Dinobot and Inferno circled each other warily. Neither was armed; Inferno had grudgingly handed her flamethrower to Scorponok for safekeeping, and Dinobot’s sword was lying next to Rattrap. Dinobot had stripped to the waist, partially to keep his shirt from getting torn, more so Inferno couldn’t get a grip on him as easily. Inferno probably would have done the same, but her rather abundant figure required some amount of support, and, besides, her outfit was a one-piece jumpsuit. Both combatants were barefoot, tired, and dirty … and had identical glints in their red eyes. Neither was about to give up.
It was a sparring match, cheered on by a small yet enthusiastic crowd. Optimus sighed. As long as they didn’t hurt each other too badly, he wasn’t going to interfere. He didn’t approve, but he wasn’t going to stop it. At least it was a way for Dinobot and Inferno work off their violent energy without causing destruction.
And it gave some of the group a bit of distraction – Rattrap and Quickstrike were being just as noisy as Scorponok and Terrorsaur … well, as noisy as Terrorsaur, at least. Scorponok was quiet. At least the two factions seemed to be getting along. Sort of.
“I can’t decide which one to cheer for,” Rattrap taunted from the sidelines. “On one hand, Inferno’s a Pred. On the other, she smells better than you, chopperface.”
Dinobot knew better than to look away from his opponent. “Would you like to take the next match, vermin?”
“I’d take Inferno. Whoo-ha!” Quickstrike yelled.
“Aren’t you supposed to cheer for Dinobot, Maximal?” Terrorsaur heckled.
Quickstrike snorted. “Which one’s prettier?”
“You can beat her, Dinobot!”
“Burn him, Inferno!”
They were evenly matched. Both warriors were huge, strong, and fast. Neither seemed to feel pain. Each had their own personal code of honour that kept them from cheating, at least too badly.
Without warning, Inferno’s fist swung out. Dinobot ducked the blow, bringing himself to a crouch.
“Kick his keister!”
Dinobot managed to hook a foot behind Inferno’s leg, sending the Amazon crashing to the ground. Her own foot lashed out as she hit the earth in an attempt to bring her opponent down as well.
Inferno had been aiming for Dinobot’s knee, but had missed her intended target. Which made her very surprised when her foot connected and Dinobot fell anyway, curled around himself. Inferno stood and poked him with her foot. “Well? Get up, soldier.”
“This round,” Dinobot managed through gritted teeth, “goes to you, Predacon.”
The Amazon looked down at him clinically, then nodded. “I will have to remember that spot.”
“What’s happening out there?”
“Oh, nothing much. Dinobot and Inferno are beating the slag out of each other.” Optimus shook his head as the lift locked into place. “They’re having fun.”
Rhinox, on monitor duty that shift, chuckled slightly. “Who’s winning?”
The third person in the room, Silverbolt, looked over. “Dinobot may be honourable, but hardly chivalrous. It seems wrong to me to fight a woman.”
Optimus glanced over at the man, mentally sizing him up. “Last I saw, Inferno was winning. I wouldn’t worry about her.” Silverbolt was no lightweight, but Inferno was huge. She could break him in half if she were so inclined.
The communications panel blinked to life. “Cheetor calling … well, whoever’s on-shift.”
Optimus was closest, so he tapped the control. “Optimus here.”
“Good news, big guy. I’ve found a stasis pod! It’s weird, though. It’s a big one, and it’s marked with an ‘X’.”
The Maximal leader tapped the communication circuit. “Don’t touch it, Cheetor!” Optimus took a quick look around the control centre – only Rhinox and Silverbolt were there to hear the report. Good. The last thing he needed was for the Predacons to find out about this. They would take the situation in exactly the wrong way. “Silverbolt and I will join you shortly. Optimus out.” He didn’t really want to get Silverbolt involved, but the man had heard the report, and he might tell others about it. Besides, Optimus really wanted back-up.
Despite the precautions of the Maximals, Megatron had wired the control centre within the first two weeks of moving in to the Axalon. However, since Megatron didn’t want to scan through endless hours of routine, he had programmed the recording device to wait for specific words. Maybe it was just habit, but the phrase “stasis pod” always caught his interest.
This time, however, he happened to be in his quarters working on one of his many projects when the recording device reported that something interesting had happened. Megatron listened to the conversation, noted the coordinates Cheetor gave, then checked the duty roster. “Another stasis pod … one that the Maximals decided to not only retrieve on their own, but also to neglect to inform the Predacons of its existence.” Megatron frowned, idly tapping his fingers against his computer console. He couldn’t go himself; that would be too obvious.
As usual, most of the Predacons were busy. Still, there were a couple he could summon without attracting undue attention. He tapped his own commlink: “Blackarachnia, Waspinator, the Maximals have discovered a new stasis pod. Take one of the hoverpads and follow them; I will transmit the coordinates to you. I want to know what our … esteemed hosts are up to, yes.”
He shut off his radio. It was his place to go behind the backs of the Maximals, not the other way around.
“Shove over; I’m driving.” Just because Blackarachnia understood Megatron’s motives on only allowing them one hoverpad – it would be less likely to be missed than two – didn’t mean she had to like it.
Waspinator already stood on one of the hoverpads, waiting. “I’m a better flyer than you are.”
Waspinator always did have a stubborn streak. Blackarachnia rolled her eyes, but stepped onto the platform behind the taller woman and wrapped her arms around her waist as the hoverpad lifted. “No matter how much Megatron yelled, I wouldn’t do this for Quickstrike.”
She had expected at least a chuckle from Waspinator, instead of the silence she received. Blackarachnia poked her. “What is with you today?”
“I’ve … just got a bad feeling about this …”
“Coward,” said Blackarachnia.
Optimus and Silverbolt steered their hoverpads near the ground, but only Optimus stepped off of his. “Cheetor, report!”
The blond, who had been sitting on his own transport, hopped down to stand by his leader. “I didn’t touch it, Optimus. It was trashed and empty when I got here.”
The oversized stasis pod was half-crushed into a nest of energon. Optimus peered inside of it. “The protoform might have been killed in the crash,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “Protoforms evaporate when they die if it happens while in liquid state …”
“Optimus …” Cheetor had merely found Optimus’ concern about the pod intriguing before. Now, seeing the look on his leader’s face, he was becoming nervous. “What’s going on? What’s so special about this pod?”
“We’ve got the same questions!”
The Maximals turned as a hoverpad swooped low over the ground. Blackarachnia leapt down from it, drawing her gun in the same motion, while Waspinator swept around to flank them. “Secret retrieval missions aren’t exactly open and friendly,” Blackarachnia sneered.
“How did you two find out about this?” demanded Optimus.
“Oh, we have our ways,” said Blackarachnia. “What’s in that pod?”
The Maximal leader stood aside, letting her get a view of the pod’s interior. “It’s empty. There was never anything in it.”
Blackarachnia charged her hand-laser and pointed it at him. Waspinator, still on the hoverpad, copied the gesture. “If you’re going to lie, try to make it believable,” hissed Blackarachnia. “Talk, Primal.”
“We have a truce,” Optimus reminded them.
“One that doesn’t cover Maximal covert operations,” Blackarachnia retorted. “And the rule about fighting technically only applies while inside the Axalon. Now, why all the secrecy?”
“Can you please trust us just once?” asked Optimus. “This is a very dangerous situation, and a couple of suspicious Predacons will not help. For your own safety, go.”
Blackarachnia cocked her head slightly. “How kind of you to worry about us. Predacons can look after themselves. Now, are you really going to turn away two armed warriors who just want to help?” Then, her tone icy: “We’re going to find out what you’re up to in any case. You might as well let us watch your backs while we’re here.”
Optimus sighed. “All right – it isn’t as if you and yours will be able to do anything with this information. The main purpose of the Axalon was deep-space exploration. Another was to drop off this stasis pod and its occupant on some far, empty world.”
If Optimus thought Blackarachnia was going to be satisfied with that, he was mistaken. “The critter from this pod is so scary why?”
“It contained the result of an attempt to duplicate Starscream’s immortal spark,” said Optimus reluctantly. “Protoform X was strong, brilliant … and extremely dangerous. And he couldn’t be destroyed. He slaughtered an entire colony before he was recaptured and sealed in this pod …”
“How come I didn’t know about this? Who else was in on it?” demanded Cheetor.
“I don’t even want to know what you Maximals were thinking when you came up with that scheme!” scoffed Blackarachnia.
“You …” Waspinator looked up at Optimus, her eyes wide. “You were one of the scientists on that project?”
Without waiting for an answer, Waspinator opened fire.
Her aim was as bad as it had ever been. The Maximals managed to scatter before the Predacon could draw a proper bead on them. Blackarachnia ducked as a shot came too close. “Waspinator! What do you think you’re doing?”
Waspinator didn’t answer, instead guided her hoverpad back into the air to try to get a clear shot. “Silverbolt, try to bring her down!” shouted Optimus.
“I … I cannot harm a woman …”
“Just take her gun away!”
Silverbolt brought his hoverpad alongside Waspinator’s, pacing it, then reached out an arm. He caught the woman around the waist, lifting her off of her transport and onto his own. Without anyone controlling it, Waspinator’s hoverpad simply stopped in the air. The Maximal looked down at his prisoner. “I give you the chance to surrender. Put your weapon away, and we will …”
She didn’t let him finish the offer, if she was listening at all. Waspinator jabbed her elbow into Silverbolt’s midsection, causing him to release the hoverpad’s control stick. Waspinator then ducked out of his grip and kicked him in the shin. Silverbolt lost his balance and crashed to the ground … which, fortunately for him, was only a couple of metres away.
Cheetor lined up a shot, but Blackarachnia smacked his hand. “If you damage a hoverpad, Megatron’s going to smelt us!”
They ducked another bolt of laserfire. “What? Waspy’s not doing her best to do it herself?”
Blackarachnia hissed at him, then broke cover to try to get to the hoverpad Silverbolt had left hanging in the air. Waspinator ignored her, still focussed on Optimus.
Waspinator took a few seconds to up the power setting on her hand-laser, carefully lined up her shot … and would have hit if Cheetor hadn’t snuck up behind her and abruptly tilted her hoverpad, throwing the Predacon off-balance.
The bolt smashed into the raw energon, sending surges of electric fire through the crystals. Suddenly, the energy released in a blast that sent people, hoverpads, and stasis pod flying in a tempest of charged wind.
Blackarachnia groaned as she opened her eyes. She wiggled her fingers and toes, and found her gun was still in her hand. That was at least one plus.
Nothing seemed too badly damaged, so she set about the business of sitting up. A slight movement some metres away caught her attention and she readied her weapon, but it was only Silverbolt. “Oh, goody. I get company. Waspinator’s lucky she didn’t end up within my reach.”
The Maximal rose unsteadily to his feet, still dizzy from the wind. “Blackarachnia. Are you hurt?”
“I was picked up by an energon storm and slammed into the ground,” said Blackarachnia. Her body felt like one big bruise, but she wasn’t going to admit weakness. “Pardon me if I don’t dignify your question with an answer.”
Silverbolt considered that. “Allow me to rephrase: can you walk unassisted?”
“I think so.”
She started to get to her feet, but Silverbolt walked over and helped her up before she could shoo him away. The Maximal frowned as something occurred to him. “You should not even be out here, not in your …”
Blackarachnia shook him off. “Look, pal – one, I’m three weeks pregnant. There isn’t enough baby here yet to get hurt if I’m banged around. Two, I’m a Predacon warrior and I don’t need a guardian!”
“But Tarantulas asked me to …”
“Tarantulas doesn’t care about my well-being,” Blackarachnia told him. “If she told you to look out for me, it’s only because she knows it annoys me.”
Wisely, Silverbolt let the subject drop. Blackarachnia tapped the commlink on her wrist, then growled. “Slag. Not enough power; there’s nothing but static on every frequency. Stop standing there with your mouth open and help me look for one of the hoverpads. Even if they can’t fly, they’ve got stronger radios in them than these little communicators.”
“The chances of us finding one …”
“Shut up and search.”
In the face of a determined Blackarachnia, Silverbolt shrugged and began looking around. He proved he had at least some worth a few minutes later. “Blackarachnia! Over here!”
She quickly joined him by the wreck of the hoverpad. With the Maximal’s help, she managed to get the twisted access panel off. The inside of the device was a mangle of sparking wires, though. “Completely junked,” grumbled Blackarachnia. “Megs is going to have a fit.”
“The important thing is that we are not seriously injured,” said Silverbolt. “We will journey back on foot.”
When he didn’t immediately set off, Blackarachnia smirked. “You don’t have the faintest idea where we are either, do you?”
He looked up at the trees. “The storm did send us to an area unknown with no way to follow our own trail back,” he admitted. After a moment, he pointed, “There. If we make it to that hilltop, it will give us a view of the land. And even if we cannot recognise any landmarks from there, we will be more visible to those who come to find us.”
Plan firmly in mind, Silverbolt set off. After a minute, Blackarachnia shrugged and followed. “Too bad we can’t just ask someone for directions.”
“Ow, ow, ow … You okay, big guy?”
Optimus gingerly tested his limbs. “I’ll survive. You?”
“Same here.” Cheetor winced as he stood up. “Don’t know if I’ll enjoy it, though. Primus, I’ve never seen Waspy go ballistic like that, not even when she was a crazy bug.”
“Neither have I.” And what was stranger was that Waspinator the woman seemed generally more rational than Waspinator the robot wasp had ever been. It might have just been the speech pattern, but Optimus didn’t think so. She was still very much Waspinator, but unlike the rest of the Transformers, something in her mind had changed with the rest of her body.
But her attack still didn’t make any sense. If she had looked angry, outraged, Optimus would have understood; he had never approved of the Protoform X Project himself. But Waspinator had been afraid. Not of the thought that Protoform X was quite possibly running loose. Not even at the mention of Starscream, whose spark had once temporarily possessed her body.
She had been afraid of Optimus.
He pulled himself back to the present. “Yes, Cheetor?”
Cheetor shrugged. “Well, what do we do now? Our commlinks are fried, I’ve lost my gun, and who knows where the hoverpads are. Do we try to look for the others or do we head back to base to put together a rescue party or what?”
They should try to find the others, but a ground search would be impossible over so much terrain, not to mention dangerous – Optimus’ hand-laser had been lost in the storm as well. Also, Optimus wanted to consult with Rhinox about the possibility of Protoform X’s survival. “Do you know the way back?”
The blond nodded. “Hey, I was the one scouting this area.”
“We’ll go back to the Axalon, or at least close enough to radio them. Silverbolt and the Predacons are warriors; they should be able to take care of themselves until we can get a proper search party up here.” So he hoped.
The first thing Waspinator was aware of once she regained consciousness was pain. Her left leg was in agony, twisted underneath her at an angle she didn’t think her current body was technically supposed to achieve. With as much stoicism as she could muster, Waspinator firmly told herself that she was in one piece for a change, and tried to stand up.
That was a mistake. Waspinator thought she had hurt before; now the pain seared through her leg and exploded into her body, setting her nerve endings on fire.
She fell back down with a whimper. At least when she was still, the pain was at a manageable level. However, she couldn’t just lie there and hope someone would find her. Carefully, moving only her head, Waspinator looked around and realised one of the hoverpads was only a few metres away.
Except that now she had to get to it.
There wasn’t any choice. Waspinator gritted her teeth and dragged herself over to the wreckage of the hoverpad. It could be salvaged, but not by her, even if she did have the proper tools. At least the transmitter still worked. With trembling fingers, she tapped in the frequency. “Waspinator to Axalon – there was an energon storm at the coordinates of the latest stasis pod.” No need to say what caused it. Not yet. “The wind scattered everyone. I think my leg is broken. Retrieval requested. Please.”
Rhinox’s incredulous voice filtered back: “Waspinator? What are you doing out there?”
Lying would be pointless. “Megatron found out about the stasis pod and wanted to know why the Maximals were being secretive about it. Please, your people are out here, too …”
“We’ll come as soon as we can.” Then, “Did you happen to see the condition of the protoform?”
“It wasn’t in the pod,” said Waspinator flatly, then cut the connection while leaving the tracking beacon on. Let him worry. Serve him right. She tried to contact the others who had been scattered, but received either silence or static. The little communicators everyone wore on their wrists were too weak to counter the residual interference from the energon storm.
She was still lying on her stomach. Deciding there wasn’t anything else to do, she pillowed her head on her arms. She could hear the life of the dark forest around her, but ignored it. Between pain and other fears, the wildlife couldn’t scare her, not now.
It was all her own fault. In hindsight, she knew she shouldn’t have attacked Optimus. Now she was hurt, lost, and probably under suspicion. Even if she was found and brought back to the Axalon, things would only get worse.
And if she wasn’t found … it wouldn’t matter.
Green eyes watched the energon storm with some curiousity.
He had known they would come for him, eventually. He was certain he hadn’t been alone on this world; he could feel them, dimly, then stronger as they drew near.
He had considered simply running. Something had obviously gone drastically wrong – he knew that simply by looking down at his current body. This world was large. He could escape them easily.
But he didn’t want to close off his options, not right away. So he stayed near his stasis pod, but not too near. Close enough to feel his pursuers when they came.
Then when they first arrived, he hadn’t been interested. He was still considering which way he would go to avoid them when she arrived, she with her fragmented, contradictory mind. She who was both ancient and a child, who had seen more than any mind could stand, but still lived. She who knew darkness, but remained innocent.
All this he felt, and it fascinated him. Still, it would be dangerous to track her. To seek her out would bring him precariously near to those who sought to capture him. He should simply walk away …
… Except that there was something else about her, something he felt echoed in his own soul …
He had no choice. He had to find her. He had to know.
Rhinox sat back in his chair. So. The Predacons had added themselves to the situation. It wasn’t an entirely unexpected development; they did have the habit of being exactly where they weren’t supposed to be.
He summoned up the duty roster out of habit, though he already had a plan in mind. Rhinox didn’t want to have to explain the situation to anyone yet, which meant the only one he could rely on for the moment was Rattrap. He activated his communicator: “Rhinox calling Rattrap.”
“I need to talk to you in the lab. Is Dinobot still out there?”
There was a brief pause, likely as Rattrap looked around. “Yep. He’s yellin’ at ‘Strike on how to improve his fighting technique. It ain’t my idea of a good time, but they seem happy.”
“Good enough. Bring him in; I need someone to take over the monitors.”
“You got it. Rattrap out.”
They were still walking through the forest, though the way was getting steep. “You are certain you are all right?”
“Tarantulas told me not to let you overexert yourself. She said you are very delicate right now.”
“Has it occurred to you that Tarantulas might be a lying scumbag?” asked Blackarachnia. “Look, if I promise not to overdo it, will you stop bugging me?”
Silverbolt considered that. “Will you keep that promise?”
“Argh! Don’t you have anything better to do than play guardian?”
He looked around at the dark trees. “Not right now, no.”
“Look, Tarantulas is just using you to annoy me,” Blackarachnia told him. “Why are you taking orders from her, anyhow? You’re a Maximal.”
He shrugged. “So? You yourself started off as a Maximal.”
“So? Now I’m a Predacon.”
Silverbolt cocked his head slightly. “Optimus Primal seems to be in overall command, with Megatron in a position kin to an advisor. Both factions live in the Axalon, working together for common gain. We share duties, equipment, and food equally. Explain to me the difference between Maximals and Predacons.”
“On Cybertron, there was a war …”
“But here there is not,” said Silverbolt. “You have been removed from the conflict, to live out your life on this world, in this form. Can you not simply accept your fate and be content to live out this life?”
The Maximal shook his head sadly. “Was being a Transformer caught in a senseless battle on an alien world really so much better?”
On one hand, to Blackarachnia’s annoyance, Silverbolt was making a great deal of sense. Even if they hadn’t been changed, even if the Predacons won the Beast Wars, what would the point be? Neither the Maximal or the Predacon ship would ever fly again. There was no way to return to Cybertron. Megatron had his own plan around the Golden Discs, but Blackarachnia had discovered it and concluded that it was completely unworkable, if not outright insane.
On the other hand, she wasn’t about to concede an argument. “I had power,” she said. “I was strong. I was fast. I could change my form to suit situations. I could take major damage and be fine after a few hours in a CR-tank. And I was immortal, to a point. I could be destroyed, but time couldn’t touch me. This form might last another sixty years at the outside, and it will fall apart and stop working before the end.” She scowled. “I refuse to die of old age.”
“You cannot let that fear taint your whole life.”
“I’m not afraid! I’m angry!” yelled Blackarachnia. “This is not my body and this is not my life!”
“Now it is.”
For now, thought Blackarachnia. Tarantulas claimed she could restore their true forms, given time. Of course, Tarantulas claimed many things. Still, she was their only hope.
There she was. There.
Silverbolt stopped suddenly, listening. “I think we are being followed …”
They turned. Green eyes peered out of the dark.
Waspinator had her eyes shut tight, trying to block the pain in her leg. She didn’t notice that someone was standing beside her until a mellow voice above her said, “Hello.”
“Wha … what …” asked Waspinator, trying to rouse herself to full consciousness. After a second, it occurred to her that she didn’t actually recognise the voice.
A massive hand caught Waspinator by the back of her collar and pulled her roughly to her feet before she could react, for all the good it would have done. Her head was forced back, and she found herself caught by a pair of bright green eyes. Her captor snorted contemptuously. “Don’t tell me I’ve been sensing you this whole time.”
Waspinator managed to find her voice again. “I know what you are.”
Protoform X. Whatever he had been before, he had been changed like the rest of them. From her position, through her haze of pain, Waspinator couldn’t see much of him. What she saw was enough; he was a giant of a man in a short, black jacket, and bald save for four red braids tied tightly back. If she had a chance to stand back and critically assess the man, she would have said the six thin bones he had speared through his cheeks were his most horrifying feature. If she had been asked right then, she would have said it was his eyes – they burned like green fire, but they were cold.
He dropped her with a noise of disgust. “You are the one, then. Terrible waste.”
Her broken leg screamed in protest, but Waspinator stubbornly bit back her own cry. “I wasn’t created like this on purpose,” she said eventually.
“How fortunate for you. Do you have a name, little one?”
“Waspinator.” She couldn’t think of a compelling reason not to answer him.
“Waspinator,” he repeated. “Not the name you awoke with at your creation, I’m certain. It will have to do. Little Waspinator.”
He chuckled, then fell silent, simply watching her. Waspinator squirmed under that gaze, painfully aware of herself as a tiny, ineffectual creature, no match for the being that loomed over her. She wasn’t worthy of the accident that granted her strange life, that made her kin to the force-of-nature trapped in a man’s body that stood and watched … Waspinator squeezed her eyes shut. Help me. Someone, help me …
“Poor little Waspinator. So small, so afraid, so alone. Such pain. Such terror.” He knelt down behind her to gently hold her shoulders in his hands. Mouth next to her ear, close enough that she could feel his breath, he whispered, “It’s not good for such an … innocent creature to carry such darkness. Let it out, little Waspinator. Scream for me.”
Without so much as a warning snarl, the sabretooth cat launched itself at Silverbolt, its weight sending him hard to the ground. Still, even caught off guard, Silverbolt struck back, managing to drive his hand into its throat. The trick bought him a few seconds.
Silverbolt was strong, fast, and trained in the fighting arts. But he was only human.
The Predacon mindset told Blackarachnia to let nature take its course; she couldn’t be blamed for Silverbolt’s death at the teeth of the cat, and they would have one less Maximal to deal with. A slightly more practical outlook made her bring her hand-laser in line and blast the sabretooth.
It ran back into the jungle, trailing the stench of burnt fur. Blackarachnia holstered her weapon and knelt by Silverbolt. He was bleeding in a few places, but nothing that would be fatal. She had been very fast.
Silverbolt blinked up in surprise. “Thank you.”
“Forget it. Come on.” She took his hands to help pull the warrior to his feet. “Can you walk unassisted?”
“I … think so.” Silverbolt smiled down at her. “You rescued me. I knew that the boundaries of Maximal and Predacon were immaterial and that, in the end, we are all merely people.”
“I did it so that if something this gun can’t scare comes along, I can throw you in front of it and run away,” Blackarachnia snapped. Actually, her reasoning was that there was strength in numbers and that Silverbolt, despite his odd ideas, might come in handy someday. No need to tell him that.
It suddenly occurred to her that her hands were still in his, so she snatched them back. He looked slightly hurt, but she ignored it. “Don’t get soppy on me just because I saved your life.”
“You need not keep up the Predacon act with me. I will not tell the others that you showed a glint of kindness, if it means so much to you.”
“You think you’re organic.” Blackarachnia couldn’t decide if she was amused or disgusted. “You actually think that you’re organic.”
Silverbolt managed to look mildly annoyed. “It is the only life I have known. I have seen the evidence, I have had my roots explained to me, but the thought that I ever was a robot is simply too unbelievable. Everything I am tells me that this is how I was meant to be.”
“You were meant to be a transforming robot …”
Blackarachnia was cut off by a scream, muted slightly by the forest, but still recognisable. “Waspinator!” She had been ready to throttle the woman herself, but the sound of that cry drove all thoughts of revenge out of her mind. No torture Blackarachnia could devise could make Waspinator scream like that.
Silverbolt was already running towards where the sound came from. “Hurry! We must aid our comrade!”
The Predacon ran after him, but not before one note of irritation flickered through her mind: ‘Our’ comrade. Faction boundaries meant as little to him as his past did.
“Was I the only one in the crew who didn’t know we were transporting this Protoform X thing?”
“The only one of the original crew,” agreed Optimus. “Rhinox and Rattrap knew.”
Cheetor threw up his hands in exasperation. “Anything else you forgot to tell me?”
“You didn’t need to know,” said Optimus sternly. “You were better off not knowing.”
“Now we’ll have to let everyone know, for their own safety.”
A scream tore the air. Optimus and Cheetor froze in their tracks. The younger man found his voice first: “That sounded like Waspy!”
It sounded like Waspinator had found Protoform X, or vice versa. Optimus decided not to say that aloud, though. There was a chance Protoform X was indeed killed in the crash. There was a chance that whatever scared Waspinator was something relatively mundane, like a wild animal.
He doubted it.
The Maximals ran towards the source of the sound.
“There. Now isn’t that better?”
Waspinator slumped forward, holding herself tightly in a vain effort to control her trembling. “Why?”
“The eternal question,” said Protoform X grandly, rubbing her shoulders once before releasing her. “Because I want to. Because I like to. What does it matter?”
There were undertones to the question, but Waspinator was in no condition to hear them. The combination of pain and terror had taken their toll, and she fell to her side in a dead faint. The man crouched above her sighed sadly. “No strength in this one. Such a waste.”
Unconscious, the woman wasn’t particularly interesting. Protoform X let his attention drift to his surroundings, and, incidentally, the remains of the hoverpad. With a curse, he switched the tracking beacon off by pulling a few of its wires. He had been careless to not notice it before, too caught up in testing the strength of his curious little pet …
“Hey! Big ‘n ugly! Why don’tcha pick on someone your own size?”
Very careless, he mentally chided himself. He should have sensed the approach of the others. The one who taunted him was young, a dark man with a shock of blond hair. And there was another behind Protoform X, trying to sneak up. He considered his options. On one hand, he had a perfectly viable hostage at his feet, one that he could do anything he pleased with. On the other …
On the other, he was certain his form, strange as it was, could easily take on both of his opponents before reinforcements arrived. And they would arrive.
He crouched, watching the blond, but stretching his empathic senses behind him, feeling the approach of the other. He hadn’t really wanted to engage his pursuers at first – such a waste of time – but now found himself looking forward to the prospect of a good fight. Once finished, he would collect up Waspinator and take her with him. She was weak now, but he might be able to change that.
The only question now was whether it would be more fun to kill his opponents or merely to cripple them.
The blond advanced on him cautiously, balanced on the balls of his feet. Obviously he had some combat training, but his attention was divided between Protoform X and the woman at his feet. Protoform X laughed and decided to push that point. “Worried about your friend?”
“If you’ve hurt her …”
“I haven’t even started.”
The blond wanted to attack him – he could feel it – but he wouldn’t when there was the chance they might trip over Waspinator. Protoform X decided to make things easier by making the first strike, stepping past Waspinator and lunging at the young man. To his mild surprise, he missed; the Maximal was quicker than he thought. Not that it mattered. Protoform X learned fast and knew how to compensate for a disadvantage. His next punch caught the blond in the stomach, winding him.
Protoform X used those seconds of distraction to empathically check on the Maximal who had been behind him. He had expected that the Maximal’s first thought would be to check on Waspinator, and he wouldn’t need to worry about him immediately. It astonished him that he was wrong.
Apparently he forgot that he was a rather fragile organic. Protoform X overestimated his own speed, and was caught in the back of the head by a heavy tree branch. He slumped to the ground, unconscious. Optimus immediately began looking for something to bind him with. “Cheetor! Help me with this!”
“But Waspy’s hurt …”
“We’ll tend to her in a minute. This is more important!”
Cheetor had never seen Optimus like that, more interested in capturing an enemy than helping a comrade, and he was startled into action, gathering some of the long vines that hung from the trees.
Minutes later, running footsteps signalled the arrival of the last two. “Looks like we missed all the excitement,” said Blackarachnia, peering down at Protoform X’s bound form.
“Lucky you,” said Optimus. “Blackarachnia, see if you can boost the signal on one of the commlinks … without arguing about taking orders from a Maximal.”
She had already slipped her commlink off her wrist and popped open the back of it. “I don’t want to walk back to base, either. Maybe I can use the pieces to fix the transmitter in the hoverpad.”
His priorities on an entirely different wavelength, Silverbolt knelt by Waspinator, taking off his cloak to pillow it under her head. She whimpered, then cried out incoherently without waking. “Shh,” Silverbolt murmured, smoothing her hair back. “Shh. It is a nightmare only. You are safe now, Waspinator. We will care for you …” He looked up suddenly. “What is it her friend calls her?”
Blackarachnia glanced over. “Terrorsaur? He calls her ‘Waspy’.”
“Thank you. Perhaps the familiar term will help calm her.”
He bent back over Waspinator, stroking her forehead, talking quietly, trying to soothe the woman of whatever nightmare held her. Blackarachnia turned back to her work. Her frown didn’t seem to entirely be one of concentration on her task.
Waspinator half-opened her eyes. “Terr … Terrorsaur?”
“No, Waspinator. I am Silverbolt. Just hold on.”
She managed an expression that was supposed to be a smile. “I’ll … I’ll live. Unnh, everything hurts …”
Silverbolt continued his quiet reassurances, letting Waspinator cling to him. Cheetor found himself frowning and looked away, only to find his eye caught by Blackarachnia. She flicked her gaze to Silverbolt and rolled her eyes. Cheetor smirked and returned to his watch.
After a few minutes, Cheetor, squinting up into the sky, called, “It’s the ‘sled! That was fast.”
“Too fast,” said Blackarachnia. “Especially since I couldn’t raise a signal.”
Within a minute, the hoversled came to a semi-graceful landing. Rattrap leaned on the railing, peering down at the group. “Need a lift?”
“Do we ever!” agreed Cheetor.
“How did you get here so fast?” asked Optimus.
“I was already on my way,” Rattrap told him. “Waspy-girl radioed the base – I tracked the beacon on her hoverpad, even though it stopped transmitting about ten minutes ago. Rhinox sent me to pick you guys up while he works on a tranquilliser or something for X …” He trailed off and nodded when he noticed the bound man. “That him?”
“That’s him,” agreed Optimus. “Help Silverbolt get Waspinator onto the hoversled. Carefully, though; she’s hurt badly.”
It had taken some time, but things had finally settled somewhat. Waspinator was in the main lab, under Rhinox’s care. Protoform X, in addition to being in the brig, was under heavy sedation, and guarded by Dinobot and Inferno. The situation had been explained to everyone, because they needed to know and because there was nothing they could do about it anyway.
Now, to Optimus’ displeasure, he found Megatron in his office, looking far more smug than the situation really called for. “Get out of my chair.”
“I don’t think I will.”
“What do you want, Megatron?”
“I? I want nothing, but you need something, yes. I, for one, find this whole sordid mess absolutely delightful.” Megatron sat back in Optimus’ chair, steepling his fingers. “Was it the Predacons who decided to play Primus and try to create immortality using the patterns of one of the greatest Decepticon traitors of all time? No, it was the Maximals, those brave, noble …”
“Shut up, Megatron.”
Megatron ignored him. “So what are you going to do with your little pet, Optimus Primal? You cannot simply destroy him – either he will eventually heal, or, worse, end up a disembodied spark like Starscream had been.”
“We’ll lock him away until …”
“Until what? Until he escapes? You yourself said he was brilliant,” said Megatron. “Now, I might have a few ideas on how to control your problem, but they are very – shall we say? – Predacon ideas, yes.”
Optimus frowned. “Desperate times, Megatron … I’m listening.”
“He’s only an organic now.”
“Oh, don’t sound so self-righteously repulsed,” Megatron scoffed. “You helped create a creature who single-handedly wiped out an entire Maximal colony. At least when Predacons pull tricks like that, we own up to it. Besides, I was thinking of merely … crippling him, yes.”
“I still don’t like that,” said Optimus. “We could drop him off on a deserted island somewhere …”
A short snort of laughter interrupted him. “Really? How long would that keep him, hmm? How long would it keep you, if you were sufficiently determined? No. We must fit him with some kind of control mechanism. Something tamper-proof. Between Tarantulas and I, I’m certain we can come up with something, yes.”
At the moment, Optimus couldn’t think of a better plan. Megatron stood. “I will consult with Tarantulas now.” At the door he paused, and looked back to Optimus with a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. We won’t do anything a Maximal wouldn’t do.”
The door slid shut behind the Predacon before Optimus could throw something at him.
“I don’t know what Maximal policy is, but that’s my best friend in there and I want to see her!”
Rhinox frowned at the redhead. Terrorsaur had been demanding answers ever since he heard that Waspinator had been hurt, and had only gotten more determined when they tried to shoo him away. “She’s in no danger. Her leg was broken. She’s lucky it didn’t get infected. Now she needs to rest,” said Rhinox. “Don’t disturb her.”
“I’m not disturbing. I’m just visiting.” Before Rhinox could protest, Terrorsaur ducked past him. The entire day had been a strange one, from the Maximals trying to keep the stasis pod secret to not letting him talk to Waspinator.
Terrorsaur hadn’t been particularly protective of Waspinator before. That was because Waspinator had been a warrior robot and a dunk in the CR-tank could repair most any injury. Now Waspinator was a well-conditioned if fragile-looking young woman. Human bodies couldn’t take much punishment, and Waspinator was all that he had. Come to think of it, he was all that Waspinator had. She needed him, even if no one else did.
Damn right he was going to be protective.
He skidded into the room, looked back over his shoulder, and grinned at Rhinox who hadn’t bothered to chase him. With that, he returned his attention to Waspinator.
She was propped up on the berth to be half-seated, watching him with an odd combination of happiness and apprehension. Her left leg was carefully braced, a detail made easily noticeable by the fact that her pants, jacket, boots, and gloves were in a tidy pile by one of the machines. Her oversized green shirt covered her to the hips, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t; still robots in their own minds, Waspinator wasn’t modest and Terrorsaur didn’t see anything especially interesting about a young lady in a state of undress. There were a few wires or thin tubes running into his friend, and that was what caught his attention. Waspinator shook her head. “You’re not supposed to be here, Terr.” She was pleased that he was, but also worried, and he could hear it in her voice.
Terrorsaur decided the worry was for his sake and smirked. “Oh, come on – they’re Maximals. What’s the worst they’ll do?”
The faint smile faded from her face, which was the exact opposite of what Terrorsaur expected. “Sorry. Bad joke.” He crossed the room, dodged a couple of machines, ducked under a wire, and sat on the edge of his friend’s berth. Without actually touching it, Terrorsaur traced a finger along one of the wires that ran into Waspinator’s arm. “What is all this stuff?”
“Tests,” Waspinator told him sadly. “They’ve decided they’re going to learn what they can from my … accident. I’m stuck here for a while.”
“Slag. How long?”
“Who knows? They don’t.”
“Slag. Want me to bring you anything?”
She chuckled. “Just you. And maybe a library datapad.”
Terrorsaur smiled and patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll see what I can find. At least you get to lounge around and dodge work for a while.”
“No, no, I’m still doing some good here,” said Waspinator. “Rhinox and the other medical types get to see how our bones regenerate – they need to see it happen so they can figure out a way to make it faster. I get to be a scientific experiment.”
She laughed, but the sound was hollow. Terrorsaur settled back beside her, putting his arm around her shoulders. “You’re worrying me, Waspy. I’ve never seen you depressed before. You took the change harder than the rest of us, and since you returned from this last mission, you’ve gotten worse. What happened to you out there?”
“I’ve got a broken leg. Can you blame me for sulking?”
“Waspy …” He paused, then, “You’ve been scared. Usually you’re braver than I am. We’ve always been equal before, more or less, and I … I don’t know how much longer I can be the strong one.”
Terrorsaur brushed her hair back with his free hand, then drew her head to his shoulder. “Don’t apologise. It’s not your fault. Maybe not being allowed to be afraid is good for me.” Even as he said it, he didn’t believe it. His nightmares came more frequently now, and often reflected the current situation instead of his usual fears. Fortunately, they weren’t the wake-up-screaming type of nightmares, so Waspinator didn’t know. “Just get better, okay?”
“I’m never going to be better.”
“Waspy, talk to me. Please. I’m worried about you.” He tilted her chin up, forcing her to meet his gaze. “Why are they really running all these tests?”
“Terrorsaur …” She bit her lip, then broke out of his grasp to stare down at her folded hands.
He put one of his hands over hers. “Shh. It’s just me. You can tell me.”
Waspinator took a deep breath. “I think I’m immortal.”
Megatron trailed a finger along one of the bones Protoform X had jabbed through his face. The thin spikes had gone though the muscle of his cheeks, and were likely held in position by grace of his enhanced healing factor. Still, they probably limited Protoform X’s facial expressions, and looked uncomfortable in any case.
They were in the laboratory that Tarantulas had more-or-less claimed as her own. Megatron had sent Tarantulas out of the room, telling the scientist to look over the data they had collected during their little … surgical procedure. They had already gone through the Maximals’ files on Protoform X. Megatron could understand why they wanted to try to create an immortal spark, but he failed to see the logic in putting it into such a strong body before they could be sure of its loyalty. He decided it was yet another reason why the galaxy would be a better place under Predacon rule – Predacons obviously had more sense than Maximals.
There were other things that disturbed Megatron as well, things that made Tarantulas follow his order instead of arguing with him. The aliens had granted the Cybertronians every advantage they could with their strong, young bodies, even to the point of making Blackarachnia – whose beast-form had been based on a newly-mated black widow spider – pregnant. And Protoform X had many strange advantages built into his form, including his regeneration factor. It made keeping him sedated quite the problem.
He was waking up even now, but Megatron was ready for that. However, all Protoform X did was open one eye and glare blearily at the Predacon. Megatron smiled warmly at him … well, he gave the appearance of a warm smile, at least. Protoform X would know it was false. “Welcome to the Axalon. I am Megatron, leader of the Predacons.”
“‘Axalon’ is a Maximal word,” rumbled the man on the table.
“It’s a Maximal ship, as well as a long story,” said Megatron. “You will be filled in later, ah … Protoform X?” He frowned slightly at that. “The term has no grace to it. You need a proper name. What do you think of ‘Rampage’?”
“Does it matter?”
“Mm, not really, no,” Megatron agreed. “But since you seem to have no real objections, ‘Rampage’ it is. Now, do you see this little box I’m holding?”
“Get to the point.”
Megatron sighed. “In brief, you have been shot through with tiny devices that have inextricably bonded themselves to your skeletal structure – you will not be able to remove them, no matter how determined you are. Most of the time, they are dormant, and you are free to live your life. However, they activate if I push this button here. Do you understand?”
Without warning, Rampage lunged for Megatron … tried to. Before he even reached a sitting position, pain tore through his body and flung him back on the berth. Megatron nodded. “As you can see, it works. Now, isn’t this better than being half-tranquilized and locked up for the rest of your life?”
Rampage didn’t deign to respond. Megatron chuckled. “I have no use for you, not yet. The time will come. But do not forget … you’re mine.”
To be continued ...