Tigatron wondered briefly how she and Dinobot were supposed to get back into the Axalon with the lift retracted, but it lowered as they approached. Whoever was on monitor duty must have seen them coming.
It turned out to be Rhinox. The engineer swivelled his chair around to face them. "How'd it go?"
"Failure," said Dinobot.
"Partial success," said Tigatron.
Dinobot made a derisive noise and vanished into the bulk of the Axalon. They watched him go, then Rhinox asked, "Where'd you put the loader drone?"
"Just outside," said Tigatron. "It's rather a mess. We didn't think anyone would want it tracked through the ship." The tracker explained what had happened on her hunt with Dinobot, then, "Is Airazor around?"
"She's out for a walk," said Rhinox. "Got tired of being cooped up in here."
Tigatron smiled in acknowledgement, then left the control room to head for the showers. She chuckled to herself, Given the state I'm in, perhaps it's for the best that I've got time to clean up before she sees me.
Dinobot wasn't there, which either meant he'd been extremely fast, or, given him, didn't bother. Tigatron turned on the water and let the spray wash over her, taking away the sweat and dirt and blood. Not much blood - the scratches from sharp-edged leaves and twigs weren't deep and weren't even leaking any more. Her struggle with the nyala had left her with scrapes, bruises, and a tear in her leg that didn't start bleeding again after she washed the dried blood out of it. There were some wounds on her feet that might need a bit of care, though. I suppose clothing really is necessary to these forms. Boots certainly are!
Still, she regarded the scratches and scrapes and insect bites and the soreness in her limbs with a smile. Dinobot may have hated his new body and the others would rather be metal even if they weren't complaining, but for Tigatron, it felt right. Becoming organic, becoming a part of the world she loved, was a dream come true. Not perfect, but close enough.
There was just one thing she was anxious about. I haven't had a minute alone with Airazor since this began. We've both been busy on one task or another - important tasks and work that needed to be done, but ... I need to talk to her. She's always been attuned to this planet, seen it as home, and she seems to have taken the change fairly well ...
She sighed. I know what I feel. I do not doubt that she still loves me. But can she handle a relationship on these terms? We never had much of a physical relationship, true, but will the organic be just too strange for her? Has she even thought that far ahead yet or as she been too busy to really think about the change, consider the implications, and decide what she thinks of it?
The other had stopped talking some time ago. He wasn't sure if he was glad about that. While it was nice to have a bit of silence so he could think, it meant that the other was wearing down as well.
He was tired. He was tired and the light pounded down on him too bright and too hot. His mouth was dry, his throat was dry, and he felt as if the dryness was trying to climb down inside of him and turn him as dry and cracked as the land. He still remembered to stop and scratch his arrows into the ground.
Sometimes he thought they should have stayed at the oasis. There was shade there, and water, and the body of the creature I killed. To end its suffering, yes, but that tastes of excuse. I could not remain there. The image of the creature still lurked in his mind, sickly and tattered and it must have made a poor living out there. Why would it stay there if there was anywhere better within its reach? This speaks ill for the chances of my companion and I.
Sometimes he thought about stopping, really stopping, not just pausing. A rest, yes, perhaps the next dead tree would have enough shade to grant a bit of relief from the light ... They could wait until it was dark to continue, perhaps there would be enough moonlight ... And how do I know that darkness will come? They could wait until they were rescued ...
And how do I know that rescue will come?
And the other would not let him stop. In their short time together - his whole lifetime - he knew enough of the other to know that. The other would keep walking until he found his destination or his body fell out from underneath him. And then he would crawl.
The other was trailing a few paces behind him. He didn't need to turn around to check. He could hear the other's footsteps and his increasingly laboured breathing. There was also a faint hum and the sound of something like wind, but he didn't register it as part of his universe until he heard the other's noise of surprise. He turned and found a metal device pacing him, bearing two beings similar to himself and the other. The female was tall - taller than himself and much taller than her companion - and had some sort of device strapped to her back that he could recognise as a weapon. The male was short, brown as the wasteland, and grinning.
The male chuckled. "Well, that solves the mystery of the feathers."
The device came to a halt, so he and the other stopped and waited. The female stepped down almost reluctantly, but the male hopped down and beamed at them. "I know, I know, I'll try to explain the bodies on the way back to the Axalon. Bet you never thought it would be this wild when you signed up. I'm Rattrap, and the monolith here is Inferno," he said. "Who're you?"
He and the other exchanged a glance before turning back to Rattrap. "Names?" he asked. "It ... never occurred to me that I could name myself."
"... You mean you didn't know your names when you woke up?" asked Rattrap.
"No. No, we ..." he started, then slowly collapsed.
Inferno got an arm under his shoulders and helped him back to his feet. "I ... I am sorry," he said, partly to Rattrap for the interruption, but mostly to Inferno. She was large and strong and it was logical that she was the one to help him, but he felt guilty about it. He didn't trust himself to stand on his own, and the realisation of dependence made the guilt-feeling worse. "We had been walking so long that it was the only thing keeping us going."
"Speak for yourself," boasted the other, who had gone to the device and was hanging onto its railing, pretending to inspect it.
"I swear this planet is tryin' to kill us," said Rattrap. "We gotta get you two back to the Axalon."
They didn't leave immediately. Food and water were taken from what he had thought was just a part of the device, but it turned out to be a crate attached to it. He wasn't very hungry but ate some of the plant because he was told to, and needed no encouragement to drink. The water was warm, but it tasted better than the water at the oasis had.
Once on the device - loader sled, murmured his thoughts - Rattrap turned it about one-hundred-twenty degrees and built up speed until the ground blurred beneath them. Inferno had planted herself at the very back, against the railing, with himself and the other at either side. The size and curvature of the sled meant that Inferno could have her hands on the railing while having an arm around himself and the other to support them. He still felt guilty about this, and held onto the railing. The other settled himself more comfortably against Inferno and put an arm around her waist for support. At least, he thought, that had better be his reason.
The other suddenly drew in a breath and touched Inferno's wrist. "What happened to your hand, sugar?"
Inferno barely glanced over. The skin on the back of her right hand and fingers was blistered. It didn't seem too serious, but it looked painful. "Chemical burn."
"Don't it hurt?"
Inferno shrugged. The other sighed happily and settled back against her.
The light still beat down, but the speed created a breeze. After a few minutes, Rattrap spoke again without turning. "You were tellin' me you didn't have names."
"Yes, that is right. We have words and knowledge and concepts, but no identity." He frowned slightly as the static in his mind cleared long enough for one idea - Name follows form and function - before swirling away into confusion again. But I do not know who I am or what I do.
Rattrap shook his head. "So I can't start from the middle and assume you know the beginning. All right - stasis pods. Those came off our ship - the Axalon. We've been lookin' for you 'cause you're part of our crew. Well, my crew. Inferno's not part of it."
"Thank the Royalty," muttered Inferno.
"Aw, don't be that way, sugar," said the other. "Whatever they done to you, I'm sure we can be friends."
"What do we do?" he asked.
"We're exploration scientists," said Rattrap. "Hopefully we can figure out who you were supposed to be before you got your circuits scrambled. Unless you get your memories back, I hope neither of you was our lab biologist!"
"Quickstrike," said the other suddenly. "If I get to choose my own name, I'm Quickstrike."
Rattrap nodded. "Fine. Quickstrike." He risked a glance back. "So what about you? You gonna think of one for yourself or do I gotta name you?"
He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again to look out at the horizon. If he didn't know who he was, at least he knew who he wanted to be. "Silverbolt. I will be Silverbolt."
"And Silverbolt. Gotcha," said Rattrap. "We found your pods before we found you. I knew they were damaged, but didn't realise how damaged until you two said you didn't have names. All right, I'll fill you in - you signed up for a long-range, long-term space exploration mission. We ended up chasing a Predacon ship through a transwarp hole and crash-landed on this planet. We'd settled into a life of exploring the planet, trying to re-establish contact with Cybertron, and not letting the Preds kill us. Then some super-powered aliens turned us into these squashy things for some reason, so we got a truce with the Preds until we can get our real bodies back. Got it?"
"No," said Silverbolt.
Rattrap sighed. "What part's stickin' for you?"
"I can understand all your words as words. I could break down the etymology of them for you," said Silverbolt. He shrugged helplessly, though Rattrap couldn't see it. "But they mean nothing to me."
"And why do you keep sayin' there's somethin' wrong with our bodies?" demanded Quickstrike.
"Oh, Primus ..."
Annoyed at being pulled out of a perfectly nice dream where she had rotors again, she responded by jabbing her elbow into her partner's side. Terrorsaur draped an arm over his eyes and groaned. Waspinator rolled over and picked up his hand to peer at him. "Terror-bot was having a nightmare."
He swatted her away. "I know."
"Terror-bot got all mumbly and twitchy and woke Waspinator up," Waspinator accused. "So Waspinator had to wake terror-bot up."
"That's why I asked you to stay with me. You know that!"
"This is fifth time it happened since morning! Waspinator getting fed up with being woken up all the time!"
Terrorsaur covered his eyes again. "Door's that way."
"Bah. If Waspinator leaves, terror-bot will be knocking on her door in a few megacycles because he had another nightmare and can't handle it." She took his other arm, extended it, and claimed it for a pillow. It wasn't much, but it was better than the metal berth. "Which one was it?"
"Variation of 'What Have You Done To Yourself?' Slaggit. I shouldn't have asked for a mirror. I just know that's what set that one off."
Waspinator wiggled a bit to get more comfortable. "Waspinator never understood how that one was a nightmare."
The air warrior extended the fingers of his free hand to flick her in the side of the head. "I probably couldn't explain it, anyway."
She waited a few minutes, then sat up. "Waspinator isn't tired. Waspinator is bored."
"I swear I'm going to push you off the berth," muttered Terrorsaur, but got up. "Fine. I don't like being in here, either."
They didn't see anyone until they reached the control room, and then it was only Cheetor. "Hey!" Cheetor got up, but made no move towards them. "Where are you two going?"
Terrorsaur sneered at him. "Are we prisoners?"
"Then we're going outside."
They didn't go far, staying in the shadow of the Axalon. The bloodstained loader drone sitting near the lift was a bit strange, but the Predacons were more interested in the sky. The sun had only begun to set, but the moons were already up. One moon, anyway. Waspinator wrinkled her nose at it. "Alien device must be invisible again."
"Maybe it blew itself up to create the energy wave," said Terrorsaur. "The other moon's all splotchy now."
They settled on either side of one of the Axalon's landing legs, Waspinator on the side with the moon. Seems familiar, she thought, squinting at it. Waspinator has seen that pattern before. Waspinator just can't remember where!
She was about to ask Terrorsaur if he recognised it when the lift went up and came down and Dinobot stepped out. He glanced over at them, then pretended they weren't there. Terrorsaur made a face at him, then set about ignoring him right back. For her part, Waspinator chose to watch Dinobot. Whatever he'd been doing all day, it left him scratched up and dirty. The Maximal walked out a ways, also looking up at the moon.
He tensed suddenly, and Waspinator thought he realised she'd been watching him, but he didn't turn. He stared at the moon for a moment longer, then turned and practically ran back into the Axalon.
Is moon, thought Waspinator, looking at it again. Why would moon worry lizard-bot? ... And then she realised where she'd seen the pattern on the moon before. Waspinator knows that moon! Waspinator has seen pictures! Here is Earth! Is where Predacons were trying to go! Waspinator knows! She looked back at the lift. And Dinobot knows.
Waspinator tucked her knees to her chest and shuddered. Terrorsaur glanced back at her. "Cold?"
"Er ... yes." It was cool enough out that the lie worked. "Waspinator will go back inside. Terror-bot doesn't have to."
Terrorsaur rolled his eyes and stayed where he was. Waspinator fled back inside, out of sight of the moon. Dinobot was in the control room, but didn't notice her. She ran back to her room, locked herself in, and sat on the berth with her hands at her temples, trying to think. Is Earth! Is past! Golden Disc not just map to a lot of energon, is record of the future! So much power ... She brought her hands down to hold in front of her face. But useless now! Is useless power if Predacons can't live long enough to ...
She stopped. Maybe Disc can be used.
Waspinator considered going back out and asking Terrorsaur for help - he was good at plans, at least until they failed, but it was better than she ever did - and decided against it. There would be too much to explain and it was too possible that it wouldn't work, anyway.
Besides, the Golden Disc wouldn't do him any good.
They were still in the wasteland when Rattrap looked at the setting sun, then slowed and veered off-course. Inferno was immediately looming over him. "Where do you think you're taking us?"
"I'm lookin' for a place to set up camp for the night," said Rattrap. "We have to stop. We won't be able to navigate after it gets dark."
"I know this territory," Inferno reminded him.
"Well enough to lead us through it blind?" asked Rattrap.
"The Royalty managed it."
"Megatron's gone the route more times than you, knows it from ground level, and was desperate enough to try," said Rattrap. "I don't see either of us bein' able to pull it off. We stop until daylight. The others'll be worried about us, but I'd rather show up a day late than get totally lost."
Inferno considered that. "The Nest is near here. We could likely reach it before dark."
"The what ... oh. We can't go inside. You saw what happened to Megatron and them."
"Not to stay," said Inferno. "To contact the Axalon."
"And I meant we can't go inside even just for a minute. You ain't fireproof no more," Rattrap said.
Rattrap found a bit of ground about five metres diameter in the middle of some largish rocks. It wasn't sealed in, but it gave the feeling of security. He set the hoversled down just outside of it. "What kind of critters you get around here, firebug?" asked Rattrap, pulling his jacket back on.
"We don't, usually," said Inferno. "Most animals give the lava fields a wide berth."
They needed light and, if the rapidly dropping temperature was any indication, heat. Luckily, both were easy to acquire. The wasteland trees were dead and brittle, and branches were little trouble to break off. Once they had made a good pile of wood, Rattrap turned back to Inferno. "There. Think you can light that without settin' the rest of us on fire?"
Inferno unslung the cannon from her back and fiddled with the settings for a few minutes. Then she pointed it at the pile of wood and fired. There was no blast, just a beam that started the wood smouldering before a few small tongues of flame lapped at the sky.
Rattrap blinked. "That was less explodey than I expected."
"You said to ..."
"Yeah, yeah, it's good."
She was messing with her gun again, setting the power back to attack levels. "Even though wildlife is scarce in this area, we should not assume there is none around. I will stand guard."
"Oh, no, no, no." Rattrap climbed up on one of the smaller boulders. "I ain't trustin' no Pred to watch my back. Besides, you're at least as done in as the rest of us. No way you can stay awake all night. I'll take first watch - I'll stay up for as long as I can, then wake up Quickstrike." The blond seemed to be in slightly better condition than Silverbolt.
"And yet I am supposed to trust Maximals," rumbled Inferno, but sat down near the fire.
Quickstrike sat near her. "You can always trust me, sugar."
The sun had set completely, and with only one moon, the night was darker than it had been. There was enough light to see shadows, but as Rattrap predicted it wasn't nearly enough to navigate safely. "You all might as well sleep. We got nothing to do for the next twelve megacycles."
"Is there any water left?" asked Silverbolt.
They finished off the supplies they had, since they knew they were less than two megacycles away from the Axalon. Afterwards, Silverbolt curled up and practically vanished into his feathered cape, Quickstrike stretched out and put his hands behind his head, and Inferno remained seated, refusing to let her guard down. Rattrap returned to his perch and stared out into the darkness.
Optimus went up to the control room, which was busier than he expected. Cheetor was on monitor duty, Rhinox was up to his elbows in wires as he fiddled with a console, and Dinobot was reading something on one of the smaller screens. Megatron was also there, sprawled in one of the chairs, doing nothing more threatening than keeping an eye on everyone. Dinobot would sometimes glance at him, but Megatron either didn't notice or was ignoring him.
Optimus frowned. "Aren't Rattrap and Inferno back yet?"
"Not yet, Big Bot," Cheetor reported. "I can't even find them with the scanner."
"It is plain what happened," said Dinobot, shutting off whatever he was working on and turning to look at Megatron. "Inferno turned on him."
Megatron glared back. "She did not."
"You sound so certain."
"I ordered her not to," said Megatron. "If she attacked the vermin, the only reason would have been self-defence."
"Rattrap wouldn't have attacked Inferno without good reason!" protested Cheetor.
"She's a Predacon," Megatron growled. "I'm sure that's reason enough."
"Knock it off, all of you!" yelled Optimus. "It's probably nothing worse than that night fell before they could get back. We can't see in the dark now. They would have to stop and wait for morning."
Dinobot made a derisive noise. "Unless they're blundering about blindly."
"Either way, we can't do anything about it until daylight," said Optimus. "If they're not back two megacycles after sunrise, we'll start looking for them."
"Why can't you contact them?" asked Megatron. "Is the energon interference high tonight?"
"No commlinks," said Rhinox.
Megatron rolled his eyes. "Sending people out without commlinks. Brilliant strategy."
Optimus glared at him. "Tell me when we had time to design new ones that don't function by integrating with our systems."
"Mm." Megatron pushed himself up with his arms and stood. "Then I will tell Scorponok and Blackarachnia that they have a project for tomorrow. They should be able to come up with something if you're all too busy." With that, he left the control room.
Cheetor sputtered. "That ungrateful ... Doesn't he realise we've been working to help the Predacons, too?"
"He knows." Dinobot got up. "I ... If I am not needed here, I'm returning to my quarters."
"You can turn in too, if you want," said Optimus to Cheetor. "I can't sleep. I might as well be up here." Cheetor grinned, tossed off a vague salute, and left.
Rhinox had disentangled himself from the open panel and moved to another workstation. He tapped at a few keys. "I thought about trying to pick up the energy signature of the hoversled, but no go. It could be out of range or inactive."
"The stasis pod tracking beacon signals we picked up were the ordinary kind," said Optimus. "I'm just worried. Every pod we recover brings us one more closer to ..."
"Ordinary beacons mean ordinary pods," said Rhinox firmly. "Anything that's out there, if Rattrap can't outwit it or avoid it, Inferno can beat the slag out of it."
"I hope you're right."
"I am fine."
Rattrap hopped down from his perch on the rock and walked around the fire. "Thought I told both of you to go to sleep."
Inferno was sitting near the fire with her arms wrapped around her knees and her hand-cannon by her side. He thought she'd be on guard even though he said he didn't want her to, but instead she was hypnotised by the flames. "I do not shut down until the Royalty commands it."
Quickstrike was near her, lying on his side, propped up on one elbow. He glanced up at Rattrap. "Can't. S'like my thoughts are all twitchy. I can lie down but I can't go under, you know? 'Sides, how am I supposed to sleep knowing 'Ferny's cold?"
"I think I know my physical status better than you do," said Inferno. "Why do you insist that I'm cold?"
The blond pushed himself up and scooted over beside Inferno. "Well, for one thing, I got long sleeves and this drapey thing and I'm chilly. But mostly it's your skin, sugar. On the side away from the fire. S'gone all bumpy. Means it's cold."
Rattrap blinked at him. "What?"
"Callin' me a liar?"
"I am fine," Inferno repeated.
There was a quiet rustle as Silverbolt propped himself up and yawned. "Is something happening?"
"Aw, 'Ferny's cold and she's got too much pride to admit it," said Quickstrike, shifting a bit to get closer to but not quite touch Inferno. "Whereas I don't. So what I'm thinkin' is maybe we can cuddle up and share body heat and solve both our problems."
Silverbolt's mouth dropped open. "That would be most improper. What about her honour?"
"Hang it," said Quickstrike. "How's letting the poor girl freeze honourable?"
"It doesn't matter. She hasn't got any," grumbled Rattrap.
Silverbolt shot him a look somewhere between wounded and horrified. "I cannot believe you could say such things about a lady! Here, I can give her my cloak ..."
"I said," rumbled Inferno, "that I am fine."
Her hand was inching its way towards her gun, maybe without her even knowing it. Inferno was the type of person who would respond to confusion, stress, or annoyance by shooting. Rattrap turned on the other two Maximals. "Back off, both of you."
"In case you two ain't noticed, you're fussin' over a Predacon warrior who could break you both in half without strainin' a piston - and I'm pretty sure she's considerin' it. If she says she doesn't need help, she doesn't."
The two new Maximals protested a bit but subsided, returning to their places around the fire. Inferno caught his gaze and nodded curtly, then resumed staring at the fire.
The nod hadn't been thanks, just acknowledgement, though whether it was Predacon ingratitude or recognising that Rattrap hadn't helped her out of kindness, he didn't know. Just tryin' to keep you from performing a truce violation, Pred. You wanna freeze, be my guest.
To be continued ...
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