Future Tense - Chapter Four
For a full few seconds, Skywarp just stared, dumbfounded. "What in Pit are you-… just… That's nonsense," he asserted, grimly. "Even I'm not so stupid that I'll fall for that. Get off my friggin' lap, and leave me alone."
The little femme's static field was spikey where it intersected with his own, and unpleasantly disharmonic. More worryingly, it was familiar, too – did feel like Lucy, when she got all awkward, clingy and emotionally prickly. Coincidence, he told himself, firmly. Lucy is a squeaky little brat driving you crazy with her demands to fly. There's no way this green weirdo is her.
"Will you stop calling me that? Fragging-… just gerroff, you little psycho!" he growled, with a little push for emphasis. "Or I'll make you get off."
The smile had gone altogether, now; the small flier's lips had pulled together in a little pout of distress. "Yes sir." She obediently slid back to the floor. "I just-… okay."
He directed his glare towards the ceiling, where he guessed a camera could theoretically have been hidden. "Okay guys, joke's over," he said, loudly, scrutinising the corners for hidden lenses. "Wasn't funny to start with, so you can just… knock it off, already!"
"It's not a joke," the little female spoke up, quietly.
"You? Quiet," he snapped, waving a threatening arm that he couldn't quite get to stop trembling. "This… this smeltery… it's not funny. I'd have thought better of a friggin doctor. How much are they paying you to play along with this, huh?"
"It's… Please, Day, I-… you've been gone a long time, I just-"
"Stop calling me that!" He stabbed a finger at her. "You're no relation of mine. Just... frag off, will you?"
"Y-yes, sir. Of course." She slipped out through the privacy screen, trying (and mostly failing) to keep the distressed static out of her voice.
Not particularly wanting to listen, but knowing he ought to if he wanted to get to the bottom of all this, Skywarp boosted the sensitivity on his hearing. Any moment now, he told himself. They'll be all 'aw, darn, he figured it out already, better tell the guys you can't out-prank the master'. Any moment now. Aaany moment.
"Heyy, Footsie," he heard the little fat one pipe up, instead. "You all right?"
"I'm going home," the femme asserted, bluntly, her voice shaking. "Not staying around here to be abused."
"…is Deuce back off his round?"
"I don't care, I'm going. If he's there, he's there, if he's not, I'll just… yell at him until he comes home."
"What about your shift?" a reedy voice piped up, uneasily. "I-we-we've had on-call medics try to cover but we're not mobile eno-"
"Hey, hey, it's all right, Patches, calm down. I'll call for cover – Threespots still owes me a favour. Ambulance service will be fine. Footloose?" Sigh. "Go home, spark. I'll keep you appraised of what's going on, all right?..."
Skywarp slumped back and let his auditory sensitivity slip back to normal. Well, that was successful, huh. You found out, like, nothing whatsoever. He groaned softly to himself and wiped his hand over his face, pinched his nose, trying to ignore the way his wings had started hurting again.
Ok so maybe it's not a prank, he finally allowed himself to admit, unhappily. So that means... what, precisely? Where am I? Aside from in this friggin' dump. Stupid hospital. He cast a glance out of the window and shifted his back, uncomfortably. Need to get out of here. Find the guys, work out what's going on. Find those fuzzy hairball things, too, I know they're involved.
C'mon, Warp. What do you actually know so far – and like, actually properly know, for definite, not what you're making up 'cause you're trying to live in one of those "B movies" Screamer was talking about. You freaked out underground after an explosion (which no-one here seems to have heard, what's up with that?), and fragged up your teleport in the process, then crashed like a lump of old scrap metal into a heap of garbage. That's all. Aside from that kinda... 'nothing sensation'. What did that mean?
He wrinkled his nose. Might have meant nothing. Probably meant nothing. Just his imagination, he reassured himself. Just... the whole going from somewhere hot to somewhere cold had stressed his systems, made them spasm. That fitted, didn't it? When that medic comes back, I'll ask her.
There was that one other little thing, though. That dopey sparkling said I was bigger than all the other fliers, didn't it? The memory made his pumps twitch, awkwardly. What does that mean?
Maybe that means the guys don't exist here. The thought blindsided him; he briefly offlined his pumps altogether, to quell another flash of unsteady surges. Wherever 'here' actually is.
…Frag. What if I've been unconscious? Maybe they were killed in that explosion? They never said anything to me since it all went off, I just assumed they couldn't reach me, through all that rock, but-... maybe they hung around for me, and it killed them. That's why no-one came looking for me.
...yeah, Warp, that's pretty likely, he scolded himself, hoping to encourage a little common sense. Screamer was the one who told you it was going to blow up, he's hardly gonna just hang around and wait for the blast. So maybe the guys aren't dead. Maybe they just moved away. Couldn't find me, and moved away. But moved where? He wrinkled his nose and bit back a snort, folding his arms protectively across his chassis. It's not like Screamer wouldn't have already moved away the first instant he got if there was anywhere else he could have gone. And Deixar only got through the war this intact because no-one friggin' wanted it – Vos had been pretty much razed all the way to the basement rock within like, orns of it all starting.
So maybe I was laying in that big old heap of recycling for longer than I thought I was. Maybe-... maybe a lot longer. Maybe I passed out – stressed, botched teleport, bonk on the head, that could destabilise a cortex, right? – and cuz no-one was looking for me there, no-one saw me there. It was only when I woke up and set up a beacon they found me. That'd work?
Yeah, cuz all of that smelt is pretty likely, he scolded himself. Your clock would have still tracked the passage of time, even if you'd been unconscious, and there's no big gaps in your record. Might as well ask if you've not teleported into a parallel universe-
...that's not to say you haven't, Warp. You could have found a spot where the space between worlds is thin, and fell through it. He laughed, in spite of himself, and rubbed his temples, tiredly. Primus, Skywarp. Screamer was right with the whole 'junk science' you keep latching onto. Any minute now, the monster from the Black Lagoon will show up.
At last he noticed that the voices out in the main work area had dipped, as if in anticipation of something. Skywarp redirected his attention at it, wondering if he could glean himself any more useful little snippets of information that'd help him out of this mess-
Skywarp startled, and sat up. That deep voice he'd just picked up at the very limit of his hearing? Was most definitely Thundercracker's. How could that be? The bike's little brat implied they were gone!
"Is it him?" the voice went on, getting louder as it approached.
"I'm fairly confident, sir," the bike confirmed. "Blink picked up on his transmission. Very underpowered, I don't think I'd have caught it."
"Putting those sensory boutons to good use, eh, bitlet?" Chuckle. "All right. I better go see him, work out how much it'll take to get him back on his feet. Oh, and Whites?"
"Personally, I'm grateful for you staying, but Vector says that is the only reason she'll forgive you being so friggin' late, and only this once. Beemer's still happy to spark-sit Blink, but both are on the condition that you get your aft to the station in the next couple of breems."
"Sir! Right away!" The clatter of flat feet and a sparkling's amused squeaking announced the bike's hasty departure.
The teleport ignored the chatter, focussed on just the one thing. TC! He clung to the sound of the hollow thoks of an approaching set of thrustered heels. Any second now, his wingmate would appear, all sad-faced, and make him feel bad for freaking out, then Screamer would come along and abuse his audios (and those of everyone else within a half-mile radius) for a breem or two, and he'd just have to sit and endure it until they'd got bored and given up. Then he could get back to the serious business of tracking down dustbunnies-
What appeared through the screen was not Thundercracker – certainly not the person the teleport remembered. Sure, so it was similar – about the same height, and the same muted azure and silver in colour, it wore an elegant pair of wings on its back and had his wingmate's voice. That was as far as the similarity stretched, though; where Thundercracker had a solid, powerful frame, built for the rigours of war and the ability to withstand all but the harshest Autobot attacks, this skinny little abomination-... It looked like it'd snap in half if you blew too hard on it, all spindly limbs and subtle, aerodynamic corners. A narrow but obvious band of white and yellow police chequering bordered his wings.
Skywarp gave a funny, strangled little cry of alarm and promptly scooted himself off the far side of his berth. "...the frag are you?" he demanded, peeking up over the memory-foam surface, struggling to keep the tremor out of his voice.
The blue flier had jumped back after Skywarp's outburst, startled. "It-... It's me, Warp," the ghoul reassured, in his wingmate's voice, holding out those little black hands in a placatory gesture. "It's Thundercracker. You remember me, right?"
"Ohh no you don't. You're not TC," Skywarp asserted, keeping the berth between them. At least, he consoled himself, when he'd jumped, so had the stranger, so that proved he was real, and not a, a ghost, or something. "You're an, an-... imposter. What the frig are you lot playing at?" He pointed an arm at the screen, using a stabbing gesture to hide his trembling, only just managing to keep himself upright. "First that little brat pretending to be Lou, and now you? You think I'm stupid, or something? What have you done to TC?"
A flicker of clear disappointment passed through the pale features, but was quickly hidden. "You've been gone a long time, Warp. A lot's happened since you blew up. This-..." He placed a hand to his pale chassis. "It's just a refit. That's all." Beat. "How about you just let the docs check your memory, make sure your clock is ok, maybe recalibrate-"
"What, so you can implant some false memories, or something? My memory's fine." The teleport interrupted, sharply, wobbling backwards on his one good leg and bumping unsteadily into the wall, turbines grumbling softly in threat. "My clock is fine. What do you want from me? What are you trying to trick me into doing?" Something new flashed into his mind. "Information, is that it? You think you can trick me into telling you everything I know just 'cause you look a bit like my best friend?" He edged along the wall until his wings caught against the corner. "Well you're not gonna trick me into betraying the guys, I swear I will kick that skinny aft into the middle of the next vorn before I give you anything-!" Well aware what a surreal figure he cut, primed to fight even though he could barely stand, Skywarp – for once – failed to see the humour in it. Laugh, please laugh, so I have an excuse to kick that skinny chest in.
The imposter put up his hands in surrender. "I don't want any sensitive information from you, Warp, just to know where you've been. You can't have been in that junk heap all this time."
"I've not been anywhere. I teleported, I crashed in the junk, and that's it. So you just tell me, what. In frag's name. Is going on?" To his shame, Skywarp found his voice skittering away up the scale, growing high-pitched in frightened anger. "I swear, if you've done anything to my wingmates, I'll kick your aft so hard-"
"All right," the deep-voiced Seeker finally acknowledged, backing up a step. "It's all right, Skywarp, I don't mean you any harm. I didn't mean to scare you. I'm... sorry, that you don't believe me just yet." He sighed hot exhaust. "Let's just… get you repaired first, yeah? After that, we can try and work out how to explain what's happened. All right?"
"Right." Skywarp nodded, just the once, not quite able to shake the suspicious tension from his expression. "If you fix me up, I'll-" ...leg it as soon as you're finished... "-listen to what you have to say. But no funny business! I'm not so stupid as people say, I'll know if you're lying-!" He settled awkwardly on the very end of the berth, arms securely folded, glaring.
The blue impostor smiled, tersely, and vacated the cubicle without another word. Skywarp pursed his lips, thoughtfully; annoyed at being found out, huh? See what you have to say about that…
The murmuring outside was just quiet enough that even after elevating his auditory sensitivity, Skywarp couldn't quite hear it. Frustrated, he hop-hobbled the single step to the cubicle wall, and pressed his audio up against it, straining to listen to the faint words that filtered through.
"No, he's not convinced," the fake-Thundercracker said. "Did you really expect-…yeah, I know. ...well, yeah, sure, I think it is him – looks beat to Pit and is still covered in rock dust. I just think-... no. Stubborn, yeah, how did you guess? Listen, do you still have that holograph lurking anywhere...?"
Had to get out of here, Skywarp resolved, miserably, turning away from the wall, before they had the chance to try anything else to fool him. Had to get out and figure out what in frag's name was going on. Who these imposters were, what they wanted from him. What they'd done to his wingmates. Attack of the bodysnatchers. Obviously too much to hope that getting out of the 'Cons would be the end of it, huh?
He scrutinised the scenery outside his window; there was a nice flat roof within teleporting distance. That was good enough. He could get a view of the land from up there, plan a route and make another couple of hops to somewhere secluded, where he could at least try fix his leg for himself. The knee-brace fitted around his wounded knee with a strong, sturdy set of clips, if he could somehow attach something like some bits of old building supports to it? Then maybe he could use it as a kinda makeshift limb.
Wouldn't help him fly, but at least he'd be mobile, even if the idea of crawling around at ground level made his pumps surge unpleasantly. Won't be for long, he reassured himself. Just until you found the guys. The real guys. Rescued them from whoever kidnapped them, or whatever smeltery is going on. Right? Any other time, the mental image of "peg-leg Skywarp, dread space pirate" would have made him grin, but right now he just wanted to be out and as far away as his meagre fuel supply would take him.
He pressed his fingers against the window, and concentrated on the building. Thankfully it was still on his maps – same height, location.
He'd already triangulated his position when the doubts crept back. What if he botched this one, too? What if the explosion had caused a serious problem with his gate, destabilised it? If he teleported this time, he might lose whole chunks of his superstructure. Or worse, lose cohesion altogether, spiral out into a scattering of disconnected molecules and rain down unseen across the entire district.
He leaned his head against the window, and concentrated on drawing cold air through his vents. Everything feels normal, Warp, calm the frag down already, he told himself. It was over-reacting that got you in this stupid mess in the first place. All your parameters are reporting back normal. Your gate diagnostics are all green. Quantum signals are strong, pattern buffer is fine. There's nothing wrong with your teleport, it must have been some outside influence that caused it. You can find out what went wrong later. Just get out of here, before they start digging all your secrets out of you.
The transition between the close, stuffy hospital room and the clear, cool atmosphere felt gratifyingly normal, when he finally plucked up the courage to use his teleport. See, Warp? You're fine. Everything went fine. No missing structural components. No instability. No problems. Okay?
He managed a single unsteady hopping step before something grabbed his hand and jerked him over backwards, landing him hard on his aft. After an instant of alarm, priming himself to fight, he had to bite back an expletive at seeing nothing but long, thin stems of metal... which emerged from the back of his hand.
Primus. Friggin'… telecoms aerials! Who in their right freaking mind used this primitive old smelt, these days? In his haste to get away, he'd not seen them. It took a good half a breem or so to finally succeed in snapping them off – for such flimsy little bits of metal, they sure were stubborn – all the while cursing quietly under his breath to hide his embarrassment. All those thousands of vorns of successful teleports, and he'd gone and entangled himself twice in one orn. Careless idiot. Serve you right for not looking where you're going.
He wobbled back to his good leg and clutched precariously at the steep slope of the roof; come on, there had to be a better vantage point a little further away that he could get to… there. That was a better rooftop, flatter and more importantly there were no aerials sticking out of it… Kinda derelict-looking and pretty holey, but the internal structure he could see through the gaps looked sturdy enough…
He managed another two short hops – aiming for the small rubbish dump he remembered tripping over once, and finding it wasn't there any more – before he got too low on fuel to teleport any more, and gave up running. Admit it, Warp. You're not gonna find the guys on your own, and it's not like you can go beg help off the Empties. He huddled down on the securest ledge he could find, hugging his arms protectively around himself.
Where was this place, anyway? He didn't like to admit it. Didn't want to admit it! But the place frightened him. Looked superficially like Deixar, but it didn't feel like it. He hunched his shoulders and mantled his sorry, blistered wings very slightly forwards around himself, protectively. If someone was trying to "con the 'Con", they were sure putting in fragloads of effort, building this fake-district. Maybe it was all holograms? Surely he wasn't that important. Not like he had lots of sensitive data. Maybe they just thought he was stupid enough to fall for it? After all, Screamer was a better source of information but he'd see through all this like, immediately.
What was perhaps worst of all, though, was the fact that-... well... he hated to even think about it, but he felt lost. There were familiar landmarks, sure, and it was all superficially the same, but… his maps didn't quite match up. Buildings were in the same places, but looked different. Some buildings had gone, some had been replaced. There were big open spots, too, where he remembered ramshackle old offices, derelict factories. Up between the unfamiliar buildings there even poked little bits of green stuff – surely not trees?
For a mech that relied so heavily on knowing exactly where he was, to suddenly find himself in semi-familiar surroundings that didn't match what he thought he knew? It felt like someone had clawed around in his chassis, and dug out half his senses, leaving him running half-blind. It was like that first time he'd woken up on Earth, and had to scramble to form the bones of a map in the orns before the Autobots got up and started shooting at them.
A chit of data pinged off his firewalls, and at last Skywarp dragged himself far enough out of his murky introspection to notice a familiar airborne shape had come closer – and it was actually familiar, properly so. Right shape, right colours, and reassuringly solid and blocky in all the right places.
"Thundercracker-! Oh thank Primus-" Skywarp's vocaliser hitched, sharp with static, and he lurched unsteadily to a standing position, arms out and clutching for his wingmate. "Where the frag were you?"
"Trying to find you," Thundercracker teased, gently. "Why'd you have to go run off like that, huh?" He settled carefully on the roof alongside his wingmate; it felt like it'd bear up under their combined weight, but there was no point in taking chances by being rough. Skywarp clutched at him, unsteadily; the blue Seeker managed to catch him just before he went over, lowered them both carefully to their knees.
Skywarp just clung to him for several long, relieved seconds. The static envelope that harmonised with his was familiar, and reassuring. The real proper genuine article. His for-serious real wingmate, un-blown-up.
"There's some guys pretending to be you," the dark Seeker explained, at last, deadly serious, looking him in the optic; Thundercracker could probably feel him still trembling, but he didn't care any more. "I wasn't fooled, though. Stupid, skinny-looking protoform, I dunno how they thought it'd fool me."
"In the hospital?"
"Yeah they were trying to trick me into giving them our secrets, but I saw through it, I'm not so stupid as they think I am, I'd have stomped them but my knee is still broken-"
"Steady, Warp." Thundercracker interrupted the flood of babble before Skywarp could run his vocaliser too far away. "It's ok. I know what happened-"
"You know? Well why aren't you doing anything about it?"
"Hey, gimme a second, yeah?" Thundercracker smiled for him, gently. "I'm not doing anything because that was me. Screamer and me, we've had to make a few changes-"
Skywarp's hands convulsed open so fast his wingmate could have been hot, and he shoved himself backwards. "You-! No, no, leave me alone, I'm not telling you anything!" He flopped away across the roof, alarmed.
"Khn…" The blue Seeker sighed, dramatically, and let his arms dangle. "C'mon, calm down. You were close enough to pick up my static field, weren't you, a second ago? Don't you recognise me? I promise, it's the real Thundercracker."
The teleport had backed up as far as he could get, and now clung precariously to the edge. A flicker of doubt passed through his expression. "I don't know. You're not TC," he asserted, shakily. "You're trying to trick me. I'm not gonna fall for it again!"
Thundercracker sighed, tightly. "All right. I know this is going to be a difficult concept for you to process, but… Look. Here." He plucked a news-wafer out of his subspace, held it out and wiggled it gently; Skywarp hesitantly accepted it, as though it might bite. "I picked this up from the Sphere's main office on my way past, just after we got the report you'd been found. It's dated today."
Skywarp stared at the page for so long Thundercracker began to wonder if he hadn't broken his brain altogether.
At last; "this isn't today's news-sheet," the teleport asserted, firmly, leaning forwards and sternly placing it back into Thundercracker's hands – if that was truly who he was. "You made it up. Forged it. Can't be too difficult, you just need a word-processor or something."
"I promise it's today's news. See?" A slim black finger touched delicately against the image at the right of the front page. "There's you."
"No it isn't. I-I mean... yeah maybe that's me, but... that-… that's not the news. That's not today's date. You made it up. It's a, a… counterfeit or something. It's not today's news."
"Warp? Please?" Thundercracker put the wafer down on the roof and gave him a long, serious look. "I know it's difficult to take in. Frag, it's hard enough for us to understand, I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like for you." He sighed. "Look. the police central computer is on the same frequency as it was before your accident, Warp. It'll confirm the date and time for you, if you need it."
"But it can't be today's news," Skywarp pleaded, pathetically, sagging shakily back to his aft. "It just-… friggin'… can't be. What you're saying, it's… it's not even possible, Screamer's always saying it's junk science, it's impossible-!"
Thundercracker settled next to him, and let him slump into him.
"If this is today's news," Skywarp croaked, his voice finally stunned into a dead flatness, "then where the slag have I been for the last thirty-seven vorns?"