They were the best hunter-trackers of the Maximals. Unfortunately, they had completely opposite views on the change they had gone through.
A loader drone followed them at a short distance, still within sight - Dinobot trusted that it would follow the control he carried in his pocket, but not that it wouldn't get stuck in the undergrowth of the jungle. Dinobot had a new sword, weighted and balanced for his new form. It no longer rotated, but it made him feel almost complete. He also had a small laser - too small to fight a Transformer, but more than sufficient to take down organic prey. It was a bit cheating, but he couldn't be certain of his physical limits in his new body. Also, it made up for Tigatron.
Tigatron carried no equipment. She was also naked except for the band that tied her hair back. It made her look odd - the uniform colour said 'beast-mode' but the overall shape said 'robot-mode'. And why, Dinobot wondered idly, is that uniform colour brown? Tigatron was a shade or two lighter than himself, with dark brown stripes across her back and arms, but he would have thought that white with black stripes would have made more sense. Bah. This whole situation is ridiculous.
They had been arguing the point of equipment off and on for the last half hour. "Other animals have teeth and claws," Dinobot said. "The advantages of this species seem to be a proportionally large brain and high manual dexterity. We are meant to be tool-users."
"We are a part of this world now," countered Tigatron, snapping a branch at him. "We must learn to live as the native species live."
"The aliens could have destroyed our equipment as easily as they changed us. They even gave us equipment we never had before - clothing. There is no must." He shook his head. "Tigatron, you are strong. You are a skilled warrior. I know that you are a better tracker than I, and that you are in your element. But I do not think you can kill with your bare hands. The spark is willing, but the metal ... is merely flesh. You are not strong enough."
Tigatron didn't answer him. Dinobot decided it had been a rather strange day for weapons. Rhinox had been far more heavily armed than they were, and all he was doing was retrieving a stasis pod. Optimus had even urged Dinobot and Tigatron to carry larger weapons, but the warriors had baulked - they didn't want to weigh themselves down with unnecessary equipment.
Perhaps it was nothing more than habit, thought Dinobot. They've grown so used to the Predacons attacking that they cannot quite believe that, at least for a little while, the Predacons are out of the equation. That might also be why Rhinox seemed relieved when we reached the pod without incident. He relaxed as soon as he saw it.
"This form suits you."
Dinobot blinked, startled out of his thoughts, then glared when he realised Tigatron had been watching him. "What?"
The tracker shrugged. "You always seemed more comfortable as a velociraptor than as a robot."
"I wouldn't have minded so much if I was trapped in the form of a velociraptor," said Dinobot. He swatted at some biting insect that landed on his arm. Either they were leaving Tigatron alone or she was ignoring them, but the bugs were driving him crazy. "At least then I wouldn't be soft."
"You prefer teeth and claws to manual dexterity?"
"What manual dexterity? How does anyone function with only two thumbs?" Dinobot bared his teeth. "You would prefer teeth and claws."
"True," Tigatron admitted. "If given a choice, I would have been a tiger, but I do not see these current forms as inferior. Merely different." She flexed a hand idly, looking at it as if she'd never seen it before. "Something is worrying me, though."
"Only one thing?"
Tigatron ignored the remark. "Perhaps it will help to talk it through with someone. Even you recognised that these bodies are quite complex - the dexterous hands, the proportionally large brains. Tool users."
"But we all look quite different."
Dinobot blinked at her. "We all look practically the same. If we all decided to remove our clothing, we would never be able to tell each other apart. Perhaps if we still had energy signatures ..."
"Why do we even have clothing?" demanded Tigatron, then shook her head. "I'll return to that. But back to identification of individuals - not in Cybertronian terms. Compared to the other animals you've seen."
Dinobot considered that. While the differences between them weren't as great as they had been as robots, his complaints that they all looked the same were exaggeration. They still had different sizes and builds - compare Rattrap's small wiriness with Megatron's looming bulk. Even ignoring clothes, there was still a range of colours, from Terrorsaur's barely-tinted skin and red hair to, again, Megatron, whose skin was only a few shades lighter than his black hair. Whereas animals ... All cheetahs may as well be one cheetah, all rats, all ants, all gorillas, all wasps, all anything. There were likely individual differences, but nothing he would be able to tell without a detailed examination. "Granted. Continue."
"Whatever species we are, we're adapted for this planet, but not all to this specific biome," said Tigatron. "Otherwise we would all look the same, or closer to. Instead, we're adapted to different climates. Whatever species we are, it's global. It took its tool-using self and spread all over the planet, and it did it long enough ago that there were local adaptations. And clothing - it must be something to do with the species we are now. We never had any before, so it can't have come from us."
"I can follow that," said Dinobot slowly, "but I fail to see why you find it worrisome."
"Don't you understand, Dinobot? Where are they?"
Silence again, as Dinobot had no answer and Tigatron had picked up a trail. He stopped the loader drone so that it wouldn't frighten off whatever Tigatron had found. He had no worry that they wouldn't be able to find it again. The trail led them to a small stream, and Tigatron signalled that they should wait. While perfectly capable of waiting, Dinobot preferred not to do it, particularly not with biting insects to contend with. Honour, I could understand. If Tigatron thought that weapons gave us an unfair advantage and refused them, I could appreciate that motive. If this turns out too easy, I might consider leaving them behind next time myself. But I feel disgustingly weak in this body and believe that our current priorities are caution and success. Why is Tigatron making things difficult for herself?
Does she really want to be an animal that badly?
As of yet, Tigatron's eccentricities hadn't hurt her. Dinobot decided to let her worry about herself and cast his thoughts to matters he knew were dangerous. When we return to the Axalon, will it welcome us, or will Megatron have taken it over? Just because he is injured does not mean he can be underestimated, and he will be angry when he awakens. If Optimus follows my advice on how to treat Predacons, he might stay their wrath for a while. Long enough for me to return, at least.
Sigh. He's probably giving teamwork speeches at this moment. I should never have left ...
Tigatron didn't move, her breathing didn't change, but Dinobot sensed her sudden tension. He tried to see what had caught her attention. After a moment, he saw it - a small, brown antelope with a white crest down its back had stopped to drink. He briefly cursed his eyesight - he should have seen it immediately, but his new eyes were too easily tricked and the creature's hide had seemed to be merely more patches of shifting light and shadow. The antelope glanced around nervously, as if it sensed they were there, then after a moment bent its head to the water.
The antelope was about Tigatron's mass, but the tracker managed to bring it down.
Yesterday, that would have ended it. Tigatron's full weight driving the creature to the ground would stun it, and because Tigatron didn't like animals to suffer, a single, strong bite would sever the spinal cord and kill it instantly. This time she managed to knock it to the ground and keep it down, but it thrashed and screamed and fought. It couldn't get into a position to stab her with its twisted horns, but it did get a few kicks in.
She used her weight to keep the antelope on its side, unable to get its feet under itself and buck her off. Then Tigatron caught it by the horns and twisted sharply.
Dinobot waited until it was plain that Tigatron lacked the strength to break its neck, then helped her restrain the animal so he could dispatch it with a laser blast to the base of its skull.
The antelope stopped struggling. "Next time I will choose smaller prey," muttered Tigatron.
Dinobot holstered the gun. "Next time you will carry a weapon."
He stopped, bent, and scratched another arrow into the dirt with a shard of metal he had picked up from the crash site, as he did every hundred steps. The other never waited for him, but the other's legs were shorter than his, so he was able to catch up easily. "We should have waited by the stasis pods."
"I ain't waitin' to be rescued. I got my pride," growled the other. "'Sides, we know somethin' went wrong, otherwise we wouldn't be out here. Maybe there's nobody else."
"Well, what are we looking for?"
The other rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead, wiping away the dampness and dust. "I dunno. I'll know it when I see it. This," - he made a sweeping gesture to encompass the wasteland - "ain't it."
"Maybe there is nothing else."
"Gotta be somethin' else."
He stopped pursuing the argument. The other had to believe that, in the way he himself had to believe someone was out there looking for them. They brought up the argument every once in a while, though they were already living the compromise - they would walk and search for the other's 'something else', but they would leave a trail.
In a way, he was relieved. He had felt nervous around the pods. There had been a feeling of death in the air, though he couldn't understand why. They were just broken metal.
After a time, he scratched another arrow and caught up to the other again. "Why did you attack me?"
He turned to frown at he other. "Back by the stasis pods. Why did you insist on fighting me?"
"Tarnation, you still on about that? Just wanted to see what you were made of is all."
Usually the conversation ended there. The other would just shake his head in a why are you so dense? way and get back to the business of walking. This time, the other sighed. "'Cause I wanted to know which one of us was stronger. 'Cause I feel better knowing that if I gotta be stuck in the middle of nowhere that I got a partner tough enough to back me up."
"Oh." And, feeling how much it cost the other to admit that, "Thank you."
Megatron found the room that Terrorsaur had claimed and pressed the chime. After a moment, the very dishevelled and somewhat damp air warrior opened the door and looked up at him. "So you're finally up. Why aren't you bothering Inferno or Scorponok or someone?"
"Inferno is out and I like Scorponok."
"Scrap. Watching Inferno drag you down to the showers would've been worth this whole mess."
"What's going on? Is Megatron giving orders?" Waspinator appeared behind Terrorsaur, yawning. "Waspinator doesn't feel like following them."
"I only need one of you," said Megatron.
Terrorsaur shrugged. "Might as well be me," he said, and Waspinator vanished back into the room. "It's not like I sleep well anyway. What do you want, Megatron?"
"Cybertron under my heel. Barring that, you mentioned something about bathing a moment ago."
"You would have latched onto that. Yeah, Inferno convinced the Maximals to update their showers - something about the old cleaning chemicals being too caustic for these bodies," Terrorsaur explained. "They just use water now. And she got new clothes made. She couldn't figure out a way to get the lava stench out of the originals. I don't know where she left yours."
Come to think of it, there had been a pile of dark fabric on the end of the berth. "My room. She seems to believe it's also hers." Megatron chuckled. "Well, well. So it seems that Inferno has been leading the Predacons in my absence. I didn't know she had it in her."
Terrorsaur made a face at him. "I'll show you where the showers are. You can deal with that yourself."
He followed the air warrior. "What of fuel?"
"I'll show you after you've cleaned up."
They picked up Megatron's new clothes from his room and left them in the hall so they wouldn't get wet. Clothing turned out to be slightly more complicated than he had first thought. There were layers to it, such as when he removed his boots, his feet were still covered by fabric. When he had finally removed it all, Terrorsaur picked up the pile. "Where are you going with that?"
"Waste disposal," said Terrorsaur. "You'll never get the stench out."
"What if we need our original coverings for when we change back?"
The air warrior paused a moment. "I don't think it matters. It's not really a part of us."
Megatron frowned. "I would rather not take the chance. Drop those off outside my quarters." Terrorsaur shrugged awkwardly and left.
Megatron activated the shower and stood out of range. Already quite aware that his new body had poor resistance to temperature, he carefully put a hand under the spray instead of walking right into it. It wasn't as cold as Cybertronian showers usually were and the temperature was within his new tolerances, but it still promised to be an unpleasant experience. But the choice seems to be tolerate a chill or to continue to feel sticky and smell of lava. He stepped into it and found one positive - the cold water felt good against the burns on his face.
After a while, he decided he was probably as clean as he was going to get, and shut off the water. Apparently Terrorsaur had been hanging around outside and listening, because he entered seconds later with Megatron's new clothes. Megatron took the top item from the stack of fabric in Terrorsaur's arms and inspected it. "And how are you doing?"
"Like you care."
He pulled his shirt over his head, wincing as the fabric brushed his face. "Scientific curiosity."
"Better than I was this morning," said Terrorsaur. "The burns on my face and in my throat still hurt badly, but not quite as much. My headache is mostly gone. Breathing still hurts, but it's not difficult. My body temperature feels about right, or at least it feels comfortable. I've fuelled, so that's not a problem. I'm thirsty again, though."
Megatron finished with his boots and straightened up again. "Hm. Progress is being made, if slowly. Anything else of interest to report?"
"Nothing if you don't count the fact that unless the others have come back, the only Maximals in the place are Optimus and Airazor."
I swear that Primal is taunting me, thought Megatron irritably. Here I am, walking free in the Axalon, along with nearly all the Predacons - and only two Maximals are on guard. And I have to pass it up because I need the Maximals alive for now! He shrugged. "There will be better opportunities later, yes. Our first priority is to regain our strength."
Rhinox chuckled. "You know, these would have been useful early this afternoon." He picked up a canteen, filled it from the water drum, drained its contents, put it in the decontamination chamber for a few seconds to clean it, then came back and flopped down into the chair across from Optimus. "I wonder how Dinobot and Tigatron are holding up."
"I didn't even think of canteens until after you left," Optimus said apologetically. "At least Tigatron will know how to find clean water, if anyone can." He quickly sketched in what had been happening while Rhinox was out.
The engineer chuckled, shaking his head. "Rattrap and Inferno out on a mission together. I wonder if we'll ever get used to things like that."
"I don't see the truce lasting that long."
"You think we'll be able to get our robot bodies back that quickly?"
"Either that or the Predacons will get impatient."
Rhinox sighed. "It was a nice thought, anyway." Then, "What's all this?"
"Cheetor dropped them off before running out again," said Optimus, spreading his hands over the pile of greenery on the table. "The files we'd made don't have the kind of information we need now, so I have to update our records with new scans. What's the status of the stasis pod you checked?"
Rhinox shrugged. "It's one of the blanks. I just left it where it was. It should be safe enough."
Optimus' eyebrows lifted. "It's still just a regular protoform?"
"Yeah. So either the people in the pods were unaffected by the alien energy wave, or the aliens track us by our sparks." Blank protoforms didn't have any. "We won't know until we activate a pod."
The door opened, followed by a heavy sigh. "I suppose I couldn't get through the afternoon without encountering Maximals," said Megatron.
"We kind of live here," said Optimus. "Looking for something?"
Megatron stepped into the room, Terrorsaur in tow. "Terrorsaur told me I could refuel here."
"Yeah. Hang on." Optimus set about finding things for Megatron, and tried to think of him as someone who needed help and not the person who had been trying to kill him for the last year.
Megatron took the beaker in his left hand, and after a flicker of uncertainty, picked up the fruit with his right. Terrorsaur took one of the canteens, filled it, and left. Rhinox got up. "I'm going to see if Airazor wants a break from the monitors."
Megatron claimed the vacated chair and drank half his water slowly, as if he had all the time in the world. Then he settled back casually, idly tossing and catching the fruit in his right hand. It was such an obvious show of 'I'm not slave to my physical needs and I'm perfectly comfortable in the enemy camp' machismo that Optimus wondered if Megatron was teasing him or if he was in such bad condition that he believed he was being subtle. The Predacon smiled. "And how are you, Primal?"
I don't have to practice using a hand that used to be teeth, he thought. He said, "Busy. I want to go to your base and pick up some equipment. Not right now, obviously. Tomorrow morning."
Megatron fumbled, but had the presence of mind to just let the fruit fall in his lap instead of scrambling for it and dropping his water. He pretended he meant to do it and took a sip from the beaker. "I don't."
It was because Megatron still felt too unwell to do much of anything, they both knew it, but Megatron would never admit it and Dinobot had warned Optimus not to point it out. Optimus said, "The sooner we can gather our resources, the sooner we can get to the real work of trying to restore our true forms."
"Unless you have some way to counter the heat inside, the base is off-limits," said Megatron.
"Look, I'm not much for dancing around a subject. The disc's probably our best chance, Megatron."
"The truce," said Megatron, "only states that we may not fight. It says nothing of giving up hard-won artefacts to Maximals because they want them. I also don't see what good it will do here."
"I'm talking about the alien disc, not the one you stole on Cybertron."
The Predacon's expression didn't even flicker. "Mm, so you do know about that one. The answer is still no."
"Let me know when you change your mind."
"You are limping."
Tigatron didn't look back at Dinobot, merely growled quietly and continued leading the way. "Concern or gloating?"
"Observation." Dinobot frowned. The antelope's small hoof had torn a long but fortunately shallow gash in the tracker's lower leg. The wound had dripped for a bit, then filled with blood and seemed to stop for the most part. That injury could be the cause of Tigatron's limp, or it might have been nothing more than that her feet were bare and damaged by the ground.
They were almost out of the jungle when Tigatron suddenly stopped and grabbed his arm. "Don't argue! Climb!"
Tigatron's tone was urgent enough that Dinobot obeyed, swinging up behind the tracker. After a moment, he heard what Tigatron's sharper senses had already detected: the sound of bodies running through the jungle, and a kind of odd barking.
There were six of them with the look of canines, each one his mass or more, croaking in an odd way that almost sounded like laughter. They swarmed around the loader drone, pulling the antelope carcass from its grasp and tearing at it with sharp teeth. Dinobot could recognise a poor tactical situation when he saw one. Tigatron nodded. "Hyenas. They were attracted by the scent of blood."
"That was our kill. We should be ..."
"We will be no use to the others dead," said Tigatron. She shifted her weight, settling in to wait out the scavengers. "I should have foreseen this. I've grown too used to the native life avoiding us."
Dinobot glared down at the hyena pack. A couple of them jumped and snapped ineffectually, but soon gave up. These were heavily-built creatures, not suited to dealing with meat in trees. "The scent of the loader drone should have warned them off."
"They can tell living metal from unliving," said Tigatron. "Nothing would ever come near enough a stasis pod to scan otherwise. The loader drone is only a clumsy, slow-moving thing, and they recognise it as such. And we, I'm afraid, are just lightly-built primates."
He could hear the faint snarl in her voice - oh, yes, Tigatron could be patient and accept her situation, but she didn't have to like it. She wanted to be down there, fighting with the teeth and claws she didn't have, to claim her kill and defend her territory. "Lightly-built primates up a tree," grumbled Dinobot. "Perhaps Optimus could get back to the Axalon like this." The trees were too far apart for him to even attempt it. He drew his gun. "Feh. I've no interest in waiting around for the scavengers to finish."
"Kill them and it will just attract more scavengers," said Tigatron. "We wait."
Dinobot re-holstered his gun and took the control for the loader drone out of his pocket. "I never wait when I don't have to. Perhaps they can be led off."
The antelope carcass had been torn, but was still intact enough for the drone to pick it up. It drove off slowly, deeper into the jungle, hyenas snapping at its treads. Tigatron nodded her approval. "Not a foolproof plan, but one with a reasonable chance of success. We aren't the right shape or scent - while we could be prey of opportunity, they may not think us worth chasing while they already have a meal."
Dinobot stopped the drone before it was lost from sight, had it drop the dead antelope, and started it back towards them. The hyenas were focused on the carcass and didn't bother to follow the machine.
Once the drone was under their tree, they climbed back down. "We should be gone before they finish," said Tigatron. "We know that we can still hunt effectively in these bodies. We will try again tomorrow, with a better plan."
She did, however, take his gun when he offered it to her.
It was a bad place for pods to land, Rattrap thought. Nothing but dry, cracked ground and twisted trees. Airazor had come down in an area livelier than this and nearly died for nothing to scan.
Rattrap landed the hoversled, then took a moment to remove his jacket and tie the arms around the hand bar of the vehicle. It might have been a light jacket, but the sun beat down too hot for it to be comfortable. Pit, maybe Tigatron had the right idea. Why're we wearin' all this stuff in this heat?
As if in answer, something small and winged landed on his arm and bit him. Rattrap squashed it and wiped the remains off on his trousers. Okay, fine.
"I know this area well."
It was the first thing Inferno had said since they left the Axalon nearly two megacycles ago. Rattrap glanced back at her. "Guess it's a good thing we got a truce, then, or you'd have picked these up on your next patrol." Inferno made a dismissive noise and went to prowl around the perimeter of the landing site.
The pods were open and it was obvious at a glance that they were unoccupied. Rattrap released the magnets that clamped his toolbox to the hoversled and took it over for a better look.
There was something wrong, and it took a few seconds to realise what it was. There's too much debris around to have come off just two pods.
He found most of it a ways from the other two pods. From the way the debris had scattered, it looked like it had exploded after it had landed.
And after scanning, Rattrap noticed. The largest recognisable piece was most of a forearm. The hand was brown, though the fingers and arm were a gray-blue. Most importantly, it was metal. Rattrap left it where it was. There was nothing he could do for it right now. He pocketed a few smaller pieces to take back to the Axalon for preliminary scans.
He found the computer for the shattered pod near the other two, but it was too damaged to even try to salvage. He turned his attention to the other two pods. They were visibly damaged, but still basically intact. They had landed hard and were missing bits and were covered in electrical burns. Either the crash shorted out the electrical systems or, given this planet and the likely cause of the other pod's destruction, there was a large store of energon underground here. It was strange to know the stuff was nearby and not feel it. Brought my hand tools, didn't bring a scanner. Blast it, I forgot that I can't rely on my own senses ...
Rattrap climbed up on the closest pod to look inside. There was no trace of the protoform, which could mean it either solidified and walked away or died and dissipated. He set about retrieving the pods' memory chips. They'd be able to figure out what happened back at the Axalon.
A while later, the light was blotted out and he turned to find Inferno standing over him. "There are tracks here," said the Predacon. "All around this area, then leading away. The protoforms are changed as we are."
"You sure? 'Cause I found a robot arm back there."
"I'm certain," said Inferno. "The tracks are of the same kind we make. There are two distinct sets. I believe they fought. And they want to be followed."
"How do you figure that?"
"They left a sign."
Rattrap stashed the bits he'd taken from the pods in his toolbox, then went to look for himself. The ground was dry and hard, but here and there was enough loose dirt to show footprints and not enough wind to blow them away. And, here, scratched into the hard ground, was an arrow. "All right, so we know where they went. What do you mean they were fighting?"
Inferno lead him to the dry scrub grasses on the other side of the pods. Rattrap prodded at the vegetation with his foot. "Y'know ... I think you're right. The plants are all crushed here like they were rolled on and the ground's all scuffed." Something caught his attention, and he bent down to retrieve a bit of gold-edged brown.
The Predacon frowned. "Feathers? Are those important?"
"They are if they're synthetic, which I'm pretty sure these are. Hm. Airazor had that little feathery cape when she first turned," said Rattrap. She had removed it after a couple of megacycles, explaining it tickled her arms and distracted her. "Maybe one of the neophytes has one."
He pocketed the feather and started back towards the hoversled. "How far does this wasteland go?"
Inferno squinted at the horizon. "Yesterday, not so far. Today ..."
'Not far' to a robot ant with rocket turbines was probably 'very far' to an organic. "At least there's no cover, so they'll be easy to spot. C'mon, firebug."
"... And it's, like, crazy-hot out there and there's bugs and they bite and I wish I still had my tail to swat 'em - isn't that weird? I used to swat flies because I could, but now that I need to, I haven't got a tail. I guess that's why we've got clothes - to help keep the bugs off. But they're too hot. Maybe I could take the sleeves off, like Dinobot's shirt, except, if we suddenly change back, do you think I'd be missing armour?"
It took a moment for Optimus to realise he'd been asked a question. He'd been treating Cheetor's prattling like background noise. He wasn't bothered by it, he just wasn't expecting to be asked to participate. "I don't know. It's not really a part of our bodies. I don't think we'll just suddenly revert back, either."
"Well, you know. Just in case." Cheetor returned to organizing the plant samples he'd collected for Optimus. Most of them were already listed in the computer, and having Cheetor trying to match up what he had to existing files did save Optimus a little time, but, well, he wasn't very good at it. Cheetor didn't know where to start looking. But he wanted to escape the heat for a while and Optimus was glad of company, so it all worked out.
"Do you think -" started Cheetor, but was cut off by a pained scream from the next room. Automatically, Optimus and Cheetor ran to the xenobiology lab to see what was happening.
Blackarachnia was curled on the floor, arms up as if to protect her head - she had been the one who screamed. Tarantulas groaned once and tried to get up, but just managed to roll onto her side. The Predacons were connected to each other by the wires of their data transfer visors. Optimus knelt by Blackarachnia, decided that whatever had happened was over, and removed her visor. At his gesture, Cheetor did the same for Tarantulas.
Optimus lifted Blackarachnia into a sitting position so that her weight was resting against his right arm and leg. She slowly opened her eyes, then glared. Optimus looked back impassively, having grown to expect belligerence from Predacons when he tried to be nice to them. "Are you all right?"
"What do you care?" Blackarachnia snapped. She tried to get up, then fell back against Optimus.
"What caused this?"
Blackarachnia kept to her sullen silence. There was a harsh chuckle somewhere above him, and Optimus looked up to find Tarantulas looking down from her perch on the table. "Blackarachnia had the idea that since our brains still run on electrical impulses that she might use the data transfer equipment to prod my thoughts and wake me up. Isn't she clever?" Tarantulas purred.
Optimus frowned. "How do you know that?"
The scientist blinked at him in surprise. "During the process, I got a brief flash of Blackarachnia's thoughts. I don't think they helped particularly in explaining what's happened here. Teh-ha, I still don't know what I'm doing in this body and why I'm on the Axalon but not in a holding cell."
Blackarachnia huffed quietly, then, using Optimus as a crutch, got back to her feet. Optimus stood as well, then waved back at the door. "Both of you could probably stand refuelling. Come with me."
Blackarachnia had eaten some hours earlier and went and helped herself from the diminishing stash in the loader drone. Optimus wasn't worried about that. He'd already identified several alternatives. He offered a fruit to Tarantulas, but she made a face. "I am not eating a plant."
"It's what we have right now."
Tarantulas took it with a sigh, and sat in one of the room's two chairs. "Are you sure you haven't any mice?"
"Catch your own if you want them." Despite being hunted for fun by Cheetor and eaten by Dinobot and Airazor, the local rodents hadn't learned to stay out of the Axalon. "You can't eat them whole, though - as far as I can tell, we can't digest hair."
"Too bad. The feel of a small animal struggling as its swallowed is one of life's little pleasures."
If I show disgust, she wins. He kept his expression neutral. "Scrabbling claws would probably damage your throat now."
"I should check in with Megatron," said Blackarachnia. "He'll want to know that Tarantulas is active." She left.
Tarantulas held up the fruit and regarded it glumly. "Well, don't make me keep guessing, Maximal - what's going on?"
He saw it first and pointed it out to the other - a bit of green in the endless brown. The other frowned. "There oughta be more of it."
"It still bears investigation." He scratched an arrow pointing towards the green and they went for a closer look.
There was green on the ground, soft under their feet, like and unlike the dry green back by the pods. There were a few of the structure-growths - still stunted and twisted, but these were covered with little green banners. Trees, he thought, the connection between word and object only coming now with the green. In the middle of it all was a liquid that reflected the sky.
The other nodded. "We need that."
"I know. But ... how do we know?"
The other reached up, touched his forehead, and his fingers came back damp. "We've been leaking it, for one thing. Seems like logic to me."
There was a guttural snarl behind them, and they turned, startled. The creature limped towards them from a space between two trees - it might have been sleeping in the shade, awakened by their voices. It was thin and angular with worn patches in fur that might have once been a tawny brown. It was larger than him, and growled through a heavy mouth full of rotting teeth. But despite the wreck of its body, its dark gold eyes were clear and focused.
He dropped the metal shard and held out his empty hands. "We mean you no harm, friend. We only want some of your water, and then we will leave."
The creature snarled again, coming closer. The other stepped back in a type of half-crouch. "I don't think this is the kinda thing you can talk to."
"Our intentions are peaceful."
"I don't think its are."
Two more steps, and the creature chose the smaller target, lunging at the other.
The creature was desperate, but it was also weak. The other managed to dodge - he rolled, caught up the metal shard, then swung it up hard and fast and tore a long wound down the creature's side. The other turned in anticipation of a second attack, but relaxed when he realised how much damage he'd done - the creature was trying to crawl away, breathing shallowly and spilling itself out through its torn flesh.
He himself looked down sadly. "It was just trying to protect its territory. There is no reason for it to suffer."
The other looked at him incredulously. "It attacked me."
"Give me the shard!"
The other shrugged and handed over the jagged bit of metal. He took it, knelt by the dying creature, and slashed its throat before he could find an excuse to stall. Then he turned away and retched, though there was nothing to expel.
When his dry heaves passed, the other took the metal shard from his unresisting fingers and helped pull him back to his feet.
They drank some of the water, splashed a bit on their faces because it felt good, and tried to clean the fluid of the creature off themselves as best they were able.
There was water and shade, and we could stop here for a while. Perhaps ...
He made the mistake of looking down and saw the stains on his sleeves. They had faded a bit with washing, but wouldn't go away completely. He stood up and scowled at the horizon. "Let us go."
"What's got you in such an all-fired hurry? ... All right, all right, I'm comin' ..."
On to A Question of Identity - part three
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