He had tried to rest during the day, at the behest of friends and because he knew he should. It just hadn't worked. There were too many things to worry about and think about, so every time Optimus tried to lay down for a nap he was up again in minutes, unable to relax. As long as he was awake he might as well put himself on monitor duty instead of asking someone else to do it.
He tried to check his internal chronometer before remembering that he didn't have one any more and asked Sentinel the time instead. He'd been active for nearly a full rotation of the planet. Even two days ago he'd have been pushing it.
Optimus compulsively checked the scanners again. Everyone was back inside the Axalon for the night except Rattrap and Inferno. They had probably just decided to stop wherever they were when night fell five megacycles ago, waiting for light. Optimus kept the scanners pointed towards Predacon territory and checked every few minutes anyway.
At least the night watch is peaceful, he thought. Everyone else was asleep. Even the Predacons that'd had a chance to rest during the day were injured and unlikely to cause trouble.
He tugged his sleeves back down to his wrists and checked the Axalon's environmental compensators. The read-out claimed the temperature was holding exactly where it had been set the day before. Optimus considered fiddling with it, then just folded his arms and rested his elbows on the console. The temperature hasn't changed. I'm not really cold. I'm just imagining it to make busywork for myself.
Optimus let his head rest on his arms, closing eyes gone dry. There's no immediate crisis. Any problems, there's nothing I can do about them until daybreak. Maybe I can stop worrying for a little while ...
He was tired, so he didn't remember that one of the Predacons had been unconscious until late afternoon, was therefore quite awake, and she was probably the worst possible one to have loose in an unguarded base.
When Tarantulas wandered up from the xenobiology lab a while later and found Optimus asleep, she chose to save her questions until morning and spent a happy half-hour playing with the Axalon's computers before she decided she was pushing her luck.
Other Vengeance 2.0
He came to awareness on the hard ground with an oddly soft, brown face peering down at him worriedly. "Rattrap? The sun is rising. You said you wished to be off."
His mind recognised the voice and forced down the automatic urge to pull his gun. Right. "Mornin', Silverbolt." Last thing I did before falling asleep was wake Quickstrike up and put him on watch. I guess he musta got tired and got Silverbolt up. Kinda surprised. I thought he'd be more likely to hand it off to Inferno. Maybe he was actually listening when I told him that I didn't want a Predacon to keep watch.
He didn't get up just yet, taking stock of himself. Ow. Sore all over, probably because this hard ground is no good for this soft body. And the inside of my mouth feels kind of dry and sticky. Ugh. A drink of water or a bite of fruit would help, but they'd finished off their supplies the night before. Well, if we get a move on, we'll be back at the Axalon in maybe a megacycle and a half.
Rattrap got up to check on the other two members of his little party. Inferno, despite her claim that she didn't need to sleep unless Megatron ordered her to, was curled up on her side and breathing quietly. Quickstrike had apparently decided that 'Predacons don't want your help' only applied to conscious Predacons - he'd taken off his fringed drape and laid it over her like a small blanket. For his part, Quickstrike had decided to behave himself and was stretched out a couple of metres away.
Rattrap moved to prod Inferno with his foot, then paused. He carefully moved Inferno's gun out of her reach, then nudged her in the arm with the toe of his boot. "Hey, firebug. We're leaving."
Inferno reached for the hand-cannon, found it gone, and was on her feet holding Rattrap off the ground by the front of his shirt, all in about three seconds. She dropped him after another two and growled. "Where is my weapon?" Rattrap stepped back to let her retrieve it.
The commotion woke Quickstrike, who was conscious and in a defensive pose almost immediately, but he relaxed when he realised there was no danger. He collected up his drape and shook the wasteland dust off it before putting it back on. Inferno must have been nearly dead with exhaustion not to have awakened when Quickstrike laid it on her.
Rattrap gave the campsite a quick look-over. The fire had gone out - quite a while ago, since it wasn't even smoking. Not that he'd have to worry about burning anything down in the wasteland, but he knew Tigatron would yell at him if he left it so much as smouldering.
Rattrap went back to the hoversled and waited for the others to follow. Quickstrike and Silverbolt were bickering, too quiet to hear, but their quick glances at Inferno made the topic plain enough. Rattrap shook his head. There's somethin' seriously wrong with those two. Amnesia don't explain why they're fallin' all over themselves tryin' to be nice to an oversized Predacon.
"Morning, Dinobot. It's a bit chilly in here, isn't it?"
Dinobot's head snapped around halfway, then he grunted in pain and clutched at the back of his neck. "Slag!"
Airazor ran over to him. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he snarled, rubbing the back of his neck. "I merely forgot that I'm not jointed as I was."
You're even jumpier than usual. Of course, with these new bodies and Predacon houseguests, I can't really blame you. And don't think I didn't notice that the screen you'd been reading when I came in changed, exactly as if you didn't want me to see what you'd been doing. But Dinobot was secretive by nature and he'd been expecting a Predacon to sneak up on him so it was probably nothing. "I'm surprised to find you on monitor duty. I thought you hated it."
"Someone has to do it," said Dinobot, swivelling his chair around, resigned to having company. The mark on his jaw had darkened from reddish to purple. Airazor hoped that wasn't a bad sign. She also knew he'd resent having it mentioned.
She said, "Anyone else been through this morning?"
"Tigatron. Rhinox. Megatron. Cheetor. Blackarachnia. Most simply returned to their rooms when they found nothing was happening." Dinobot gestured upwards with his thumb. "Tigatron is sitting on the roof."
Airazor looked up at the lightening sky. "I think I'll join her." Dinobot nodded and turned back to the computer screen.
The scout climbed up on the table in the middle of the room, jumped for a low-hanging cable, and caught it. She swung to a higher one, then climbed it up to the roof. I'm going to have to add a ladder to someone's to-do list.
She spotted Tigatron sitting on one of the autogun emplacements, watching the sunrise. Airazor walked over and sat down next to her to share the view. "I hoped to see you last night, but I couldn't find you."
The tracker glanced over, then returned her gaze to the sunrise. "I was so tired after the hunt that all I managed to do upon my return was take a shower before falling asleep."
"I didn't think you had quarters here," said Airazor. Tigatron had only been inside the Axalon a few times since her awakening from her stasis pod. The only times she would stay for longer than it took to deliver a report and chat a bit were the times she'd needed to use the CR-chamber.
"I didn't. I picked one out yesterday because I had to." She shook her head. "I had been tired enough yesterday not to care, but waking up inside the base was rather strange."
"You probably had more fun yesterday than I did, anyway. I was stuck on monitor duty most of the time. Heh, I never realised how hard the chairs were before. Catch anything?"
"We caught a nyala, but didn't manage to bring it back. Scavengers set upon us. We should have known better, but ..." Tigatron shrugged. "This whole situation has been a 'we should have known better' experience."
Airazor grinned. "Is that why you're wearing clothes again?"
"Only the barest minimum necessary," chuckled Tigatron. "Which turns out to be rather a lot." She had her trousers, her short top, and her boots on again. She pulled her ponytail over her shoulder and inspected the tip. "I'm thinking of cutting my hair. I haven't found a purpose for long hair yet. It keeps the sun off the back of my neck, but it also blows into my face."
By now, the sun was too high to look at comfortably - the brightness only overloaded her vision before; now it hurt, and instead of clearing up as soon as she looked away, she found herself trying to blink greenish-black spots out of her eyes. Those faded after a minute, so instead of trying the sky again, Airazor looked down into the canyon that the Axalon lay across. She'd swooped through that canyon dozens of times before, diving and pulling up to fly so fast and close to the water that it sprayed out behind her ...
She felt a sudden fear and flinched back, knuckles whitening on her perch. Tigatron glanced over. "What is it?"
Airazor managed to smile. "No wings. The canyon suddenly seems a lot deeper than it used to."
"It's humbling, isn't it?" said Tigatron. "All our skills we took for granted. All those things that had always been part of who we are. We all know so much, then find that what we know is useless. I thought I knew everything about how to be organic, only to find that knowing and being are completely different things."
Airazor laughed. "Don't be so hard on yourself. It's not like we could have predicted this."
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then, "If we find a way to turn back," said Airazor slowly, "will you?"
"No matter how much I tried, I had only been a visitor on this planet before," said Tigatron. "Now I am a part of it."
"Because you would turn back if you could, and I don't want to hold you back."
Airazor kicked her heels against the autogun emplacement. "We do need to talk about this, don't we?"
The scout leaned back on her hands, looking up at the nearly cloudless sky. "You're still you, right? Same nature-loving introvert who'd rather prowl around a jungle than hang out at the base?"
"And you, who understands that solitude can be shared ... and who insists on cutting to the chase instead of wallowing in uncertainty," Tigatron finished with a chuckle, though she sobered quickly. "But this is important."
Airazor shrugged. "Why should the outside matter to me? What's important is here," she tapped Tigatron's forehead, "and here," and she touched her midsection where she used to carry her spark. It was worrying not to feel the quiet pulse of the tracker's spark even with her fingers right above where it should be. Airazor sought to lighten her mood and her mouth twitched up at one corner. "I'm pleased that you kept the stripes, though. I've always liked the stripes."
"Good. I'm glad."
Tigatron took her hand, twining her long fingers with Airazor's small ones. Airazor snuggled up against her shoulder. Real skin seemed softer than the pseudoflesh of their beast-modes, but that might have been nothing more than a lack of fur and feathers. It was an odd feeling, a kind of false intimacy. It felt closer than metal or pseudoflesh because it was thin and yielding, but it was field-blind. There was only the physical now, without that special energy signature unique to Tigatron.
There must be compensations, thought Airazor. Scent, maybe; or taste. Or there's just visual subtleties I haven't picked up on yet - our faces are more mobile and expressive now, anyway. She said, "I wish we knew if this was only temporary or not. I don't see how we could reverse it but it just seems too strange to be real."
"I wonder about that as well. I ... want to be out there, Airazor," said Tigatron quietly. "If there is only a little time like this, let it be out in the wilds. On the hunt yesterday, it felt like ... like the whole world flowed through me. Like ..." Her face had been upturned, hand stretched out to catch the sun, but she closed her eyes and drew her hand back against her chest. "I cannot explain it. Let me show you."
Airazor glanced back at the roof hatch. "We should find out if they need us for anything today, first."
Once the lift stopped, Inferno barely glanced around the control centre before marching off into the depths of the Axalon. Rattrap reached out and caught Quickstrike's drape to keep him from following. "Hey, no, no, no. She's gonna check in with her boss, we're gonna check in with ours." He stepped off the lift and looked around. "Hiya, Rhinox. Where's Optimus?"
Rhinox, at the second console from the right, shrugged. "Not up yet. I thought you were just supposed to look at the pods."
"Enh, they were open when we got there. 'S why we're late." Rattrap set his toolbox down on the nearest chair and started digging through it. "Anyway, the neophytes are Quickstrike and Silverbolt. I'll let you look 'em over later, but right now I gotta make sure they're fuelled and all so they don't fall over on me. And I got their pod datatracks, if you could look 'em over for me."
The engineer accepted the circuits. "Of course."
"They got scrambled by energon radiation, just so you know what you're gonna be looking at," said Rattrap, then turned back to his charges. "Come on, you two."
The new Maximals followed him. "Should we not have stayed to make proper introductions?" asked Silverbolt.
"Later," said Rattrap. "Anyway, that was Rhinox." He didn't feel he needed to elaborate. He'd been telling them about the others on the way back, with Inferno interrupting whenever he said something less than complimentary about the Predacons, which was often.
The xenobotany lab was already occupied when they arrived. "Hey, just the primate I was hopin' to see," said Rattrap. "Lookin' furry, boss. You gettin' your beast-mode back without tellin' us?"
Optimus chuckled and rubbed at the fuzz on his chin. "I could say the same for you. I see you made it back safely."
"Was there any doubt? Meet our new Maximals - Quickstrike and Silverbolt." Rattrap turned to his charges. "You neophytes, this is your boss and mine - Optimus Primal."
Silverbolt bowed deeply. "It will be my honour to serve as a Maximal, Optimus Primal. I hope that my skills will be equal to whatever task is set and that I will perform my duties to your satisfaction."
Quickstrike grinned and tossed off a vague salute. "Hey."
"Welcome, both of you. I'm glad we found you," said Optimus, but his smile faded. "Are you all right?"
"What, you mean this?" asked Quickstrike, holding up his right arm. His hand was clean, but a splash of blood darkened the brown fabric of his sleeve. There was less on Silverbolt's clothes but it showed up better on the light gray. "Shoot, this ain't ours. Had a bit of a run-in with a critter. Nothin' we couldn't handle," he said proudly while Silverbolt looked away.
"Sounded like a sick lion from their description," said Rattrap, handing out fruit and water before taking some for himself.
"What delayed you?"
"Aw, these two wandered off so we hadda go chase 'em, then it got dark," Rattrap said around a mouthful of fruit. He swallowed. "There's, ah, some bad news, too," he said, taking a few metal shards from his pocket and handing them to Optimus. Even without their robotic senses they could recognise shell-grade plating. "There was a third pod."
The Maximal leader nodded. "I'll send someone to pick them up."
"What about that pod Rhinox went out to look at?"
Optimus shrugged. "It was a blank." He turned to the other two. "So, what are your primaries?"
Quickstrike and Silverbolt looked blank. "Don't bother askin' 'em too many questions," said Rattrap. "They got damaged datatracks. Energon, you know. I'll explain more when we get back to the command centre."
The door opened. "Oh, great," rasped Terrorsaur. Despite hearing him the day before, it still amazed Rattrap that the air warrior could sound worse than he usually did. Even more surprising was that he looked worse - the burns on the air warrior's face had gone from red and wet to white and waxy. Terrorsaur put his hands on his hips, one holding the canteen he'd taken the day before. "More Maximals. The pods never just crash and explode, do they?"
Rattrap jabbed a finger at the Predacon. "One did, you noisemaker!"
Terrorsaur's gaze flicked to Optimus briefly. "He said there were two ..."
"A smashed pod means a smashed tracking beacon, idiot!"
Where there was one, there was usually the other. Waspinator pushed into the room to back her partner up. "Oh, yes, Predacons supposed to just know things so they don't hurt poor little Maximal feelings!" The rasp stood out more in the scout, who usually had a rather liquid voice.
It was a small room for Cybertronians and not much bigger for whatever they were now. Rhinox had wanted a separate xenobotany lab so the space had simply been sheared off the xenobiology lab. There was work space for two large mechs. Four smallish organics just hanging out was a bit cozy. Add in two tense Predacons spoiling for a fight and it was crowded.
It probably would have come to blows if Optimus hadn't been there. "He didn't know it when he said it," said Optimus quietly, but with meaningful glares towards both Rattrap and the Predacons.
Terrorsaur caught the hint, and while he didn't apologise, at least he shut up. Pointedly ignoring the Maximals, he set about collecting up breakfast. Waspinator waited for him, looking over the Maximals with distaste. For a moment, Rattrap thought it was odd that she was paying more attention to him and Optimus than the neophytes, then it clicked in. Ha. Me and Optimus are the established threats. Waspinator's not just trailing around after Terrorsaur because she's got nothing better to do, she's not just waiting around; she's watching his back.
Cheerfully oblivious to the lines of tension drawn across the room, Quickstrike walked right over to Waspinator and grinned up at her. "Well, hey there, sugar. S'long as we're all cosied up in here, I figure I oughta introduce myself. The name's Quickstrike."
She eyed him warily and didn't answer, unhappy at being singled out by the enemy. Quickstrike leaned a bit closer. "Aw, no need to be scared of me, sugar. I'm just tryin' to be friendly ..."
"And this is Silverbolt," said Rattrap, shoving the tall Maximal forward so that he bumped into Quickstrike, who yelped in surprised annoyance. "Might as well get the introductions over with, eh? Wouldn't want anyone to be startled by new faces."
"Diplomatic," murmured Optimus.
"Quickstrike was gonna touch her," Rattrap whispered back. It hadn't been a problem with Inferno - she knew Quickstrike wasn't a threat. Waspinator was nervous and would have taken a swing at Quickstrike before realising he wasn't trying to hurt her.
Terrorsaur turned around and pushed the filled canteen into Waspinator's hands. "Are we on display now?" he snarled.
"I'm showing our 'bots off, too," said Rattrap. "Terrorsaur, Waspinator, these are Quickstrike and Silverbolt. Quickstrike, Silverbolt, these are Terrorsaur and Waspinator. They're Predacons, so feel free to make fun of their names and-or voices." Waspinator caught the insult, but not the dig at her injuries, and made a face at him. Terrorsaur picked up on both and gave him a glare that would have once sheared through rock.
"I am honoured to meet both of you," said Silverbolt gravely, then nodded to Terrorsaur and half-bowed to Waspinator.
"It ain't fair that the Preds got most of the babes," sighed Quickstrike.
Terrorsaur gave him an appraising look. "Well, finally a Maximal with some taste."
"Was I talkin' to you?"
Terrorsaur's look turned into a glare. Waspinator blinked. "Maximal is calling Waspinator pretty?"
"I guess she wasn't bad-looking back on Cybertron," said Terrorsaur. "But in that body? With those damages?"
"He was not looking at her face," muttered Silverbolt.
Waspinator snickered and punched Terrorsaur in the arm. "Terror-bot is jealous! Maximal thinks Waspinator is prettier than terror-bot! Waspinator never gets to be prettier than terror-bot!"
Terrorsaur punched her back. "He's the only one that thinks so."
The scout just laughed at him. It turned into a coughing fit but once she got it under control she grinned at her partner again. Terrorsaur snatched up two fruits from the bin, put one in Waspinator's free hand, then grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out. "Come on. I'm feeling crowded."
Once they finished eating, the four Maximals went back up to the command centre. Rattrap clapped his hands together. "What've you got for me, Rhinox?"
The engineer huffed quietly and glanced back. "No miracles today, I'm afraid. These datatracks are pretty hopelessly scrambled," he said, pointing out lines and lines of corrupted code on the screen. "And not only are the datatracks a mess, the scanners glitched as well. As far as I can tell, there're at least two DNA patterns in each of their replication tracks."
"I feel fine, just a mite confused," protested Quickstrike.
"Depending on the type of damages and how extensive they are, the pods can produce perfectly viable Maximals," said Optimus, walking over to read the screen over Rhinox's shoulder. Quickstrike and Silverbolt stepped around on either side of the engineer to look, though they likely had no idea how to interpret the information on the screen. "We're a tough species. Well, usually. At least that trait seems to have held over in terms of the pods, anyway."
"The multiple DNA patterns probably don't even matter now," said Rhinox. "Our beast-modes didn't have any effect on our current bodies that I can see beyond determining sex and who's got stripes. It's the datatracks that I'm more worried about. There's an overlap that I don't understand."
"Well, the pods were right next to each other," said Rattrap. Unable to see over anyone's head, he stepped up on the chair behind Rhinox and leaned over his shoulder. "You think they scanned each other?"
"If their pods realised their datatracks were damaged and both tried to fill in the missing pieces from the other ..." Optimus started. "I've never heard of it but it might be a possibility."
Rattrap glanced down to see how the new Maximals were taking the information and found them regarding each other with identical expressions of disgust; the thought that I'm anything like you displeases me. "I dunno," said Rattrap. "They seem pretty much opposite personality-wise except for the sex hang-up."
"It is not a 'hang-up'," Silverbolt protested.
"Just 'cause you can't see it," muttered Quickstrike.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," said Rattrap. "You two hang out with Rhinox here a minute. I gotta report in."
He and Optimus walked around to the other side of the command centre for a bit of privacy. "It ain't all fun and hecklin' the neophytes," said Rattrap. "You heard Rhinox. Their pods were damaged and they soaked up an awful lot of energon radiation. 'Strike and 'Bolt seem okay physically - y'know, such as we are - and they seem to have at least a bit more than basic programming, but unless Rhinox works some magic, their identity circuits were totally fried."
Rattrap shook his head. "Almost totally - they've got things like 'I am myself and you are yourself' down but that's about it. They didn't even have names at first, just made 'em up on the spot out of words they liked the meanings of. They know words like 'Maximal' but they just can't connect it to anything. It's like ... like ..." Rattrap reached into his pocket and took out the feather he'd found at the crash site. There was a bit of scrub grass clinging to it. He picked it off and held it up. "Say we're on Cybertron and I'm just a regular 'bot who's never been off-planet. I've heard the word 'grass' but I've never seen it before. Now, make me understand what it is."
Optimus took the strand from Rattrap's fingers. "Well, it's a plant ..."
"Ah-ah," Rattrap chided. "I don't know what a plant is, either."
"Heard of it, but don't believe in it," said Rattrap. "All I know is Cybertron and metal - organic life is science fiction. It can't possibly exist. It's too soft!"
Optimus sighed. "What are you getting at?"
"They don't know who they are and I doubt we'll be able to figure out who they were supposed to be. They think Predacons are exactly like Maximals, except maybe bigger. And ..." Rattrap spread his hands, defeated. "They don't believe they're Transformers. They're sure they're organics."
"It gives us an idea of the nature of what the aliens did to us," said Optimus. "Protoforms are left unaffected - the one Rhinox found was still just a perfectly ordinary blank protoform. Quickstrike and Silverbolt must have gone straight from protoform to organic or they'd know those aren't their true forms. Either the energy from the alien device is still around and changing protoforms as they awaken or the aliens are still watching. If they are, we might not be allowed to regain our true forms."
"Maybe ... what if the energy wave reprogrammed the pods? If the aliens can turn us into meat, it's not too weird to think they can do the same to our nanotech. If we got there before the pods opened on their own, maybe we could reset them." Rattrap shook his head. "But, y'know, I don't think they could have gone straight from protoform to organic. Silverbolt has that feathered cape - why would he have it unless he had wings first?"
Optimus nodded. "And this 'hang-up' you mentioned?"
Rattrap shrugged. "Well, when I was fillin' 'em in on the way back, tellin' 'em a bit about everyone, it was one of the details they insisted on. Like, Tigatron's a field biologist, a tracker, a warrior, an environmentalist, first stasis pod we found on this planet, used to be a tiger ... you'd think that'd be enough for anybody, but they don't think a description is complete without sex."
"Yeah. It's pretty much focused on just the females - and they could tell right away," said Rattrap. "Quickstrike'll ogle and flirt, but he might just like the look of 'em. Silverbolt seems to think they should be treated special, like they're fragile or delicate or somethin'," Rattrap explained. "If you were watchin' 'Bolt instead of the air goons, his expression didn't flicker when Waspinator punched Terrorsaur, but he scowled when Terrorsaur hit her back. And I'm sure that if it'd been Terrorsaur standin' guard, Quickstrike would have walked right past him to talk to Waspinator."
Optimus lifted an eyebrow. "The first people they saw were you and Inferno. Wouldn't the first inference be that the females of this species are much larger and stronger than the males?" He considered that. "If we're a sexually dimorphic species now ... Do you think they might have ended up with instincts instead of programming?"
"I just observe it, I don't understand it. I'll leave the science to you scientists. Anyway, I figure the first thing I oughta do after sortin' stuff out with you is introduce 'em around. We don't need some jumpy Predacon panicking and going off on them or dinobutt yellin' that we're lettin' unauthorised primates in."
Rattrap collected up his charges and vanished back into the Axalon. Optimus turned back to Rhinox. "Anyone available for a field trip this morning?"
"Cheetor and Dinobot are still around. I sent Tigatron and Airazor out with the loader drone and the updated list of edible plants less than two megacycles ago." Rhinox shrugged. "I wouldn't mind an excuse to get out."
Optimus nodded. "The pod you found needs to be brought back here, and Rattrap says there was a third pod that was destroyed near were Quickstrike and Silverbolt were found. The protoform died after solidification but wasn't turned organic."
"Hmm. Not the most pleasant job," said Rhinox.
"I can go myself if you can handle the Predacons," said Optimus. "I think Cheetor would appreciate getting out, even if one of the tasks is rather morbid."
"And you'd prefer Dinobot here since all the Preds are here."
Inferno hadn't immediately gone to report to Megatron. She tried to convince herself that taking a shower first was the right thing to do, that the report wasn't so important that it had to be given immediately, that it was right and respectful and proper to have taken the detour.
She tried not to think of the word 'stalling'.
It is not my place to know the mind of the Queen, Inferno told herself sternly. His plans are subtle. I am but one small part of them. It is not for me to question.
It is for me to burn.
She finally stopped outside Megatron's quarters and rested her forehead against the metal of the door. The Maximals armed me, they handed me the chance to wipe them all out, but you told me to assist them instead. My Queen, my Queen, I obey but the struggle to stay my fire is great!
Then she stood up straight, set her shoulders, and went in.
The Royalty was asleep again, which was a relief. He always complained when she checked up on him; especially now, so weak, so vulnerable, and hating his weakness and vulnerability. He was sitting on the berth, propped up against the wall. Back at the Nest he almost always slept in a chair, and this room didn't have one. Inferno scowled. Even that simple need was not attended to.
She stood in front of him and leaned over to look at him. The lack of lava stench meant that one of the others actually did follow through and look after him. Good. Inferno hated to leave the care of the Royalty to anyone else, unreliable as they were.
Sometimes they or even Megatron himself told her he could look after himself perfectly well. Inferno knew that, but it wasn't the point. The point was that he shouldn't have to.
Inferno very gently brushed Megatron's hair back, careful not to touch his skin. The gesture uncovered his face, which made her flinch - the burns were wrong. This was Megatron, the Royalty, the Queen, bearing damages that he should have been too strong to receive, damages caused by Inferno's element. It made her feel as if she had betrayed him somehow, as if she should have been able to command the heat away.
She sighed sadly, tucking his hair behind his ear. "My Queen ..."
Megatron coughed and before Inferno could get away he'd caught her wrist and stood, twisting her arm behind her back. His other forearm wrapped around her throat, so tight she couldn't breathe. "Oh, for the love of ... Inferno! Can't you report in like a normal Predacon just once in your life?"
Inferno drove her left elbow back into Megatron's chest. Surprise and pain made him loosen his grip and Inferno broke away. She turned, dropped into a fighting crouch automatically, then remembered just who she was fighting and drew back in shame. "I'm sorry, Royalty! I shouldn't have ..." Megatron didn't often physically punish the others in the Colony.
He was sitting on the edge of the berth, rubbing at the spot where she'd struck him. "I only let you in my quarters because here and now I appreciate the idea of having a bodyguard. I may have to reconsider this if you're going to cause more trouble than you prevent, yes."
"It will not happen again, Royalty," Inferno promised, returning to Megatron to check on his injury. There was no mark on him but of course any sign would be on his skin, not on his shirt.
Megatron swatted her hands away from where they were tugging at his shirt. "What have I told you about fussing over me?"
"I-I'm sorry, Royalty. I thought ..."
"You don't think, you obey," Megatron snapped. "I just wish you would put more time into obeying me instead of your compulsions. I don't want to hear apologies or excuses, just, 'yes, Megatron'."
"Yes ..." Inferno stopped. Something was wrong.
She leaned closer and, despite Megatron's protests, carefully sniffed him. "No ..."
"Inferno, you will explain yourself."
Inferno staggered back, the fundamental shape of her universe crumbling around her. "You are not the Queen. You are not the Queen!"
Megatron didn't give chase when the warrior fled the room. In the corridor, Inferno stopped, uncertain where to go. Scorponok ... Scorponok never even tried to understand. The spiders ... but the spiders were treacherous and always lied to her. Waspinator ... Waspinator had been a hive insect and she was female. Yes. Waspinator had the best chance of understanding. However, she wasn't in her room. A quick search found her in a cargo bay. For once she wasn't with Terrorsaur but neither was she alone.
Waspinator was cheerfully, though not energetically, picking through a crate. "Hello, ant-bot. Waspinator is helping Scorponok even though Scorponok has fingers now."
"Damaged fingers," Scorponok grumbled. Unlike the others, he had burns on the backs of his hands as well as on his face. There was a bit of a ragged look to the injuries, the white waxiness torn and showing the wet red underneath. "Looking for something?"
Inferno decided not to take Waspinator somewhere else to talk. If nothing else, Scorponok knew Megatron better than any of them. Inferno made sure the door closed behind her. "We have a crisis."
The scout blinked up at her, then lifted her hands and wiggled her fingers. "Bigger problem than whole 'wrong bodies' thing?"
"It is related, but yes."
Scorponok glanced around nervously, as if expecting an ambush. "The truce is over already?"
"It isn't about the Maximals," said Inferno. "I need advice."
"Ooh, thinking problem, not shooting problem," said Waspinator, folding her arms to lean them on the crate. "Waspinator usually gets away in one piece from those."
For whatever it was worth, she had their attention. Inferno closed her eyes for a moment, gathering herself, then, "It is Megatron. He is ..." Inferno paused and corrected herself, switching from the neutral Cybertronian pronoun to an organic one. "He is male."
Scorponok just blinked at her. "So?" She had known Scorponok would be no help.
"It's not right!"
"Inferno ... you know they've been saying I'm male now too, right?" asked Scorponok slowly. Inferno nodded. "You seem fine with me."
"You are not so important," said Inferno. "Our numbers are so low that I can accept a drone acting as a soldier. But Megatron is the Queen."
"Ant-bot did realise everyone was using gendered pronouns, yes?" asked Waspinator. "Other-bots been calling Megatron male since Predacons got here. Why ant-bot not notice?"
Inferno slumped. "I thought they were all wrong. They had to be."
"I can understand you not being able to tell sexes apart," said Scorponok. "I know I'm just taking everyone's word on the pronouns - but how come you just realised Megatron's male now? You saw him when we first showed up, you helped him up when he collapsed yesterday, and I'll bet you spent your free time watching him sleep. What changed?"
"It is ... I can tell by scent. The stench of the lava covered it before."
"Megatron smelled female before the change?" asked Waspinator.
"No. He merely smelled like himself." Inferno sighed. "It is how I know he is Megatron and not some impostor. He is Megatron ... but is he still the Queen?"
"What? He's still our lord, if you want to be all formal about it."
Inferno slammed her fist down on a crate in frustration, causing Waspinator to jump. "Not 'lord', 'Queen'! Female-pronoun-lord, she who is the life of the colony! It's a very specific concept and this language cannot express it correctly!" She punched the crate again, then looked down at the others. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Obey him?" suggested Waspinator. "Megatron is still Megatron on the inside, is just squashy on the outside now."
"But he even acts wrong!" Inferno shouted. "Why are we playing at this truce? The Maximals are soft now. We could destroy them easily!"
"We're all soft. And some of us aren't in any condition to destroy anything," said Scorponok. "We need them for now. They've got a better idea of how these bodies work than we do."
"Ooh, Waspinator knows," said Waspinator, and ticked points off on her fingers. "Aliens caused the problem. Megatron has Alien Disc. Alien Disc seems best bet to get un-squishied. Only bot who understands Alien Disc is Megatron. Therefore Predacons do what Megatron says. Logic." She gave a satisfied nod.
Waspinator's arguments always baffled Inferno but at least her fellow hive-worker seemed certain about Megatron's role as leader. "I will ... consider that."
Inferno left. Scorponok looked over at the scout. "You know if Terrorsaur were here, he'd be kicking you for not declaring yourself queen."
"Pthibbit. Waspinator has no un-squishing plan and neither does terror-bot. Waspinator sticks with Megatron for now." She shook her head. "Ant-bot can't really smell sex, can she?"
"Who knows?" Scorponok frowned. "I doubt Inferno's sense of smell was enhanced. I'd think it was probably damped badly - her beast-mode had excellent chemoreceptors. But our minds weren't rewired to fit these bodies, so she still acts like scent is her primary sense. It's the sense she trusts the most."
Waspinator hummed a bit. "Should we tell Megatron about this?"
"He already knows," said Scorponok. "Megatron always knows."
To be continued ...
On to Ill Feelings - part one
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