Megatron’s first thought when he heard splashing upon entering his quarters was that Inferno was cleaning again. He was less than pleased to find Tarantulas in his hot-tub, smirking up at him insolently. “Care to join me, leader?”
“Get out of my quarters.”
The scientist pouted. “You’re always so mean to me. You could at least be pleasant once in a while for the years of loyal service I’ve given you.” Tarantulas stood up and leaned over, resting her hands on the rim of the tub, arching her shoulders a little to let the water drip off her body. “Now, I wouldn’t mind calling a little truce …”
By all rights, the display of raw sexuality should have gained the undivided attention of any man, but it failed to interest a self-possessed Cybertronian. Not that he didn’t recognise what Tarantulas was attempting – she was trying to distract him. Without a backwards glance, Megatron walked over to his computer and cut the download that was transferring data from his machine to the one in Tarantulas’ quarters. He tapped the commlink on his wrist: “Megatron to Inferno.”
“I have something I need thrown out of my quarters.”
Tarantulas settled back in the tub with a sigh. “You’re no fun and you’ve gotten lazy, Megatron, calling in your pet to toss me out.”
Her leader simply folded his arms across his chest. “You will take less enjoyment from your eviction if Inferno does it, yes.”
“Mm, true enough.”
Inferno arrived a few minutes later, took one look around the room, and instantly divined her commander’s will. Without a word the Amazon hauled Tarantulas out of the hot-tub, wrapped her in a large towel, and flung her over her shoulder.
As Inferno was collecting up the scientist’s clothing with her free hand, Megatron caught Tarantulas’ chin in his hand, then leaned down so his nose was almost touching hers. “Where is my duck?”
“I think it landed behind your desk,” said Tarantulas. “Oh, stop glaring; I didn’t hurt the lousy thing.”
Inferno didn’t understand the rule about no public nudity in the base, but she obeyed it, hence the towel around Tarantulas. Tarantulas didn’t bother to struggle and simply let herself go limp as she was marched to her quarters. “He should have reacted, you know,” she grumbled.
The Amazon ignored Tarantulas, continuing on her way. The scientist continued. “He didn’t, though. The Queen is the sole reproductive in the Colony, and he didn’t even bat an eye.”
“Silence. It is these foolish bodies that affect him so,” Inferno snapped, awkwardly tapping the door control to Tarantulas’ quarters. “The aliens put him in a drone body to weaken us.”
“Now why should the Colony follow a drone?”
Inferno dropped her burden roughly, and Tarantulas yelped her pain. The Amazon frowned down at her. “Because he is still the Queen, no matter what form he wears.”
It was Cybertronian logic rather than the thoughts of an ant. Ant-thoughts were much easier to direct. “These bodies will doom us,” Tarantulas reminded her, rubbing her thigh where she had landed. “The Colony will die without a true Queen, one that can propagate. Megatron isn’t even willing to be a drone.”
For a moment, Inferno wavered. The moment passed and she set her shoulders. “The Royalty will find a way, spider.” Then she turned on her heel and marched out.
Tarantulas grinned. She had no real purpose or plan behind confusing Inferno, beyond the fact that a confused Inferno tended to make a very irritated Megatron.
Scorponok took off his clothes and left them in a pile on the bench, next to another pile that was a clean set. The bench was in a little alcove that existed specifically to hold clothing while people showered. No one worried about mix-ups or clothing being stolen as a prank. Prank-wise, no one would have thought of it.
The alcove was the only real change to the design of the room, which had always been a shower. These days, however, it sprayed water rather than Cybertronian cleaning chemicals. Still, it was built to Cybertronian standards, which meant there was room for four and absolutely no privacy. Most of them didn’t care and even preferred when someone else was there, if only because it was hard to reach one’s own back. Quickstrike had been a bit leery of the lack of privacy, but resigned himself to it. Silverbolt still refused to shower with anyone, which confused them, but generally his quirk was indulged.
Scorponok tugged at his braid, loosening it. He had become faster at it over the months, but it still took a couple minutes to unbind his hair. Loose, it hung halfway down his thighs. Brushing it was a bit tricky, but he didn’t mind. He stepped out into the shower area and turned on the water.
Scorponok found, to his amazement, that he was enjoying himself.
Not the shower, just generally enjoying himself. Not the part about being human – it was something he could put up with, but he didn’t want to stay organic forever. It was the fact that he was actually seen as useful now. Tarantulas had all her efforts bent towards biological science rather than technology, leaving him the Predacon with the most engineering skill. Rhinox tended to be caught up in science as well, and Blackarachnia and Rattrap were dabblers rather than proper techs. People came to him if they needed something repaired. It meant work, but he liked work.
As well, even though he wasn’t fond of his human form, it presented new technical challenges. Like the plumbing, like the ropes across the river, like the alcove in the shower area, like a hundred little annoyances he had found solutions to because no one else had bothered. He would overhear someone complaining about something, and he would amuse himself by coming up with a way to solve the problem. He didn’t advertise it, but people knew he did it, and it was enough.
There was another addition to the showers, and Scorponok went to it. It was a small niche in the wall that held a nozzle and a button. Unable to use their old cleansing chemicals, they had needed to develop a new one. Rhinox had come up with it – Scorponok could do chemistry, but the Maximal had beat him to it. Still, the design of the dispenser had been his and he had installed it, so he at least had a part in it. It took five handfuls of the thick liquid just to work it through all his hair, then another two for the rest of his body. He took the longest in the shower, even longer than the fanatically-tidy Inferno, just because his hair took so long to wash and dry. Scorponok never considered cutting it – it was part of him. Besides, Waspinator would play with his hair sometimes, which felt pleasant in a weird, organic way, and it made Terrorsaur go all huffy. Anything that annoyed Terrorsaur was fine by Scorponok.
The air-dryer was his as well. The chemicals they used to use to clean themselves evaporated quickly, but water didn’t. There were air-dryers at a couple of the Axalon’s entrances to deal with rainwater, but it was Scorponok who thought of taking one and installing it in the shower. Towels were slower, required cleaning, and Waspinator kept stealing them for some reason. She wouldn’t say why, and Terrorsaur just shrugged when Scorponok asked him about it.
Scorponok pulled on his clean clothes, then headed back for his room. Brushing and re-braiding his hair would take a while.
He called out before she reached the lift. “Hey! Where’re you headed, firebug?”
Rattrap called up the duty roster screen. “Care to elucidate?”
“Out. Side,” Inferno said, enunciating with exaggerated care.
Predacon moods, thought Rattrap, annoyed. Still, he wrote, ‘Outside’ on the roster with a flourish. He wasn’t going to be out-sarcasmed by Inferno.
She didn’t notice, of course, but it was the thought that counted.
At first, Dinobot found it a bit strange that his most frequent visitor was Tigatron, but when he thought about it, it made sense. People like Megatron or Rattrap, whom he had expected to show up and complain or taunt, were likely simply too angry to want to bother with the walk. Optimus and Rhinox respected his desire for privacy. Cheetor and Quickstrike were probably under orders not to annoy him. Likely Silverbolt never wanted to see him again. Sometimes someone would stumble across him by accident, but Tigatron was generally the only one who sought him out.
This was a purely social call – if Tigatron were hunting, she would be carrying an ordinary hand laser instead of a smaller model of her old cold blaster. She preferred her blaster, but it was inefficient as a hunting weapon – she would have to wait for her prey to thaw if she used it.
She had come to him while he had his scanner out, its insides spread across a makeshift bench. It had been acting up over the last couple of days, and Dinobot found that repairing it was beyond his skill. He sighed. “I will need a new scanner.”
Tigatron arched an eyebrow. “Your idea of living off the land leaves something to be desired.”
“Should you remove your blaster and high-frequency device before you say that? I’m not out here for a holiday.”
“And I’m not here to argue with you,” said Tigatron. “Walk with me.”
Dinobot shrugged and fell into step behind the scout as she picked her way through the forest. She had a specific destination in mind, Dinobot was certain. Tigatron rarely did things for no purpose. “I am somewhat surprised you haven’t left the Axalon yet, Tigatron.”
“You know why I stay.”
“Airazor.” Which was why Dinobot wasn’t entirely surprised Tigatron stayed. The scout wanted to leave, but she also wanted company.
“Her as well.” Tigatron pushed a branch out of her way. “Silverbolt has transferred his hero-worship to me.”
The scout let a branch snap back at Dinobot. “Not good. If I leave, who else has he to emulate? Silverbolt is a warrior and he knows it. If Airazor and I left, who would he look to next? Inferno? Megatron?”
“Perhaps he will begin to learn to be himself instead of attaching himself to people.”
“Hm.” Tigatron didn’t speak again for another half-hour, merely led the way. Finally she said, “We’re here.”
Dinobot looked down. “This is nothing new to me.”
At their feet was the torn body of an antelope. Dinobot didn’t need to inspect it; he already knew that it had been killed for nothing more than the sake of killing; ripped apart, and not by any mere animal. Unusually, this one was wet. Tigatron nodded, looking at the dead antelope. “He had left this one alive. I had to put it down.” The wet was melted ice, then. She looked up again. “Do you see why we wish you to return? Even if you left, went away from here, you would be in less danger than staying close but apart.”
“There are tracking devices in Rampage. I can keep track of his movements and have thus far avoided him.”
The words slipped. Tigatron’s eyes narrowed. “Thus far. You think you could fight him?”
“Without doubt.” He paused. “Winning is less certain.”
“Don’t be foolish. Come back to the Axalon. Megatron and Rattrap might still be angry with you, but I think both would prefer you to be alive so they can be angry.”
“Destroying Rampage would be a great service to all,” Dinobot said.
“You know why Optimus didn’t allow that when we had him at our mercy. Destruction of his body might just make him a loose spark, as Starscream was.” Tigatron shook her head. “You don’t need to risk your life to atone.”
Dinobot didn’t reply. He did have to risk himself, otherwise the penitence wouldn’t matter. What other way was there?
Having been foiled in her plans and embarrassed, Tarantulas prowled the Axalon, seeking to make someone else’s day worse than her own.
She found Scorponok down in the cargo bay, apple in one hand and a stylus in the other, and he looked up when he heard the door open. There was a drafter’s datapad sitting on the table, and he was waving the stylus through the hologram hovering above it, tweaking the design of something that was probably quite practical and therefore extremely boring. From where she was, it just looked like an updated hoversled design.
Tarantulas perched on the table opposite him and poked her fingers into the hologram. It didn’t shimmer – she had no personal energy field to disrupt the image now. Scorponok reached through and prodded her in the thigh with the stylus – as it turned out, where she was developing a bruise from Inferno’s rough treatment. She got off the table. Scorponok smirked at her. “What do you want?”
“Oh, I just felt like chatting,” she said. “I had a little run-in with Inferno this morning, and it set me thinking. Inferno always was the one most affected by her beast-mode. I’m curious how long it will be before her human thoughts take over.”
“It can’t happen soon enough,” said Scorponok.
Tarantulas hummed a bit. “Are you sure you want that, Scorponok? After all, she may continue to obsess over Megatron, just for different reasons.”
Scorponok chuckled, then returned his attention to the blueprint. “What, like you do? It’s not going to work, Tarantulas.”
The scientist tried to radiate innocence. “What isn’t?”
“Trying to get me jealous over that. I don’t want to be Megatron’s companion, I just want Inferno to back off.”
“I’m just trying to figure out the rates and patterns of the mental adjustment to …”
Scorponok snorted. “Yeah, right. You and Terrorsaur both – he’s already been asking questions. Go bother him.”
Obviously, Scorponok wasn’t going to give her any amusement. He had mentioned Terrorsaur; Terrorsaur was generally easy to bait. Tarantulas set off to find him.
In one corridor, she found Quickstrike walking the other way, idly rubbing his arm. Tarantulas fell into step beside him. “You’re hurt. I should take you down to the lab, to make sure you’re all right.”
Quickstrike smirked. “Nice try, spider-lady. Had me a little … encounter with ‘Ferny is all.”
Tarantulas blinked. “She didn’t!”
The Maximal chuckled. “Right. She didn’t and she punched me this time.” He shook his head. “Is it just me, or does Inferno seem extra surly today?”
“She’s menstruating. She’ll be back to normal in a day or two. It’s hormonal; Inferno and Waspinator get it the worst.” Tarantulas smirked. “Notice yet how Terrorsaur practically vanishes for a few days every month? He’s staying out of Waspinator’s way. Still, it’s worse for Inferno – it’s another reminder that she’s not a worker ant.”
“Am I gonna get kicked if’n I express gladness that I’m male?”
“Heh, not by me. We get the bothersome chemical reactions, but you get the bothersome physical ones, so it evens out.” Tarantulas shrugged. “I think she’s starting to catch on to what you want from her. You used to just amuse her. Now she probably thinks you’re a stupid, pushy idiot who can’t tell a worker from a queen. She might eventually get around to thinking like a human, but until then she’s in a dangerous state, at least for you. You’re lucky she hasn’t decided that you’re perpetuating some kind of blasphemy by propositioning her.”
Quickstrike frowned, confused rather than annoyed. “But even by her reasoning, she’s a queen, I’m a drone.” When Tarantulas raised an eyebrow, he shrugged. “I do listen to what she says, I just don’t get most of it.”
“Whether Inferno will admit it or not, in her deepest core, she’s a Predacon, and all the ant-thoughts twist around that,” said Tarantulas. “Physiology comes second to function – she’s a warrior, and Megatron is the queen, no matter what bodies they have. Besides, she thinks of you as a worker, not a drone.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she lets you act as one. If she thought you were a real drone, she’d never let you do any work.”
The Maximal chuckled. “That don’t sound too bad.”
“Heh. Ask Megatron.”
Their medical science was ludicrously primitive. They could monitor and understand how the human body was supposed to function, but the actual repair was mostly waiting for their bodies to mend themselves. They had been incredibly lucky with Waspinator’s broken leg, lining up the pieces inside and holding them in place with an external brace. They hadn’t even been sure if bone would repair itself or not. Even then, there might have been something extra in her that helped the process. Or the cut Silverbolt had got a few weeks ago while sparring – they had cleaned it off and, fortunately, it had stopped bleeding on its own. The wound had sealed, but imperfectly. And then there was Transmutate, whom they couldn’t do anything for except watch until she died. Rhinox didn’t want to go through that again.
They were scientists. There had to be a better way.
CR-chambers were out of the question, at least for now. He didn’t want to think about what might have happened if the others hadn’t got him and Dinobot out of the CR-chambers as quickly as they did after the change. The energy wave had deactivated the chambers, but there was still that chance they might have reactivated. Death by well-meaning repair program was too horrible to contemplate.
So the CR-chambers were useless to them now, or at least for now. But they had other resources. The Predacon base had a cloning tank, for instance, which Rhinox was certain could be of use. Right now he was working on adapting repair nanites to make tiny organic machines that could duplicate human repair functions.
In fact, they were completed, or at least as far as he could complete them without a test.
His first thought was to test it on himself so as not to risk anyone else, but he knew the idea was foolish. If something went wrong, he needed to be able to counter it. Besides, he should at least tell someone he was up to something before doing it.
She had been dangerous, once. It wasn’t just her weapons or skills – Tarantulas had added a little extra something to Blackarachnia’s energy outputs, making her electromagnetic aura pleasing rather than intrusive. If she got close enough to someone, she could affect his energy field, causing pleasant distraction, and thus make him more agreeable to her suggestions.
Now she had been reduced to being a living factory with the purpose of creating her own clone. Blackarachnia was less than happy with the situation.
She stomped into the Axalon’s control room barefoot, ignoring the pain of the metal against her feet, and activated the matter replicator’s scanner. Blackarachnia sat down, then held up one foot and then the other for the computer’s inspection. Being three months along in her pregnancy, the bending required was just a little more difficult then it should have been. “Computer, fabricate shoes to fit me – Tarantulas’ style, but my shade of yellow.”
Rattrap, on monitors again, barely gave her a glance. “Thigh-highs not workin’ out for you?”
“They’re not comfortable any more,” Blackarachnia grumbled. Being forced to update her wardrobe to accommodate her changing shape annoyed her – the only bit of her original clothing that still fit was her heavy collar. Actually, everything about her pregnancy annoyed her, but since she was currently updating her wardrobe, that annoyed her the worst.
Check that – Tarantulas was the part that annoyed her the worst. She had found Blackarachnia in front of the mirror this morning, glaring at the now-visible bulge of her midsection, and had laughed that Blackarachnia was the only one of the group changing shape lately. It was only the knowledge that her presence annoyed Tarantulas that she stayed with the scientist instead of moving in with Scorponok or cleaning out a spare room to claim for herself. Besides, Blackarachnia wanted to keep an eye on her.
The shoes materialised in the replicator alcove. Blackarachnia picked them up and put them on.
“Still got ‘Bolt at your beck and call?” asked Rattrap.
“Like that’s my fault. I try to get rid of him, but he doesn’t discourage easily.”
They had seen the smoke several minutes ago and had immediately raced to it. It wasn’t hard to guess the cause; Inferno started minor forest fires at least once a week. It wouldn’t happen if she used a standard laser weapon for hunting, but the Amazon refused to give up her flamethrower. At least she had been convinced to report her fires now so they could be put out quickly.
“Inferno must have grown overzealous in her hunt again,” grumbled Tigatron. “Where is she? She always stays to look at her fires.”
Dinobot’s voice was too flat. Tigatron ran over to him.
Inferno lay sprawled at the foot of a tree, her flamethrower a couple metres away. What flesh wasn’t torn was bruised or burnt, and her leather jumpsuit was ripped and soaked with blood. Whatever she had been up against, she had put up a fight even after she had lost her weapon; her hands and forearms had taken the worst damage.
Tigatron knelt by the Predacon. “She’s alive, but needs attention.” She tapped her commlink. “Tigatron to the Axalon.”
Rattrap’s voice filtered through the small speaker: “Yo, Stripes.”
“Inferno has been severely injured. Send someone with the hoversled to my coordinates. Tigatron out.”
Dinobot looked annoyed. “If we let her die, it would be a great blow to Megatron.”
“Predacon or not, we found her. If we let her die, we might as well have killed her ourselves,” Tigatron returned. She drew her sidearm. “I’ll see if I can put out this fire.”
Fortunately, the fire was still small, and Tigatron’s cold-blaster was up to the task. She walked back to Dinobot and Inferno. Dinobot glanced over. “I suppose you’ve guessed what did this.”
“Rampage, obviously. The wounds are wrong to have been inflicted by an animal. The cuts had thrown me at first, but he had stolen a few things – including a few knives – from the Axalon while he was there.” Tigatron bit her lip for a moment. “You would have been the easier target, generally.”
“If Rampage had an ordinary mind, I would say the attack is meant to be a direct insult to Megatron,” said Dinobot. “Attacking his strongest warrior, then leaving her alive to say she’s no threat to him. Given Rampage, more likely she merely happened across him, then he lost interest when she fell unconscious from her injuries.”
Quickstrike and Silverbolt were new creations, open and inexperienced and, to be honest, neither was real bright. Someone needed to look out for them, but Optimus, Rhinox, Tigatron, and Airazor tended to be busy, Cheetor was still young himself, and Dinobot … Rattrap kept changing his mind about whether Dinobot could really be trusted or not. Right now, he was on the side of ‘or not’. The Predacons certainly couldn’t be. That left Rattrap stuck in the role of mentor. He wasn’t particularly thrilled about that.
But, well … it had to be done, and no one else could do it. And he was one of the ones who found them in the first place. And something in the back of his mind still blamed him for the problems that eventually killed Transmutate. Rattrap considered himself about as dishonourable as a person could get, but he had a strong sense of right and wrong. He had to make up for Transmutate somehow.
The communications panel beeped. “Tigatron to the Axalon.”
Rattrap stretched a leg and tapped the button with his heel. “Yo, Stripes.”
“Inferno has been severely injured. Send someone with the hoversled to my coordinates. Tigatron out.”
The communication cut before he could ask for more information. He’d get it later. Rattrap called up the roster to see who wasn’t busy. His first thought was to send Quickstrike, but Quickstrike went weird around Inferno. Rattrap called Scorponok instead. He could order Predacons around in certain situations now, so he might as well take advantage of that once in a while.
The door to the lab slid open behind them. On one hand, it was easier to keep track of the Predacons now that they lived at the Axalon. On the other, the Predacons could more easily keep track of the Maximals.
“Your busyness makes me curious,” said Megatron as the door slid shut behind him. “Besides, we’re not supposed to be keeping secrets now, are we?”
Possibly Megatron’s most annoying habit was tossing teamwork speeches right back at him at inconvenient times. While what they were working on wasn’t a big secret, Megatron’s presence still seemed wrong. Not that Optimus was going to let on. If the leaders couldn’t get along, they couldn’t expect their minions to. He glanced at Rhinox, who shrugged and continued working. Optimus finally turned around. “We’re trying to synthesise organic nanites to cover the loss of our CR-chambers.”
“Organic nanites?” asked Megatron.
Optimus shrugged. “Why not? These bodies are basically soft machines.”
“I wasn’t questioning the logic, merely stating intrigue.”
“They’re still untested,” Rhinox admitted. “The theory is sound, but that’s no guarantee they’ll work in practice. They might even be dangerous.”
Optimus nodded. “The body might take ill trying to reject them. The nanites might try to repair things that don’t actually need to be repaired.”
“That has been a problem with the technology ever since it was invented, yes.” Megatron chuckled. “Though if you need volunteers, I would suggest not asking Waspinator.”
“Not funny, Megatron. Rhinox, could we use any of the native animals to test?”
Rhinox shook his head. “The nanites are too specialised.”
“One of the native humans, then,” Megatron suggested.
“The aliens told us to stay away from them,” Optimus reminded him. “I don’t want to risk it.”
He turned back to Rhinox. Behind him, Megatron made a disgusted noise. Instead of a complaint, however, he simply stepped past Optimus and held out his left hand to Rhinox. There was a short gash across the palm, while his right hand held the knife that caused it. “You would have stood around and argued all day otherwise,” Megatron said. “Test your devices.”
“I have heard the risks and am volunteering of my own free will. What more do you require?”
“Motive,” said Optimus. “You seem more the type to volunteer someone else.”
Megatron shrugged. “I want this little project to work, and the sooner the better. Besides, I don’t expect you to do anything too terrible to me, no.” He paused and smiled slightly. “If I die, you inherit Inferno.”
Rhinox looked to Optimus for confirmation. Optimus shrugged. Rhinox ran a scanner over Megatron’s wound, then detached a small vial from the bottom. From that, he dripped a few drops of the pale blue liquid on the cut. “This batch of nanites is designed to self-destruct after thirty seconds,” Rhinox explained, still watching the scanner. “That won’t be long enough to see any visible repairs, but it should be detectable by our instruments. Do you feel anything, Megatron?”
“It stings a little, but the pain is minor.”
After a few more seconds, Rhinox nodded. “They’ve lysed into their component molecules. They’re harmless now.”
Megatron wiped his hand on the edge of his jacket, leaving a smear of nanite substrate and blood. “They don’t seem to have been particularly helpful.”
“They started to work.” Rhinox tapped a few buttons. “Care to try for two minutes?”
“Certainly,” said Megatron. “And since I am a part of the experiment, I wish to see your research.”
Optimus snorted; of course there would be a price for the Predacon’s help. Megatron smirked at him. “Come now; you know I am not without scientific training myself, and I have little to do now but take what little information from the alien Disc you give me and try to extrapolate potential alien site locations.”
Rhinox took Megatron’s injured hand again, while Optimus put the datapad with their research into his free hand. Megatron read the datapad with obvious interest. “Perhaps we could install nanite factories in ourselves, to duplicate the function of our true bodies’ internal repair system. We might even be able to keep ourselves from aging …”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Megatron,” Optimus warned.
“I am a Predacon,” said Megatron idly. “All that matters is that I stay ahead of you.”
Before Optimus could question the statement, the lab’s intercom activated: “Yo, Rhinox, you down there?”
Optimus tapped the button. “He’s here, Rattrap. What do you need?”
“Tigatron says Inferno’s been hurt bad. Scorponok’s bringing her in on the ‘sled.”
Optimus looked over in time to see Megatron’s expression of surprise that immediately returned to neutral. “I’ll come up to help Scorponok bring her in. Optimus out.”
He had never liked Inferno. True, he wasn’t a great fighter, but with Tarantulas as the primary technician, Scorponok didn’t have much else. Inferno had arrived like a tornado, and despite her stupidity, she had immediately become Megatron’s favourite warrior. Scorponok might have been able to put up with that. It was the clinginess he couldn’t stand. If Inferno wasn’t always hovering over Megatron like she owned him, he wouldn’t mind her so much. He still wouldn’t like her, but he wouldn’t feel so resentful.
He didn’t like her, but he could still feel a little sorry for her. Physically, she had adapted to her organic limitations better than most of them. Mentally, she was still behind. Beast-mode affected her thinking, and being trapped in living flesh could be considered the ultimate beast-mode. Ant-thoughts warred with human instincts and left her confused, and it seemed to be getting worse.
According to Megatron, Inferno didn’t want the human thoughts to win out. She liked being an ant. There was no uncertainty as an ant. As a Transformer or a human, there would always be doubt.
Well, all right, he felt a little sorry for her and he could understand her – Megatron had given him purpose as well – but that didn’t change anything.
Scorponok caught sight of Tigatron, and guided the hoversled down. Dinobot and Inferno camouflaged better with the scorched forest, and since neither were moving, they were harder to see. The difference was that Dinobot was still by choice.
Before the change, when they could be blown to pieces and be fine after a few hours in a CR-tank, Scorponok had taken a kind of glee in Inferno’s injuries. Looking at her now, he found he couldn’t. She might have been bigger and stronger than most of them, but she was still a fragile flesh creature. It wasn’t fair to hurt her like this.
Scorponok sighed. “All right. Lift her up here.”
Terrorsaur was a little harder to find, but that was why they had tracking devices in their commlinks. He was a fifteen minute walk from the Axalon, probably doing Rhinox’s fieldwork again. If it was his own project, Terrorsaur would be collecting decorative plants rather than just taking snips from the more mundane-looking ones.
He glanced up as she approached, then went back to tapping at his datapad. “I hear you’ve been working on an experiment,” said Tarantulas.
“What, this?” Terrorsaur held up the vial in his hand. “It’s for Primal. He wants to deep-scan some samples, and the equipment’s not mobile.”
Tarantulas shook her head. “Not the plants. You’ve been trying to learn about our biology, and in an oddly-roundabout way.”
The vial was carefully set into a box, and Terrorsaur drew out an empty one. “Oh, that. It’s not an experiment. I’ve just been thinking about it.”
“For reasons that have nothing to do with Quickstrike or, say, Waspinator?” Tarantulas said, smirking.
Terrorsaur returned her predatory smile. “Think duck thoughts, ‘Ranty.”
“Does everyone know about that?”
“Pretty much,” said Terrorsaur. He got up from his crouch and walked over to a tree, forcing Tarantulas to follow. “All right – you’re the real scientist here. What have you got?”
“It’s all some foolish breeding urge,” said Tarantulas. “Or at least that seems to be the basic idea. Since the species is so short-lived, most of their life is seeking mates and raising children.”
Terrorsaur reached up and pulled a leaf off the tree. “We aren’t total slaves to these bodies,” he told her. “We can still think. Besides, what about Tigatron and Airazor? They’re both female – they couldn’t breed even if they wanted to.”
“I was getting to that. Besides already being established with one another, we come from an androgynous species. We don’t actually make a distinction between genders … well, Quickstrike and Silverbolt do, but they don’t know any better. Still, those of us who find the physical important are getting it the worst.”
Terrorsaur smirked. “I find the physical important, and I still think Quickstrike’s the most aesthetic one in the group.”
“You can’t throw me off with fancy words,” said Tarantulas. “You’re just talking about visual appeal, and Quickstrike fits your inclinations. Everyone else falls outside your visual preferences.”
“Like you know my visual preferences.”
“Call it a wild guess that you find slender and angular attractive. That was your creator’s signature style, after all.” Tarantulas beamed at him. “I hear you pitched a fit at Waspinator some weeks ago when she tried to experiment with her clothing. Now could that possibly be because your master had modular …”
Terrorsaur’s hand wasn’t large enough to go all the way around Tarantulas’ throat or strong enough to strangle her one-handed, so instead he dug his nails in where they reached. “Why, yes. Yes it is. How clever of you to reach the blindingly obvious conclusion.”
“All right! All right!”
Terrorsaur let her go, then picked up the vial he had dropped to grab her. “Pick it up at mentally-androgynous tactiles suddenly finding themselves in sexually-dimorphic bodies.”
“Right,” grumbled Tarantulas, rubbing her throat. “The brain is no longer in full control – you’re at the mercy of your body with all its hormones and pre-programmed responses. In short, we’ve all been hard-wired to notice each other, while a subroutine tries to determine who would provide us with the best offspring.”
“Wouldn’t that be Rhinox?”
Tarantulas blinked. “What?” When Terrorsaur grinned, she scowled. “I mean biological offspring, not shell-building, and you know it. But I’m guessing that what you’re looking for is just a means of expression.”
He shrugged. “We can’t bond. We can’t even feel energy fields any more … if we even have them now. It limits things.”
“That’s just what your mind wants.”
“That’s the important part.”
“For Cybertronians. For humans, the body is more important in these matters.” Tarantulas waved a fist at him. “Blast it – you’re always touching her! Why?”
“You and Quickstrike are so hung up on that. Tactile sense is my primary. I might as well be blindfolded if I can’t touch things.”
“Do you like to?”
“Not when I think about it. I’m not used to my fingers moulding to fit a surface.” Terrorsaur frowned, touching his fingers together. “Hnh – I wonder what effect a touch-sculpture would have now.”
Tarantulas rolled her eyes. “Who cares?”
“You should. Having rubber-padded sense-pads that mould to surfaces might enable someone to increase his tactile sense exponentially.”
Which was a surprisingly good idea from him. Not that Tarantulas was going to tell him that. She returned to the original subject. “You can’t have what your mind wants, and you don’t understand what your body wants. But I can tell you how to act on those feelings.”
Terrorsaur raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
She told him. Terrorsaur waited until she was finished, then laughed until his throat hurt.
She was sitting in the shade of the Axalon, reading a datapad. There was something appealing about the way she sat, legs tucked under herself, a tidy little bit of life under the large spacecraft. Cheetor found himself cursing Terrorsaur’s existence again. There was something unfair about the fact that Waspinator liked her asocial, possessive partner more than someone who was genuinely friendly.
Optimus approved of Cheetor’s efforts to try to befriend the Predacons, but he made clear his displeasure of Cheetor’s extra interest in Waspinator. Waspinator was old, old enough to have lived through at least part of the Great War. She had been a Decepticon – low-ranked, but she still had a sea of energon on her hands.
The thing was, Cheetor couldn’t believe that. Waspinator the robot wasp had just been too silly to be considered a true threat, and as a human, it was even harder to make that connection. She was too small, too fragile, too helpless to have ever been anything dangerous. She was someone to be protected, not feared. Looking at her made him feel bad for all the times he had hurt her during the Beast Wars, even if he only caused the injury in self-defence.
It went without saying that Cheetor was the only one who never laughed at Quickstrike for his infatuation with Inferno.
Still, Terrorsaur had made it abundantly clear that the only way to get to Waspinator was over his dead body. Even if he wasn’t actively standing in the way, he and Waspinator were a package deal; if he wanted to befriend one, he had to befriend the other. And if Terrorsaur actually liked him, then maybe he’d stop seeing Cheetor as a threat.
“Hey, Waspy? I need some advice.”
She looked up. “Yeah? What on?”
“Terrorsaur. I try to be friendly, but he keeps giving me the brush-off,” said Cheetor. “How on Cybertron did you manage to win him over?”
Waspinator shrugged. “I helped him up.”
“That’s how I met him,” Waspinator said. “Scorponok knocked him down for saying something stupid. Terrorsaur was groping at the wall to help pick himself up, so I caught his hand and pulled him to his feet.”
“It was the first time anyone had ever done anything for him without wanting anything in return – not even thanks.”
Cheetor sighed. “So …”
Waspinator nodded. “When you do something nice for him, you’re still trying to gain something in return – his friendship. All he sees is that you want something from him, even though you mean well.”
The Maximal frowned. “He acts too jealous.”
“I talk to whomever I please. He can deal with it.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know,” said Waspinator. “I’m choosing to ignore that.”
“Why? It’s because of these organic bodies, isn’t it?”
Waspinator shook her head. “I prefer metal, but I’ve gone through so many bodies in my life that this is … well, it’s just another body. It should be frightening or horrible or disgusting, but it’s not. It’s just inconvenient.” She spread her hands in a shrug. “No. It’s because he’s so young. His personality hasn’t had a chance to fully develop. In a few years, he could be a completely different person. Besides, we’ve only known each other for three years now.”
“That’s nearly a fifth of his life.”
“It’s an instant of mine.” She sighed. “Look, I care enough about him not to let him get too close. He needs to develop himself on his own; I would end up changing him whether I intended to or not. It wouldn’t be fair to him.”
There wasn’t anything Cheetor could think to say to that, so he picked up on an earlier point that caught his interest. “Why’d you change bodies so often? You just liked upgrades?”
“No. I did it so it wouldn’t seem like I was living too long.”
“So you changed your name and your persona each time?” Cheetor asked.
Waspinator narrowed her eyes. “You don’t play roundabout well. Get to the point.”
Cheetor held up his hands defensively. “I’m not playing anything, I was just asking a question. Are you being you now, or is this just another persona?”
“I don’t think you would like my original personality very much. He wasn’t much better than a thug.”
“So who are you, then?”
“I’m Waspinator,” she snapped. With that, she got up and went back into the Axalon.
Cheetor considered chasing after her, and thought better of it. He hadn’t meant to get her angry, but it was his own fault for goading her. He didn’t know what else to say, anyway. He would apologise later, after she had calmed down a bit.
Waspinator kicked off her boots and settled into the nest of padding she called a bed.
Cheetor had been unnervingly close. Waspinator had changed identity so often that it had become habit to change. Now, forced into a new body, the old habit was taking over. It hadn’t been such a dramatic change from her Cybertronian form to her wasp one – the crew all knew that Waspinator was Burnout, so the identity change would have been pointless. Now, with the glitches repaired, she found herself slipping into Jade – her last persona before the glitches started taking over. Jade, world-weary Decepticon warrior, who had fled to a scientific outpost on a colony world just to get away from everything …
Waspinator curled up and squeezed her eyes shut, wanting to block the memories, but knowing that she shouldn’t. She wasn’t even sure if she could now in her organic body. As a Decepticon, all she had to do was reach into her mind and turn certain switches off … But that was when the glitches started. Forgetting made the hurt go away, but forgetting was dangerous.
She barely heard the door open. “Waspy, you will not believe what Tarantulas told … Oh, Waspy.”
Waspinator just curled up tighter. “Go away.”
“Oh, no. Don’t you dare pull this on me.” He prodded her with his toe. “C’mon, I put up with your self-pity when your leg was broken, but this is just going too –”
She rolled and swept Terrorsaur’s legs out from under him in one movement, then pounced, pinning him with her hands on his shoulders and a knee on his stomach. Terrorsaur’s eyes widened in panic. “Waspy …”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Waspinator, please …”
She got off him. With his claustrophobia, he was useless when pinned. Terrorsaur sat up. “Because I’m not strong enough for both of us, you idiot, and I wanted to see if there was any fire left in you.”
“I have a lot to be upset about!”
“Yeah, and I’ll be dead in fifty years while this body falls apart under me!” Terrorsaur snapped. “When do I get to panic?”
“Go panic at someone else, then.”
“Yeah? Why don’t you?”
They glared at each other for a long minute, and knew the response was the same for both: because I don’t trust anyone else with that, wingmate mine.
Waspinator chose to back down first, softening her expression and holding out her hands. She was visual-oriented, but Terrorsaur was a tactile.
She closed her eyes as Terrorsaur took her hands, curling her fingers, then wrapped his longer ones around her fists. “What’s wrong?”
She didn’t open her eyes. “Who am I?”
“You’re Waspy. You’re a Predacon warrior and scout. You steal towels and design vapourcutters for fun.”
“That’s what I do. Who am I?”
“You’re my friend. Talk to me.”
“Later,” she said. Like in twenty or thirty years, once Terrorsaur’s identity was firmly established, once she could be sure his thoughts were his own and she couldn’t accidentally mould him in her image.
And if she was remaking herself, as Cheetor guessed, she had the same problem. She would establish herself faster because she had practice at it, but right now she was just as vulnerable as Terrorsaur. She might influence him, but he would influence her right back, and she didn’t want that.
Usually their positions would be reversed, and he would open his eyes and shout at her for hovering over him again. Only this time it was Megatron hovering over Inferno, and no one was certain when she would wake up. She would live, yes, but she was one of their strongest, she had been armed, and Rampage had still managed to do this. If Megatron had any doubts about using Rampage for his own ends, they had crystallised now. At least revenge was coming. Just a few more calculations, just a bit more work …
The Predacon was torn from his thoughts by a faked cough. He glanced up. “What do you want?”
Quickstrike stepped into the room. “I heard what happened. She gonna be all right?”
“In time, yes.”
“Good.” The Maximal stood across from Megatron, looking down at Inferno sadly. “I always kinda thought she was invincible.”
“She used to be.” Or close enough. Pseudochitin, Cybertronian alloy, and CR-tanks were the next best thing.
“If there’s anything I can do …”
“You can leave.”
Quickstrike obviously wasn’t happy to be ordered out, but he left without a fuss. Megatron sighed. It was due to the Maximals that his warrior was still alive. It didn’t change things. Megatron touched her shoulder. “Inferno?”
She opened her eyes … one eye, at least. The other was swollen shut. “Megatron?”
“What happened, Inferno?”
“Rampage appeared out of the forest and attacked without provocation. I wasn’t strong enough, Royalty,” she said unhappily. “I did manage to set him on fire. It didn’t help.”
“Did he say anything?”
“Some taunts and laughter. Nothing of value.” Inferno had been speaking from shame, but her voice hardened with anger: “Give me another chance. Let me kill him.”
“No. I intend for him a more permanent end than death.”
“When you are healed. I will need you at full strength.”
She nodded, relaxing. “I will make up for my failure today, Royalty.”
To be continued ...