Four days, Optimus thought again and it still surprised him. Four days of strange bodies and Predacon houseguests. Sometimes it felt like it had always been like this; that it was perfectly normal to, for example, encounter an organic primate female in the xenobiology lab and know it was Tarantulas. At other times they were reminded quite drastically that the situation was strange and new, such as the business about the need for a lavatory three days ago. The primary waste product of the Cybertronian metabolism was heat, sometimes gas in extreme cases. Well, hopefully that was the last of the big surprises ...
Sleep happened, rather more of it than he was used to, and it left him feeling inefficient. It was also harder to return to full consciousness than it used to be and Optimus rubbed at his eyes as he walked up to the command centre on heavy feet. They'd come up with a schedule. Shorter shifts than before to compensate for weaker bodies but it was the closest thing to normal that the Maximals had.
The Predacons didn't follow it. They didn't seem to have a schedule at all. Oddly, there was a pattern - where the Maximals thought it most sensible to go to bed at sunset and wake up early, the Predacons tended to stay up at night and wake up at sunrise. Since the equatorial night was twelve hours long and they were stuck inside during the dark hours, this gave each faction four hours more or less alone on the Axalon.
Optimus had hoped to catch Airazor before she got off shift but he'd woken up too late and Rattrap had already taken over monitor duty. Within the last few minutes, since he was still running through the preliminary checks. "Morning, Rattrap."
"Hey, boss." Rattrap didn't turn, still fiddling with the monitors.
Then Optimus noticed what Rattrap was actually watching. "Why are you checking the cameras in here?"
"Just makin' sure the Preds were behavin' overnight."
The first shift of the night, where the Predacons were still awake after the Maximals had gone to sleep, had immediately been dubbed the Predacon Megacycle. Just as quickly, Dinobot had staked his claim on it, declaring that he was the one most able to determine between suspicious and perfectly innocent activity in the Predacons. "I'm sure there was no trouble."
"I don't trust the Preds to leave him alone. And I don't trust that he won't listen to 'em."
"If you're so worried about it, trade shifts."
Rattrap made a derisive noise. "Think I didn't try? He chased me off."
Skimming through the security footage showed Dinobot perfectly alone for four hours. He seemed bored but attentive - he was disciplined enough not to call up a computer game or doze off. "You worry even more than I do," said Optimus.
"Enh, Megs only left him alone 'cause he knows we have cameras in here," said Rattrap. Dismissing the topic, he glanced at the corridor. "The neophytes are late. Silverbolt's usually on time and Quickstrike's always in here before everybody. I'd swear he doesn't actually sleep except I've seen him do it."
Rattrap got back to what he was supposed to be doing, checking weather reports and scanning for stasis pods. Optimus rather liked to watch him work - there was an efficiency in him that Optimus hadn't expected when Rattrap first joined the crew. He didn't rush through his tasks; there just wasn't any wasted movement.
After a few minutes, Optimus left to get breakfast and to check on the rest of his crew, at least the ones who were awake. Becoming organic was an insane, unforeseeable occurrence and his crew had accepted the challenge. Most of them were upset about the change but it didn't stop them from accepting, adapting, and doing their jobs as best they could given new limitations. I expected no different and no less from them. They're good people.
Other Vengeance 2.0
( part one )
"This is Cybertropolis. This doin' anything for you, 'Strike?"
"Nuts. 'Cause I figure you must be from the Iacon area. You kinda got the accent ..."
There was never an expedition that had as many problems with stasis pods as the Axalon mission did, Optimus thought. Granted, a space battle with a pack of Predacon outlaws and subsequent crash landing on a planet with too much raw energon weren't exactly usual circumstances. The result was that everyone who had come out of a stasis pod had amnesia to some degree.
Which in the current situation had very strange consequences. Quickstrike and Silverbolt had no memories of Maximals, of Cybertron, or of metal. As far as they were concerned, they had always been organic beings.
They were with Rattrap now, who was combining monitor duty with showing them a film about Cybertron on the central workstation's holographic projector. Optimus wasn't sure how helpful that would be given that the neophytes flatly disbelieved the datafiles on the Maximal and Predacon crews that showed them in their robot bodies. Optimus sat at the scanner station and watched the film for a while without recognising it. It was slow-paced and had long, sweeping shots of cityscapes, so he guessed it was one Rhinox had brought. There was no plot, just a narrator reciting the occasional poem.
Which seemed to be exactly what Rattrap wanted. As soon as the narrator finished, he'd cut in. "This is Tylus City. It's called that 'cause it's actually four cities in a triangle - one in the middle and three as the points. Looks real nice from orbit. The one at the northern tip used to be called Sunix ..."
"What's up, big bot?"
Optimus shushed Cheetor, who had just bounced in. "I think Rattrap's hoping to trigger their memories with pictures of Cybertron. New clothes?"
"The shoes are," said Cheetor but quieter so he wouldn't interrupt Rattrap. "I think they'll be easier to run in if they don't cover my ankles. The rest is just cutting bits off for ventilation." He'd taken the sleeves off his shirt and cut the legs off his trousers above the knees. Then, "I don't think the pictures will work. Me and Airazor tried that with Tigatron once." Compared to the others, Airazor was practically undamaged. She still had part of her early life on Cybertron. Some of her memories were actually Cheetor's but not enough to cause her too much confusion.
Neither Quickstrike nor Silverbolt had been put on full shifts yet because of their amnesia. Optimus was quite sure they'd obey any 'Don't let the Predacons mess with this' order but Rattrap and Dinobot had ganged up on him and loudly insisted that the neophytes be taught why exactly there was a difference between the factions before they were assigned to anything important. So Optimus had delegated Quickstrike and Silverbolt's education to Rattrap and Dinobot. Not that the newcomers needed any encouragement. Without their official teachers around they would latch onto whoever was available and in the absence of other people they would get into the Axalon's records. They might not believe they were Transformers but they found it all fascinating anyway. Usually. Quickstrike was fidgeting in his seat, restless and unhappy about sitting still for so long.
He was doing better than Cheetor, who grew bored after only a few minutes. "What's it like outside? It's not going to rain, is it?"
Optimus reached back and activated the console he was sitting at. "Not yet. It looks like it'll be sunny and hot today."
"I'm going to go for a run before it heats up too much."
"Be careful," Optimus admonished.
The scout grinned. "Hey, I know for a fact that there's no Preds out there."
"There's animals. Arm yourself anyway."
"But carrying a gun will slow me down!" Cheetor caught Optimus' look and sighed. "Fine. I'll hit my quarters before I go outside."
Optimus reached up and lightly scratched the back of Cheetor's neck, just under the hair. "Good."
Cheetor grinned and disappeared back into the ship. Optimus suddenly realised he hadn't heard Rattrap's voice for a few minutes and found the other three watching him - Rattrap amused, Quickstrike listless, and Silverbolt with the frown of disapproval he seemed to wear most of the time. "Sorry. We weren't trying to be disruptive."
"Enh, no problem. It's not like there's much to interrupt in this film." Rattrap shrugged. "Don't worry about the kid. There's not many big critters around the base any more. Whatever wasn't scared off by the fighting around here, Dinobot ate. They know robots are trouble and it ain't been long enough for 'em to notice we ain't robots no more. I'd be more worried about whether he brought a chronometer so's he shows up on time for his shift."
"Never were robots," Quickstrike muttered. Silverbolt shushed him.
The three of them got back to watching the movie. Optimus activated the monitor at his station and tried to find Cheetor with the outside cameras. He seemed to be headed towards the plain.
Several minutes later, Dinobot walked in and stood near Optimus, arms folded across his chest, watching Rattrap and the neophytes. "No doubt Rattrap is filling their heads with all sorts of nonsense," the warrior rumbled quietly.
"It's an art film," said Optimus.
Dinobot's eyebrows almost vanished beneath his headband. "I'm surprised you're allowing ... Wait. A real art film or a Maximal art film?"
"It's someone reading poetry about landscapes."
"Ah," said Dinobot. "Maximal art."
"What's wrong with Maximal art?" asked Optimus. "What's the difference?"
"No one died to make this."
He always found it hard to tell when Dinobot was kidding. Optimus decided to let it slide. "What are your plans for the morning?"
"Quickstrike and Silverbolt will be handed over to me once this shift is up. I plan on starting them sparring." At Optimus' pained look, Dinobot growled. "I am a warrior. What did you expect me to teach them?"
"Mostly I want you to balance out Rattrap's opinions," said Optimus. "He can be ... emphatic."
"Silverbolt is naïve. Such things can be worked on. Quickstrike is looking forward to my lessons."
"I suppose it would be too optimistic to hope they might not need combat training," said Optimus. "Which brings me to another point ..."
Dinobot made a derisive noise. "Hnh. Predacon business."
"I'm going to ask Megatron if he's up to going back to the Predacon base."
"Do not ask him," said Dinobot. "Order him."
"I'm not going to play macho power-games with Megatron, Dinobot."
The warrior shook his head. "He does not want you treating him as if he were weak. Order him as if he were strong."
"But what if he doesn't feel up to it?"
"Then he will make an excuse or argue you out of your plan. Do not worry for his health. Megatron is more than capable of taking care of himself." Then, "If he does decide he wishes to return, I ask that I accompany him. I have a better chance of detecting treachery in him than you do."
Optimus nodded. "That sounds reasonable."
"All right, cuttin' it off here 'cause the shift's up," said Rattrap. "There's six more megacycles of ... I heard that, 'Strike."
"You were meant to," said Quickstrike, folding his arms across his chest, completely unapologetic for his disgusted snort. "I ain't sittin' through no more landscapes."
"It's cultural!" Rattrap insisted.
"Now you're just blowin' exhaust! It's plain boring is what it is!"
"Culture isn't dull!"
"Perhaps Maximal culture is," said Dinobot, walking around the central workstation to loom over Rattrap. "Shall we trade lesson plans tomorrow?"
Rattrap whirled on Dinobot, jabbing a finger at his chest. "Don't you dare teach 'em how to be Preds!"
"And here I'd always been told that true art transcends faction." Dinobot sighed theatrically. "But I suppose it's for the best, unless I want to find you've taught them how to shoot people in the back."
"It's a useful skill!" Rattrap insisted. Silverbolt snapped around to fix him with a you can't be serious expression.
"So, were you planning to teach them how to fight by demonstrating?" Optimus asked mildly.
Dinobot took a step back. Rattrap turned away to pick at the console. "They're all yours, chopperface," he grumbled. "Try not to break 'em."
"At least I will teach them something useful," Dinobot countered, unable to resist getting the last dig in, walking to the lift with the neophytes in his wake, both dragging their feet. In Silverbolt that was expected - he never seemed thrilled with the idea of violence. In Quickstrike it was strange. Maybe he just didn't sleep well.
"I liked the movie," Silverbolt reassured Rattrap as the lift descended.
His shift was up but Rattrap stuck around, idly scrolling through the small catalogue of films they'd taken from Cybertron. Optimus set about arranging things for his shift, checking the various cameras. There had already been ones installed in the more sensitive areas of the ship but they'd added some in the laboratories and hallways. The Predacons were behaving themselves so far but he knew better than to trust them. Optimus glanced over at Rattrap. "I didn't think you were into art films."
Rattrap shrugged. "I'm not, I just wanted somethin' with pictures of Cybertron in. Not usually the views I see, but ... y'know."
"I know." Homesick ... Rattrap's been upset about leaving Cybertron since we crashed here. It seems incongruous in someone who signed up to be a long-term, long-range explorer, but there's a difference between willingly going away and being forced to stay away.
Optimus looked back to find Rhinox standing by the entrance to the hallway with something like a toolbox on a strap over his shoulder, and raised his eyebrows. "What happened to ...?"
The engineer chuckled, running a hand over his smooth, dark scalp. "I was getting furry on the sides so I thought I'd just take it all off." He still had his short beard, however.
"You'll have to tell me how you did it." Optimus had no problems with the hair on his head or the rest of his body but he found facial hair to be itchy and he thought the shaggy growth looked odd on himself. Even as a gorilla the area around his mouth hadn't had fur.
"What I don't get is why it's just us," said Rattrap. 'Us' being Optimus, Rattrap, Rhinox, and Quickstrike. Cheetor was also fairly fuzzy but since it was fine and downy it wasn't very noticeable. "I thought it mighta been something to do with our beast-modes since none of the Preds got much hair on 'em, but then how come Tigatron ain't got a beard?"
"It might just be random genetics," said Optimus.
Rattrap tugged his ponytail over his shoulder and frowned at it. "I dunno. Everything else has been analogued, y'know? I'm still short and coppery and even this long hair hangs kinda like my rat-tail used to in robot-mode and Rhinox is still big and ... well, he ain't green no more, but he was a brown rhino and Tigatron's still got her stripes and Cheetor's got his spots even if they're tiny ... There's not a lot of random here."
"We'll figure it out," said Rhinox. "Optimus, I'll show you how I shaved my head after your shift." He dug a datadisc out of his toolbox and handed it to his leader. "I was looking at the code from Quickstrike and Silverbolt's pods again. You know how I said before how I think the pods scanned one another to fill in missing bits of their datatracks?" Rhinox asked. "Now I'm sure. I've found identical strings of code in their pods' circuits. I'm not sure who the original was but my guess is Quickstrike. It seems to match his code more than it matches Silverbolt's."
Optimus inserted the disc into the computer. Data filled the screen in no pattern he could immediately determine. "Do you know what it says?"
"No. The best I can tell you is that it's part of their personality programming."
"Maybe it's the gender issues," chuckled Optimus. "Though why they have them at all is beyond me."
"Maybe one of them was our lab biologist. I don't know why anyone else would be interested." Rhinox leaned over Optimus' shoulder to reach the console, then tapped a few keys and brought up more code. "I think the pods scanning each other is why they've at least got their basic functions but not personal memories. Whatever one was missing the other could fill in."
"Hm." Optimus frowned. "Sparks hold memories. Is there a way we could tap into that?"
"We couldn't even attempt it without our spark surgeon, and he's in one of the stasis pods. But their spark-memories might just resurface naturally," said Rhinox, then smiled slightly. "I'm taking the morning off, though. Rattrap insisted."
Rattrap appeared at Rhinox's side and thumped him lightly on the back. "Enh, you've been starin' at code and pod parts for two days straight," he said, then turned to Optimus. "We're headin' out, boss. Not too far, though. If the Preds act up, you can give us a yell."
They left. Optimus fiddled with the outside scanners. Rattrap and Rhinox seemed to be headed in the same general direction that Dinobot and his charges went, towards a green area out in front of the Axalon. The pair would like it to look at the plants, the trio would find it easier to land on than rock if they were sparring. Cheetor was trickier to find but he had gone off in the other direction, racing himself across the plain.
Darkness and weightlessness became dimness and the yielding contours of packing foam. It was an unnerving awakening from horror to alien and Airazor whimpered quietly before consciousness and Tigatron's scent reassured her. Everything's soft now. Soft isn't anything to be afraid of. Generally used to keep delicate equipment from scraping and banging around in a cargo crate, a few sheets of packing foam laid on a berth made a serviceable mattress. That had been Scorponok's idea and he'd been surprised no one else had thought of it. It was only realising that the Predacon second-in-command had been sleeping better than everyone else that caused questions and revealed his solution.
Airazor reached up and patted the hand stroking her hair. "You didn't have to wait around." She had her head pillowed on one of Tigatron's thighs, bare as usual. The tracker only wore clothing when she had to. While Airazor found both fabric and flesh rather odd-feeling she had a bit of a preference for skin, at least when it came to Tigatron. There was something more real about it.
"I wanted to." Tigatron set aside the datapad she held in her other hand. "You were mumbling in your sleep. I couldn't make out the words but you sounded upset."
Airazor sat up, rubbing at her forehead. "I'm fine. It was just a nightmare." Then, "Sentinel, restore normal illumination."
The lights obligingly came on. "What happened?" asked Tigatron.
"Well, nothing was menacing me," said Airazor, leaning against Tigatron, who draped an arm around her shoulders. "It was night and I was flying when I suddenly heard a voice calling for help over my radio. He was terrified but trying very hard to speak clearly." They are dead. They are all dead. Please, if anyone can hear, please help me! "I told him I was coming to help, tried to keep him talking, because I knew that if he stopped talking that meant that he was dead and I'd been too slow to save him. So I flew as fast as I could, certain that any second I was going to hear him die ... and then I woke up." Airazor shook her head. "I didn't notice during the dream, but thinking of it now, the caller had Silverbolt's voice."
"I don't know. I've talked to him a few times. He seems nice enough, if a bit uptight," said Airazor. "He's never asked me for help, panicked or otherwise, though he's offered it a few times. He can't bear to watch other people carry things, I think." She shrugged. "He has a very distinctive voice."
Tigatron nodded. "Perhaps that's all."
They went down to the xenobotany lab that had given up its original purpose to become the new refuelling centre. There was more variety now as different plants and animals were added to the list of things deemed chemically safe to eat.
Tigatron wrinkled her nose. "This place smells like ..."
"I wasn't going to say that."
There was supposed to be one of the Axalon's little round cleaner drones permanently assigned to the room now but there was organic debris littering the floor. Airazor knelt down to check the access tunnel. It was clear of both obstructions and drones.
Airazor, pragmatically omnivorous, ate whatever she had a craving for whenever it struck, trusting her body to understand its own chemistry better than she did. It seemed to be working so far. Right now she decided was that she wanted one of the fist-sized, pale yellow fruits. There weren't many in the bin - they were popular because they tasted rather like turpentine. Texture didn't bother her - she'd eaten things as a robot, after all - but swallowing felt strange with a soft throat. Because of that she took little bites, still poking around to see where the cleaner drone might have gone.
Tigatron didn't much like eating plants and only did because she recognised her body as omnivorous. Apparently at this moment she decided she could skip it - the tracker had gone over to the decontamination chamber and picked at the remains of the small bushbuck that Dinobot had brought in the day before. He'd been told not to hunt alone but in his usual way had ignored the order and simply vanished for several hours. There were only a few scraps of that left as well - fresh flesh had a bitter, iron-tinged flavour that the Cybertronians liked for its familiarity. It had taken them a few tries to program the decontamination field to deal with things like bacteria and leave the flesh alone.
When she finished, Tigatron licked her fingers clean. "Have we any set tasks for the day?"
"No. We'll probably be foraging since the supplies are looking low." Airazor found the drone under the table, flipped onto its back, stiff cilia waving sadly. She righted it and the drone immediately scooted away to clean the deck plates.
"I would also like to come up with more thorough protocols for cleaning this room," said Tigatron, stepping aside when the cleaner drone nudged her foot to get at a patch of floor. She always wore her boots, even if she wasn't wearing anything else, for that reason among others - the wire-brush underside of the drones would cut up her feet if they were bare. "Organic matter rots. This cannot be hygienic."
Airazor led the way up to the command centre. Optimus was the only one there, on his monitor duty shift, sitting with his elbows on a console and looking up at a screen with a view of the outside.
The Predacons were maybe a hundred metres from the base, in a rocky area, using the larger stones as seats. Airazor knew the area well - it was one of the Predacons' favourite spots to shoot at the Axalon from. Without turning, Optimus said, "I think Megatron called a staff meeting. There's been some arguing but no fighting."
"I suppose we can't pick up what they're saying," said Airazor.
"I tried already," said Optimus, swivelling his chair to face them. "They're too far away. I'd bet that's the point. Oh, Tigatron, which room did you claim as your quarters? I know where everyone is now but you."
"Well, it hardly matters since I'm never there except to sleep ..." Tigatron hedged.
Airazor grinned. "She's with me."
Their leader nodded. "Fine. Now, I was thinking ..."
"Er. This is all right?" asked Tigatron. "This isn't considered fraternising?"
"We're not exactly a strict operation," said Optimus. "Whatever doesn't get in the way of your jobs is none of my business and if you're happy together, I'm glad. And speaking of your jobs, I wanted to run an idea by you."
"I was thinking it might be a good idea to do a more detailed study of the larger primates," said Optimus. "Since ... unless the aliens suddenly change their minds or we miraculously come up with a way to change back, we're going to be like this for some time. Tigatron?"
The tracker nodded. "Long-term planning would be prudent, yes. We'd need to double-check their body chemistry to make sure they're similar enough to us for such research to be useful, of course."
"Good. With Quickstrike and Silverbolt here now we won't be outnumbered by the Predacons if you two do some longer missions."
"Nothing too long at first," said Airazor. "We don't know our limits yet."
"And I'd prefer you didn't go until we've got commlinks again," said Optimus. "According to Scorponok they're fairly close to complete, or at least the prototypes are."
"I think that gorilla colony Tigatron and Cheetor checked out on the first day is still the closest group of large primates in the area, though chimpanzees might be worth checking out as well," said Airazor. She glanced up at Tigatron, who hadn't said anything since she'd agreed with the idea. "You have any suggestions?" the scout nudged.
"I ..." Tigatron hesitated a moment and almost seemed as if she was going to hug Optimus for giving her the assignment but the moment passed and she smiled warmly instead. "Thank you." Then, embarrassed by the show of emotion, Tigatron turned to the central workstation and summoned up a holographic map. "I know of one group of chimpanzees within ... I would say three day's walk from here now, and a second gorilla colony four days ..."
Optimus chuckled and shook his head. "I'm glad you're so enthusiastic."
Tigatron got down to business, plotting routes and supplies. Airazor contributed ideas when she had them but mostly she just stood back and let Tigatron take control. This was Tigatron's dream job after all - studying organic creatures in an attempt to become more like one herself.
"She took my mice! Mice exist to be eaten! And tortured for science. And I like to do both ..."
"Silverbolt keeps giving me dirty looks. I've never even talked to him!"
"Have you seen how Cheetor follows you around to spy on you and tries to pretend he's not? I think he wants to be punched."
"Quickstrike pinched me!"
"If Waspinator wanted to be treated like charity project by Maximals, Waspinator would have stayed on Cybertron!"
Megatron sat back and let his minions complain. It relieved some of the pressure. It will only get worse, he knew. Right now, Predacon and Maximal alike are feeling weak and confused. When we cannot avoid each other we try to ignore each other. This will not last. They couldn't fight now even if they didn't need the Maximals - of the seven Predacons, only three were at full strength, such as it was. Megatron, Scorponok, Terrorsaur, and Waspinator still carried damages from the superheated air inside the Predacon base. The burns on their faces and Scorponok's hands still looked strange and whitish and waxy but they seemed to be healing. Their voices still rasped from the burns in their throats but at least it no longer hurt simply to breathe. Megatron found himself tiring faster than he thought he should. If the others had the same problem, they never told him.
He'd picked the spot outside because it was in the shade of a tall rock formation, had plenty of places to sit, and was far enough away from the Axalon that the Maximals wouldn't bother with them but not so far that the Maximals would come looking.
"It's kind of fun watching Optimus," said Terrorsaur. The air warrior had immediately claimed the tallest rock that was still scaleable. He didn't sit like most of them, instead hunched over in a vaguely birdlike crouch with his arms draped over his knees. Unfortunately, this spot was directly above Megatron, who was using the tall rock as a backrest. It made Megatron uncomfortable to have him there but he wasn't going to admit that. "He can't stand us but he tries so hard to be nice. You can see him put the effort in. The others don't bother."
"Rhinox seems okay," said Scorponok, sitting on a low rock with his long braid lying carefully beside him. He'd quickly learned to avoid sitting on it and pulling it. Suggestions that he might cut the thigh-length rope to something more manageable were invariably met with, 'Cut off my tail? Are you crazy?' Scorponok flinched slightly when the others looked at him but quickly switched into belligerent defiance. "What? So I ask him where stuff is sometimes. A tech's going to know better than a warrior."
"No one was accusing scorpion-bot of fraternising," soothed Waspinator, the only Predacon sitting on the ground. With her back to the rocks she was completely out of sight of the Axalon. If the Maximals suddenly decided to open fire, Waspinator was going to make sure she couldn't be hit.
Blackarachnia, seated above and to Waspinator's left, legs crossed and dangling down not quite close enough to use Waspinator's shoulder as a footrest, chuckled. "Those two that Inferno found missed the 'Predacons are bad' communiqué." She leaned back on her hands, rolled her shoulders, and the action sent the movement down her whole torso. "It can be annoying how they tag along and Quickstrike can get grabby but I never have to lift anything if they're around. Maximals can be so helpful."
"Heh, something to do on a slow day," said Tarantulas, stretched out on her side on a flat rock, arms extended and head pillowed on her bicep. She quite enjoyed her new body, in her own strange way. Shaped more or less like the body she had designed for Blackarachnia, she seemed determined to act the way her creation did. Tarantulas hadn't quite got the hip-swing down yet or taken to trailing her nails down people's chests but Megatron thought it was just a matter of time. Why she did it was another question. Possibly Tarantulas was just trying to show Blackarachnia up, an I designed you to be this and I'm better at it than you are. "Try to tempt the little innocents over to the dark side. Not that they seem to be good for much, but it would give the Maximals something to worry about, teheheheh."
Inferno, standing close enough to Megatron to look official but not as close as she used to, said nothing. She'd said hardly anything in the last few days, ever since she ran out of Megatron's quarters shouting that he was no longer the Queen. She still followed after Megatron out of habit. Inferno worked because she couldn't do anything else but she worked like an automaton.
Megatron let his minions vent for a while, then called for their attention. "Now then," he said. "Have we all realised what planet we're on?"
There were murmurs of assent from Scorponok, Tarantulas, Terrorsaur, and Waspinator. Blackarachnia and Inferno admitted denial. Megatron nodded. "You two weren't part of the original operation. But first - has anyone told the Maximals?"
This got a more definite "No!" from the Predacons. Megatron smiled. "Good. Blackarachnia, Inferno, this planet is Earth."
Blackarachnia's eyebrows lifted. "The last major alien battleground in the Great War. But ... wasn't that planet at least partially industrialised?"
"It was, in our own time. Our transwarp ship seems to have sent us backward in time some distance. I thought possibly forward - civilisations do crumble - but backward seems more likely given the marks that have appeared on the moon. I'm not sure how far. This would seem to imply that in our current situation," - here Megatron looked at his hand with an expression of distaste - "we are human. Personally, all I know of the species is that it is small, soft, and produced Dinobot's favourite writer."
"Dinobot must know where we are," said Tarantulas.
"I wonder about that, actually," said Megatron. "I'm certain the Maximals don't know. At the moment this does us little good. Still, it is knowledge, knowledge is power, and we don't share power with Maximals, no."
"Predacons share everything else with them," Waspinator grumbled.
"Unless we can overhaul the environmental systems in our base without dying of exposure, we cannot return there. The pumps can only clear out so much of the lava," said Megatron. "Remaining at the Axalon and upholding the truce is still the most practical option."
"You want us to act nice to the Maximals?" asked Scorponok.
"Oh, absolutely not," said Megatron. "I resent this truce as much as the rest of you do. Be honest in your emotions. They will only be suspicious if we start acting friendly." He smiled and leaned forward. "Do not be honest in your intentions. Our plans will continue, yes." No one asked why they didn't just kill the Maximals. Even if the Predacons knew how to live in organic bodies, it was still easier to let the Maximals deal with the practical business of survival while they worked on their own projects, ostensibly for the good of all.
Terrorsaur made a derisive noise, reached down, and tugged a lock of Megatron's hair. Megatron caught the offending hand and tumbled the air warrior off the rock. Terrorsaur yelped and managed to twist enough to land on his back instead of on his face. Megatron poked him with the toe of his boot and got a wheezy squawk in reply - his minion was only stunned.
"Show a bit of optimism," Megatron chided a moment later as Terrorsaur recovered and slunk away to sit with Waspinator. "These bodies are merely a setback. They do delay us - I don't want to start anything until we've returned to full strength. We are outnumbered now after all."
"At least they're not acting like they're doing us a big favour," said Tarantulas. "They hate that we're here and they admit it. I wouldn't be able to put up with smug Maximal sanctimony on top of all of this."
"What do you want us to do until then?" asked Scorponok.
"Keep to the truce. Assist the Maximals if they ask for it and if you are able - though you don't have to pretend you like it. And you might as well start viewing the Axalon as 'home'," said Megatron. "Until we get our proper bodies back we're rather stuck here. This will also aid in convincing the Maximals that we're resigned to the truce. Once they've been lulled into a false sense of security it will be easier to continue with our true agenda."
Tarantulas laughed. "So it's just like back on Cybertron."
"Indeed. Remember that if you ever start feeling kindly-disposed towards our 'hosts'. Return to the tasks you had left off yesterday - I will summon you if I need you. Dismissed."
The other Predacons picked themselves up and headed off on their assorted assignments. Megatron singled one out. "Not you, Inferno." Megatron had once found Inferno's boundless enthusiasm and unthinking loyalty to be a bit annoying. He liked her current state less.
She didn't seem like she was going to snap herself out of it and Megatron didn't feel like waiting. "Inferno, we need to have a little talk about your attitude these last few days."
Inferno didn't come to attention, merely turned and waited. Megatron folded his arms across his chest. "I have tolerated your ant outlook but I have my limits. This is getting beyond ridiculous. It doesn't matter that I'm male."
She wouldn't meet his gaze, instead hanging her head to address Megatron's boots. "It does. You have been weakened. That body ..."
"We have all been weakened. This body is exactly the same type as your body. You don't seem worried about yourself."
"Forgive me," said Inferno stiffly, "but not exactly the same ..."
Megatron stood up. He couldn't loom over Inferno any more but he was still the taller of the two. "Perhaps the important thing here is that I'm still bigger and stronger than you. Do we need to have a little rite of combat reminder of the hierarchy?"
"I know your rank. It doesn't matter." The warrior looked miserable. "You are not the Queen."
You are not the Queen. It was Inferno's mantra these days, sadly murmured when she thought Megatron couldn't hear, rarely said to his face. As he understood it, the queen of an ant colony was a living factory to create workers and soldiers and drones to serve her. But Inferno knew how Cybertronian life was created, she understood about the factories and protoforms and programming and sparks. Yet Megatron had not been some kind of factory before. He'd never sparked a new life from himself. He'd never reprogrammed a stasis pod. Well, not lately.
A queen was a shell factory. Workers maintained it and soldiers defended it. Drones were necessary to the creation of new life somehow. Technicians, or ... No. More that drones give up their sparks to the queen so that she might split them into many sparks to give life to the shells she created. Ant queens are invariably female but ...
It hadn't mattered before. In the Cybertronian language there was only one personal pronoun for a sentient mechanism. Inferno had used it for everyone, as they all did. Now they were using xeno pronouns to match their alien forms and he was the wrong sex. "Inferno, I was not female before."
"You were not male," Inferno reminded him. "And I know you had created life. The Dinobot clone."
She hadn't been there but any of the others could have mentioned it. "You are aware I used a machine for that, yes? And he had no spark. The clone was in no way my offspring."
"But he could have been, if you chose," Inferno insisted. "And I know what you were before. Tarantulas told me once."
Blasted spider. Inferno knew Cybertronian concepts, they just all got strained through an ant filter. The potential to spark new life was in all of them, barring some weakness. It had made Megatron female enough. Add in that he was the largest one in the crew and the leader ... Predacon thoughts were strong enough that Inferno still followed orders. But the ant thoughts were insisting that there was something fundamentally wrong.
"You know that I am still myself?" Megatron demanded.
"Yes," said Inferno, finally lifting her head to look him in the eyes. "You are Megatron."
"And you know that I am your leader."
"You are Megatron," she repeated. "You lead the Predacons. I am a Predacon and therefore you are my leader."
"You will obey me."
"Yes." But she slumped then and looked at the ground. "You are Megatron, leader of the Predacons. But you are not the Queen."
Megatron sighed, for the moment defeated. "That will have to do. Dismissed."
He watched her walk away, back towards the Axalon. I never liked the 'Queen' title, but it did cement Inferno's loyalty to me. At least Primal is male. Inferno won't be getting any ... ideas. Dinobot's already decided to play Maximal, I will not lose Inferno to them as well, no!
Megatron followed, rather more slowly, partly to put some distance between himself and Inferno, partly because he didn't have the energy for speed and too much activity made his head ache. Movement on the roof made him flinch out of habit even though he knew the base defences were off - it turned out just to be Terrorsaur sitting on top of the ship. The air warrior made a rude gesture at him. Megatron ignored it.
He tried to stop the lift on the lower level so he could go back to his quarters without dealing with any Maximals but Megatron found himself up in the command centre anyway - apparently someone wanted to talk to him and overrode the lift controls. A quick glance around the room showed Tigatron and Airazor standing by the central workstation, the former glaring at Inferno, and Optimus standing by the lift override. Megatron put his hands on his hips and turned to Optimus. "Well?"
"Inferno's complaining," Optimus explained. "She wants to borrow one of Tigatron's spare guns. Tigatron doesn't want to lend it."
Megatron looked over at Inferno, one eyebrow lifted. "What do you need a cold-based weapon for?"
"Hunting," said Inferno flatly. "I require ice after my fire."
"There," said Megatron. "Inferno is simply being responsible. If she accidentally sets the jungle on fire she can put it out."
Tigatron and Optimus exchanged looks, then Tigatron sighed and gestured Inferno to follow. Optimus turned back to Megatron. "While I have your attention, I want to go to your base and pick up some equipment."
Megatron frowned. "I don't."
"Any preference on when you'd like to make the excursion?" No sarcasm, just query.
"Are you in a hurry?"
"If it will help us get our metal back?" asked Optimus. "Yes."
"That will not happen quickly. I doubt that a delay will matter," said Megatron, hitting the lift control.
When he reached his quarters, Megatron glanced around the room and sighed. He'd added a high-backed chair with padding that he could sleep on. There were a few sheets of packing foam on the floor near the door - Inferno refused to take the berth, even though Megatron didn't use it and said that she could. Inferno had very firm ideas about her place. So he used the berth as a shelf and left the computer there when he didn't have it perched on his lap to work. It was a rather pathetic device but it could access the Axalon's main computer, or at least those bits that Optimus had deemed Allowed To Be Seen By Predacons. Megatron hadn't had the energy to try to hack it yet.
He settled back in his chair without picking up his computer and closed his eyes. I just awakened recently! I should not be feeling tired again so soon! Perhaps I should raise the oxygen level in here. That seemed to help a little before.
On to Ill Feelings - part two
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