His mind was full of static. Words and ideas flickered through his consciousness, rendered meaningless by a lack of context. He had a sensation of self and of body, and wasn't quite sure what to make of either.

There was light blazing down from above and the sky was blue. He reached out and touched it. It was smooth and cool and slightly concave. Around him was metal. He held his hands up, inspecting them. There were only two, and their shape was within the parameters that he thought of as 'hand'. As different from what? he wondered, but the only answer was static.

He was lying on something soft. Putting his hands down, he could feel the softness against his palms and partway up his arms; and while the rest of his arms could feel the soft, it couldn't feel the fluttery, tickly texture of it.

Then he stopped wondering about it because there was an explosive hiss and the sky moved because it wasn't the sky - he was lying in a large container. There was still light and the sky was still blue, and he realised that he had been looking through some kind of transparency.

He cautiously sat up - the softness came with him, it was fastened to him somehow, little banners of gold-edged brown all tied together and hanging down his back - and found he could see over the side of the container. Everything was dry, dry, hot and brown and dry as far as his sight could reach. Twisted forms jutted up from the ground, casting areas of shadow. Nearby was another metal container, twin to his own, open. He ran his hands over the rim of his container - no, not container - pod. Stasis pod, - curious as to why he found comfort in the unyielding metal.

"Heh. Finally."

The sound - the voice - startled him, and he cast about, searching for its source. He found his own voice, and words: "Who is there? Who are you?" The words were ... automatic? Expected? Tradition?

A figure detached itself from the shadow of a twisted structure-growth and the world was divided into Self and Other. The other flicked a lock of blond hair out of his eyes. "Couldn't tell you, partner."

"You do not know who you are, either?"

"Didn't I say that?"

He looked at the other, searching vainly for a trace of familiarity. "Did you come out of that stasis pod?" he asked, pointing.

The other glanced back. "Yeah. Not long ago. Few cycles, I reckon. Saw you in the other and was waitin' for you to wake up."

They were both from the pods. It didn't matter that he didn't recognise the other - they were kin or colleagues or otherwise belonging together. The other had even called him 'partner.' He swung himself over the rim of his stasis pod and landed on the dusty ground, putting abrupt pressure on his feet. His body balanced itself, smoothly and automatically, and he was pleased. Unfamiliar as his body was, it seemed to be a good one.

He shifted his attention outward. "It cannot be right that we do not know who we are or why we are here. Something must have gone wrong. I think we should try to create a signal."

The other made a derisive noise. "How?"

"Well ..." He looked at the pods. They were broken - smashed and crumpled and, as he watched, the lights in them faded. He knew that he wouldn't be able to repair them. "Perhaps they signalled before they shut off completely."

"Y'know what I think?"

The other was looking at him carefully, sizing him up. "What?"

The other grinned. "I think I could take you."

He blinked. "You could what?"

"I bet I could beat you in a fight! Let's go!"

 

Other Vengeance 2.0
A Question of Identity
( part one )

wayward@insecticons.com
 

"Why won't you let me tell them?" asked Blackarachnia irritably. "They want you awake. They'll help me find a way to get you back into your body."

Heh, you're so cute, said Tarantulas. They don't need me back in my body if I'm wearing yours, and it's one less Predacon to deal with.

"They're Maximals," sighed Blackarachnia. "They don't do that."

So I'm cynical. And if not Maximals, Megatron.

Blackarachnia decided that she had taken the worst of things in the last eight megacycles. Everyone was trapped in flesh-forms, sure, but Blackarachnia was the only one with a passenger in her head. And that's what you get for trying to steal my research, said Tarantulas, whose physical body was lying unconscious on the table in the Maximals' xenobiology lab.

They were alone, which still surprised Blackarachnia when the thought occurred to her. She had been left alone, unsupervised, in one of the Axalon's laboratories. If she were a Maximal, she certainly wouldn't be so trusting, especially not of someone like her. There was a security camera at least, but she could sabotage that in seconds if she felt like it. And, yes, the Maximals were all busy trying to figure out how to keep these flesh-forms functioning, but it annoyed Blackarachnia that she was classed as non-dangerous enough to ignore.

She took it out on Tarantulas. "If you hadn't put that weird booby-trap into your file transfer gear, we wouldn't have this problem!"

You know I put traps in everything, said Tarantulas. Anyway, I only downloaded my mind into your pretty little head, not my spark. The transfer procedure to put me back in my own body should be easy enough ... Er ...

It should be an easy procedure ... and would be for a couple of robots. "Our thoughts are still just electrical impulses, right?"

Tarantulas hummed a bit. Seem to be. So maybe we could alter the file transfer equipment so that it works with these bodies. It will be a delicate job, though. I doubt these forms can take much current.

Blackarachnia set her jaw and glared at the form on the table. "I don't mind dying if I get to take you with me."

You're so sweet. Now be a dear and let's go see if the transfer equipment is still lying where you dropped it.

They'd checked the readings, double-checked their scanners, and came to one conclusion - they couldn't detect the stasis pods in orbit because the alien energy wave had knocked them all down. That had set the Maximals on a scramble to cut through the leftover radiation and the usual energon interference to try to locate any tracking beacons on the ground.

Their scanners couldn't reach very far, but they did detect a pod about ten kilometres away. Rhinox had set off with Dinobot and Tigatron in tow to retrieve it. Optimus, Rattrap, and Airazor kept working on increasing the range of the scanners.

The alarm went off, and a screech: "Are the aliens attacking again?"

Optimus shut off the alarm and looked back into a face he usually only saw framed by shoulder-cannons. Terrorsaur stood just inside the door to the control room, startled by the sudden noise and looking ready to bolt.

"We got two more pods," Rattrap announced. "They're practically on top of each other. Looks like Pred territory."

"Rattrap, Airazor, get a fix on their position," said Optimus. He made a decision, then crossed the room to the Predacon. "Terrorsaur, come with me."

"I didn't even do anything," the air warrior protested, but followed him deeper into the ship.

'Be strong with them,' Dinobot had said. 'Show weakness and they will rip you apart.' He and Dinobot had differing ideas on what constituted as 'strong'. He decided to use his own definitions and just be as himself as possible. Besides, Terrorsaur didn't look like he could fight anything right now.

The Predacon seemed more alert than he had eight megacycles ago and had regained some life to his movements instead of just shuffling along, but he managed to look worse. The burns on his face were no longer reddish and wet-looking, but sort of puffed and yellowish. Is that supposed to happen? Is this part of the organic healing process or is it an indication of some worse problem? After a moment, Optimus realised why Terrorsaur looked particularly scraggly - his hair had lost its bright tint and was plastered thickly down his back because it was dripping wet. His clothing was damp, though not soaked except where his hair lay on it, and the lava stench was gone. "You found the showers, I take it."

The Predacon made a sound halfway between a derisive snort and a laugh. "I had them pointed out to me. Where are you taking me?"

"Xenobotany lab. We've got -"

There was a sudden shriek, baffled and muted by walls and corridors. Optimus was about to break into a run when Terrorsaur stopped him. "Don't bother. It's just Waspinator."

Optimus stared at him. "She's your partner!"

"That was an indignant scream, not a scared scream," said Terrorsaur. "That probably means Inferno grabbed her."

"Why would Inferno ..."

"Inferno's got a thing about cleaning. I don't know if it's an ant thing or just the way she is. I got two steps down the hall before I was grabbed and marched to the showers. 'Remove your outer covering or I will remove it for you' is not something I'd ever expected to hear outside a party ... Mph. Where did she get new clothes for us from?" The last sentence was said quickly, slightly louder, as if trying to erase the one that came before.

"She asked to use the fabricator. I let her."

"You what?" Terrorsaur blinked at him. "Pit, you're serious about this truce thing."

"I am." They reached the xenobotany lab and went inside. It was a bit unusual to have a distinction between xenobiology and xenobotany, but both he and Rhinox liked plants so space was made. "I figure you could probably use a refuelling."

Dead silence, and Optimus realised that the Predacon hadn't heard an offer, but a threat. Well, maybe a Predacon sees an opportunity for interrogation, but I don't. There were two loader drone drums sitting next to the table. Optimus reached into the uncovered one and tossed the Predacon one of the yellowish fruits from the day before.

Terrorsaur caught it and frowned. "Plants?"

"These forms are omnivorous," said Optimus. "We know that type is safe. I'm trying to determine what else is."

Fuel in hand, Terrorsaur seemed to relax a bit. "Are any of the other Predacons up yet?"

"Blackarachnia is. Tarantulas is still unconscious. Scorponok demanded several sheets of packing foam and vanished again. Megatron's still sleeping as far as I know."

Terrorsaur sniffed at the fruit and made a face. Optimus shrugged. "Our sense of taste has been enhanced. Greatly. Just so you're not surprised."

"I think I can handle flavour," said the Predacon haughtily, but took a small, cautious bite. He swallowed, then winced.

Optimus bit back the automatic, I warned you. Terrorsaur hadn't reacted to the flavour, but to the act of swallowing. Right. The Predacons who were at their base inhaled superheated air and have burns in their throats. Blast. "Wait a minute." He found a medium-sized beaker, opened the covered container, then dipped the beaker into it to fill with water before handing it to the air warrior. "Drink this first."

Terrorsaur sighed and set the fruit on the desk to take the beaker in both hands. "I suppose you'll be in trouble if I wind up dead." Still wary after the pain caused by swallowing something solid, he took a very small sip of the water. He finished the rest quickly, wavered for a second between pride and need, then gave Optimus a 'just try to stop me, Maximal' glare and refilled the beaker for himself.

'Set them tasks as soon as possible,' Dinobot had said. 'They will be angry that you presume to give them orders, but tell them to just sit around while the Maximals do everything and they will hate you. Predacons will steal or earn, but they do not accept gifts.' Terrorsaur was treacherous, but not particularly bright. Either Optimus or Rattrap could handle him. "Are you up to going on a mission? We need to collect those two stasis pods we detected."

"I know all those words, but they make no sense in that order." Terrorsaur arched an eyebrow. "You just asked me to go recover a couple of stasis pods, after spending a year chasing me away from them."

"Look, you wouldn't be going alone, we're currently in a truce, I'm getting short-staffed, and I'm willing to bet that you don't know how to reprogram a protoform even if you had a modifier chip on you," said Optimus. "Can you do it or not?"

The air warrior shook his head. "I'm feeling better, but not that much better. I got up for information and fuel, and now I want to go back into recharge. Whatever self-repair systems we've got now are lousy." He got up, then paused. "I ... don't suppose there'd be a mirror anywhere on this ship?"

There were reflective panels for radar dishes and other purposes down in the cargo bay, so he led the Predacon there and gave him a small one, thirty by fifty centimetres. Terrorsaur spent a long moment regarding his reflection before he closed his eyes, and Optimus wished he'd looked away. The Predacon didn't look disgusted or angry - for a second his expression was one of such open and total loss that Optimus felt like he was intruding just to have seen it.

He felt he had to say something. "You'll heal."

"It doesn't matter." Terrorsaur opened his eyes again, but didn't look at Optimus. "I'm ... I'm going to go back into recharge. I know the way." He took the mirror with him.

Overall, the exchange had gone better than Optimus had expected, but it still left him with a problem. He was telling the truth about being short-staffed - Cheetor had left a megacycle ago, off doing fieldwork and collecting plant samples for Optimus. There was no telling when he would return. Rhinox, Dinobot, and Tigatron would only be halfway to the first pod by now, and even then, Dinobot and Tigatron planned to go hunting afterwards. That left just himself, Rattrap, and Airazor, and while he didn't want to send anyone chasing pods alone, neither did he want to leave anyone alone in a base full of Predacons.

Which meant the only other option was to send a Predacon.

If Terrorsaur was still in rough condition, it meant that Megatron, Waspinator, and Scorponok weren't going to be up to much activity, either. That left Blackarachnia, who refused to leave Tarantulas' side, and ...

Inferno. Well, why not? She's been cooperative so far. And, because he was honest, added, Because Megatron ordered her to be cooperative.

He knew where she was last, anyway. Optimus went up to find the showers.

The showers were off, the pipes were silent, but there were still muffled voices through the door: "No, Waspinator does not know how clothing goes back on. Ant-bot took Waspinator's outer coverings. Waspinator did not get to find out for herself how clothing works!"

"Minor! Useless little insect!"

"Hnh! If ant-bot so smart, ant-bot can put Waspinator back together again."

Optimus opened the door. The room was still wet, and the two Predacons were near the centre of it. The height difference wasn't quite as extreme as it had been when they were robots, but Inferno still could have used Waspinator as a chinrest. The scout's clothing was a green and yellow bundle in Inferno's arms - Waspinator was clad only in water and indignation. She had wide, dark brown stripes on her legs, mimicking the ones she had as a wasp robot. Her back was to him and she seemed to be in better condition than Terrorsaur had been, but it might have just been anger lending her energy and the fact that he couldn't see her burns from where he stood.

"Ant-bot grabs poor Waspinator, drags her down the hall, takes her apart, tries to drown ..."

"Silence!" Inferno glared over Waspinator's head at him. "What do you want, Maximal?"

"I don't suppose you two need any help?"

Waspinator snatched the bundle of synth-fabric away from Inferno. "Bah. Maximals never helped Waspinator before. Probably end up in even more pieces ..." With that, she stomped out, muttering to herself.

Inferno huffed, started to march out, and stopped short of walking into Optimus, who had stepped into the doorway. "Move."

He stepped aside. "I've got a job for you. It's a big one, though."

The Predacon warrior froze, visibly caught between How dare this Maximal order me? and Megatron ordered me to make myself useful. "What is it?"

"Stasis pod retrieval."

Inferno's expression relaxed somewhat and she stepped past the Maximal. "Impossible. I must remain near the Royalty."

Time to appeal to a higher court. "I'll ask him what he thinks, then," said Optimus, and started towards Megatron's room.

As expected, Inferno followed him. Once there, Optimus tapped the door chime, and when there was no answer for a long moment, he felt a brief panic - Did Megatron slip out without us noticing? He could be up to anything! - but the door opened and Megatron glared down at him.

Megatron hadn't had a chance to get cleaned up, and didn't seem to be quite up to it yet. He leaned heavily on the doorframe. "This had better be important on the level of 'the aliens are sitting on the roof,' Primal," he rasped. Hearing the damage to their throats hadn't been as noticeable in the other two - Terrorsaur always had a scraping voice and Waspinator still had her burble though she'd lost her croon - but from the normally smooth-voiced Megatron, the difference was striking.

"I need to put together a stasis pod retrieval team," said the Maximal. "I hoped to borrow Inferno."

He glanced over at Inferno, then back down to Optimus. "But, Optimus, if I'm unwell and you're insane, who will lead?"

He can't shoot me, but he can still snark me. Great. "Just yes or no and you can go back to sleep."

"Fine." Megatron sighed, then: "Inferno!"

Inferno snapped to attention. "Yes, Royalty?"

"You will assist the Maximals in the retrieval of their stasis pod."

"But, Royalty, I must remain here so I may tend to you."

"Inferno, I've got the others here. Retrieving the pod is important. You will go."

She hesitated for a second, then saluted as if to make up for not immediately acquiescing. "Yes, Royalty."

Which seemed to settle it. Inferno followed Optimus up to the control room, where Airazor was reading a map on a screen and Rattrap was tinkering with another console. He looked over when he heard footsteps, then set down his tools and ambled over to Optimus. "What's up?"

"I found a partner for the pod retrieval mission."

Rattrap looked past Optimus at the Predacon warrior hanging back by the door. "Not her."

"Her." He looked back. "Inferno, could you check over the maps with Airazor? The pods are in Predacon territory and we don't know the area that well." Inferno nodded curtly and went across the room to go loom over Airazor. "Rattrap?"

"Yeah?"

"If I was at a party and I was ordered to remove my outer armour," said Optimus, "what kind of party would I be at?"

Rattrap blinked at him. "Ordered like it's your job or ordered like forced against your will?"

"Forced, I think."

"Parts party, then. It's kind of like a slating, but less extreme." When Optimus still looked confused, Rattrap continued. "Slating you get taken apart completely and rebuilt. Parts party you just get your outer plating ripped off and remoulded. They started doing it when slating was declared illegal after the Great War."

"'They' who?"

"Sculptors and shell designers, mostly. It's like a party game for sociopathic artists. Why?"

Optimus shook his head. "Just something I heard once. I'll go retrieve the pods if you don't want to."

"No, no, you gotta stay here. Remind the Preds who's in charge of the ship. Which means I've just been set up with Megatron's favourite weapon!" Rattrap sighed. "How long have you hated me?"

"You seemed to be getting along with her earlier."

"'Angled into doin' my heavy lifting' ain't the same as 'getting along'."

The Maximal leader glanced up, assuring himself that Airazor and Inferno were absorbed in their maps, and dropped his voice. "If possible, I want new stasis pods to be checked by you, me, or Rhinox, and I want us to have back-up. You know why."

"Yeah, yeah. I'll be glad of havin' the firebug behind me if it comes to that," Rattrap admitted. "Why can't I wait for Rhinox or Cheetor to get back?"

"If the protoforms were changed like us, they'll need help as soon as possible, and I don't know when the others will return. If the protoforms can be safely left in stasis, leave them."

"Gotcha," said Rattrap. "I'll go put back the bits I took outta the Preds' hoversled."

Optimus blinked. "Why did you do that?"

"So's they couldn't sneak off with it." Rattrap went and vanished down the lift.

Such a trusting group we are, thought Optimus, but couldn't really blame Rattrap for his caution. Which brought him to his next problem: I never, ever thought I'd be doing this, but we don't know if the change affected the unopened pods and I might be sending Rattrap into terrible danger just to go look at them ... By the Matrix, I have to arm Inferno.

Optimus considered the Predacon warrior. Treachery was unlikely - Megatron had emphasised that the pods were to be brought back for the Maximals, so Inferno would bring back the pods for the Maximals. Rattrap would be in no danger, at least not from Inferno. He pulled down the weapons rack with difficulty, selected a laser rifle, and called her over. Like most of them, Inferno's weapon had been part of her body, and it simply vanished in the change.

Inferno inspected the gun, then handed it back. "If you wish me to be my most effective, you will allow me the weapon I am most proficient with."

"We haven't got one. Besides, it's too dangerous."

"It is a flamethrower. That is the point."

In the end, he let her take a heat-beam cannon as a compromise - it was tidier than a flamethrower and less likely to set the landscape on fire. She eyed the weapon with distaste - it was a mid-sized gun, which meant it was almost too large for her current body, but was far smaller than the weapon she was used to. "It will have to do."

"Good. Come on. You and Rattrap will be gone for at least four megacycles, so you'll probably need some supplies ..."

He'd found a mirror. Waspinator was entirely unsurprised.

He'd propped it up on a shelf. Terrorsaur didn't turn around when the door opened, so either he was ignoring her or just hypnotised by his own face. Waspinator announced: "Waspinator is broken again!"

Terrorsaur glanced up to see her in the reflection. "Is the door chime not working?"

"Don't know. Waspinator didn't try it."

He finally turned around. "You've still got all your limbs. What're you complaining about?"

The scout held out the bundle of fabric. "Inferno took Waspinator apart. Waspinator not sure how to get back together again."

"You idiot. You struggled instead of just going along with Inferno, didn't you?" asked Terrorsaur. "Anyway, you might not want to put it back on until you've dried off. The stuff clings and rubs when it's wet."

"Waspinator already missing bits," said Waspinator, feeling her back twitch trying to buzz wings that weren't there. "Waspinator wants to be as complete as possible."

Terrorsaur shrugged. "Your choice. Come here." Terrorsaur was used to putting Waspinator's pieces back together. Clothing was just a variation of a theme and Waspinator was pulled together in less than a minute. "You think you can do that for yourself next time?"

"Maybe," Waspinator admitted, straightening her long coat. She considered her gloves for a moment, then took them off and stuffed them into a pocket. "What's terror-bot up to?"

"Terror-bot is having horrible thoughts of what his creator would say if he could see what kind of body terror-bot had landed himself in now," said Terrorsaur, who was back at his mirror. "Optimus says the damages will heal, but ... it won't be my face any more."

He wanted sympathy and someone to mope at and the reassurance that he was pretty. Waspinator made a rude noise at him. "Terror-bot still recognisable. Terror-bot want to talk about having wrong face, terror-bot can tell Waspinator where her mandibles are!"

"Pfeh. Big loss on you!"

"Waspinator was very handsome mech!"

"Waspinator has ..." Terrorsaur's shout was cut off by coughing. He rubbed at his throat and lowered his voice. "Waspinator has low standards." His jacket was lying on the berth and the red and gray shirt he wore left him bare to the shoulders. Terrorsaur scowled at his hands. "I look like something you'd find under a rock."

Leave it to Terrorsaur to turn the conversation back to himself. "Terror-bot looks like the rest of us," said Waspinator.

He looked up again. "Think colours, Waspy. Scorponok and Airazor are pretty light, but I'm so pale I'm see-through. It's revolting. I look like some kind of meat-based Customiser. You're lucky - you're dark enough to look solid."

Waspinator walked over and inspected him with a critical gaze, then laughed. Laughing hurt her throat, but she didn't let that stop her. "Terror-bot is all speckly!"

"What?"

"Terror-bot has speckles like he used to have, only speckles are tiny now," said Waspinator, taking Terrorsaur by the shoulder and turning him a bit, pointing out in the mirror how his freckles ran partway down his arms. "So terror-bot is not all pale."

"Speckles don't count." He held up his hands, backs to her. "Look at this," Terrorsaur demanded. "You can see the ... what are these? Fuel conduits? Coolant lines? You can see them right through the skin. And skin is supposed to be what's keeping everything inside me? By the Pit, how can anything live like this?"

Waspinator shrugged. "Dunno. Critters seem to."

"Critters open right up and spill out with the slightest scratch. Critters pop and splatter when dropped. Critters are flimsy bags of liquid. I thought these coverings were stupid this morning. Now I'm glad we have them. Anything is an improvement over skin." He grabbed his jacket and pulled it back on, then stopped suddenly. "You fuelled yet?"

"No."

"You'd forget your own name if I didn't tell you what it was. C'mon, Waspinator."

 

On to A Question of Identity - part two
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