
I guess it's just my stressed-out-from-classes brain talking (see my earlier reply). Given how I barely have time to eat and sleep I know _I_ wouldn't have time to join a faction and I'm only taking a measly little Bach. of Natural Resource Sci., not going to med school!

I suppose that's the adavantage of having the equivalent of an extremely advanced computer for a brain (or a cortext or whatever the tfs call it).
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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