"I should be working. There's still so much we need to know."
"Ah-h-h, you're glad that I dragged you out here."
Rhinox settled back on the springy grass under a tree with a smile, hands behind his head. "Fine. You're right."
"See? Trust the rat."
Lying around in the shade was a bit too slow for Rattrap's sense of fun, but he knew Rhinox liked it and he needed the break badly. The engineer hadn't so much as gone outside the Axalon since he picked up the scrap from the wasteland pod site and the intact blank protoform two days ago. He hadn't had a single chance to come out and just enjoy the outdoors.
Rhinox closed his eyes, soaking up the morning with his other senses. Rattrap rooted through his toolbox, knowing Rhinox wouldn't mind, and took out his datapad. He settled against the engineer, using him as a backrest, and skimmed through the files. When he found there was nothing on it he had any interest in reading, he put it back and got up again.
Rhinox opened his eyes. "You're bouncing around worse than Cheetor."
"Hey, you unwind in your way and I'll unwind in mine," Rattrap said lightly. He'd been stuck inside almost as much as Rhinox had, doing repairs, making sure the alien energy wave hadn't messed up the Axalon's systems, and making up plumbing as he went along.
Dinobot and the neophytes were a distance away, close enough to see and hear but not to actually make out words. Dinobot glanced over when Rattrap waved, then went back to whatever it was he was doing. Not much from what Rattrap could see, just talking. The neophytes didn't seem very interested.
"I was arguin' with Tigatron yesterday," said Rattrap idly, still watching the warrior. "I said somethin' homesick and she said she'd always seen this planet as home and I took it bad and snapped at her and she snapped back. Then chopperface butted in with some story about how there's this legend that the first Transformers were made like they just grew outta Cybertron, and that afterwards it was like all Transformers always carried a bit of Cybertron with them no matter where they were. And I said what's that do for us now and he said we'd lost that connection, then he walked off. I don't get him."
"Maybe he was saying he feels homesick, too," said Rhinox.
"Maybe he's just nuts."
"What about you and Tigatron?"
"Oh," said Rattrap, turning back. "Yeah, Tigatron said she'd take me on a hike sometime so's I can properly appreciate beauty of nature and I said if she tried it I was gonna take her to this club I know so's she can properly appreciate the beauty of strip-dancers. So we're cool."
Rattrap wandered off a short way, unconsciously patrolling the small grove. Even if we got back to Cybertron what could I do there? I'd never survive a bar fight in this body. Pit, I wouldn't even survive a drink!
Maybe we'd be able to get metal bodies again, more resources back home ... Hnh, if we lived that long. No, we can't go back, not like this.
Something caught Rattrap's eye and he laughed suddenly. Rhinox sat up and called to him: "What is it?"
"Wild bean vines." Rattrap pulled one of the long seed pods off and walked back to Rhinox. "I know we've been jokin' about these things since day one but I gotta admit to curiosity here. One of those things I know I shouldn't do but I just gotta see what happens."
"You can't just ingest random things and expect them to turn into fuel now," said Rhinox, pulling a scanner out of his toolbox.
"But everything tastes interesting now," Rattrap protested, kneeling on the grass. Not always good, but interesting. Of the senses that they retained as organics, taste was the one that had changed the most. Some of them found this unpleasant but Rattrap thought it was a great deal of fun. Lunch was an adventure.
He held up the seed pod so Rhinox could scan it. After a moment, the engineer shook his head. "They're poisonous."
Rattrap peered at the seed pod. "Already guessed that."
"They only had an effect on me because of the energon discharge virus," said Rhinox. "Under ordinary circumstances these would have just been more convertible matter. They're poisonous to these bodies. Too many alkaloids."
"One of those seed pods could probably kill everyone on the Axalon."
Rattrap dropped the plant. "Well, we knew the things were powerful -"
He was cut off by a loud, wet, organic sound that he'd never heard before and immediately hoped he'd never hear again. Both Maximals were immediately on their feet. "What the blazes was that?" Rhinox asked.
"I don't know if I even wanna know," said Rattrap. He turned to see if Dinobot and the others had heard and found that Quickstrike had fallen to his knees. Dinobot saw Rattrap watching and waved them over. "Slag, something's wrong with 'Strike. Come on!"
By the time Rattrap and Rhinox covered the distance, the others had moved a few metres from where they had been - Silverbolt half-dragging Quickstrike. It didn't make any sense until they got there.
"What happened?" Rattrap demanded.
Dinobot made a small gesture near his throat. "Fuel rejection. System purge."
Quickstrike had blown his tank. Rattrap had never put any thought into the process that turned food into energy. It went in one end and whatever was left over came out the other. He hadn't wondered what the intermediate stage looked like but found out now because apparently it could also come back up the throat. It looked sludgy and the sour smell made his throat twitch. And here I'd thought nothin' could stink worse than lava. Life is just full of discoveries, ain't it?
They'd moved away from the mess. Quickstrike was sitting on the ground, legs drawn up to rest his elbows on his knees and his hands on the back of his head. Silverbolt was hovering near him, worried but uncertain what to do. Rattrap went over, reached down, and patted Quickstrike on the shoulder. "You okay?"
"I sure hope not," mumbled the blond, then spat. "Hate to think feelin' like this was normal."
Rattrap rounded on Dinobot. "You went too hard on 'em, didn't you? You know we don't know what kinda damage these bodies can take and you went and pushed - mmph!"
Dinobot's hand clamped around the lower half of Rattrap's face. "I was teaching them theory. I never laid a hand on them. Don't even think of biting me." The way Dinobot was holding him, biting would have been difficult. Rattrap drove his fist into Dinobot's midsection instead. The warrior grunted, then released Rattrap after a few deliberate seconds to prove that he was letting go out of choice. "They were listless at the start of the shift," Dinobot continued. "Perhaps it was something you did."
"I ... It was first thing in the morning! I thought they'd slept badly and Quickstrike was just bein' surly because he thought the film was boring!"
"So you did think that something was wrong and did nothing, then tried to blame me when it got worse!"
"Shut up, okay?"
Behind them, Rhinox had taken over, scanner in hand and asking questions. "When did you first realise you felt wrong?"
"Enh, 'fore I went to sleep last night," said Quickstrike.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Rattrap demanded, stomping over and glaring down at the blond.
Quickstrike shrugged. "Figured I could tough it out."
Before Rattrap could shout at him for being irresponsible, Rhinox stepped in. "We're still just learning these bodies. If something goes wrong with them, we need to know immediately."
Silverbolt looked sheepish. "Ah. I said nothing for I do not wish to be a bother, but ..."
"You, too?" Rattrap yelled. "For bootin' up cold! You gotta tell us things!"
Rattrap left Rhinox to it and went back to Dinobot. The warrior was standing a few metres away, uncertain what to do and staying out of Rhinox's way. "You seem fond of the neophytes," he said when Rattrap rejoined him.
Optimus handed their trainin' over to me. And to you but you don't care so you don't count. And I'm the one who found 'em out in that wasteland. So I feel responsible for 'em. "So what?" Rattrap finished out loud.
"If they wish to act carelessly, it is not your fault."
"Look, it's nothing," Quickstrike, still seated on the ground, was insisting to Rhinox. "I'd been feelin' kinda twisted up inside but it's untwisted itself. And I've been feelin' tired. So what? The worst of it's over. Can't think of anythin' bein' worse than that tank purge."
Rhinox glanced over at Silverbolt. "And you?"
"A general malaise," said Silverbolt defensively. "Little energy. Minor cramps along here," he said, touching a hand to his midsection. "Nothing I was particularly concerned about. I mention it only because you insisted."
The engineer tucked his scanner back into its compartment. "I'm taking you both back to the Axalon to run some more tests."
"I don't see why I gotta -"
"You walk or you go over my shoulder," said Rhinox evenly. "Your choice."
"Tarnation!" Quickstrike cursed, pulling himself to his feet. "I'll walk, you oversized varmint!"
Quickstrike complained most of the way back to the Axalon that everyone was overreacting and shouldn't he know best since it was his body? Dinobot's snarl didn't shut him up but a few words from Silverbolt did. He always caves in to what 'Bolt wants, Rattrap realised. It was grudging and Quickstrike would often argue but when Silverbolt held firm, he got his way. I know they'd been in a fight before we found 'em. I'm thinkin' Silverbolt won.
The control centre wasn't any darker than the outdoors had been. Rattrap squinted up through the roof hatch, briefly wondered why it was open, and forgot about it. Sometimes people talked about putting up a ladder but no one had bothered yet. The environmental compensators could deal with the heat, the breeze was nice enough, and Rattrap had other things on his mind.
Optimus, Tigatron, and Airazor were around the central workstation, which was projecting a holographic terrain map. Optimus looked up. "You're all back early."
"The neophytes are feelin' glitchy so we brought 'em back here to make sure it's nothin' too bad," said Rattrap.
Tigatron went over, asking questions and looking carefully at the neophytes. Airazor, knowing she was out of her element, went back to studying her map, though she kept shooting little worried glances at the group.
"All right," said Optimus after a few minutes. "We'll take them down to the repair bay. Maybe we'll be able to determine what's wrong with them."
"Repair bay?" asked Tigatron. "The equipment in the xenobiology lab would be more suited."
"Blast. You're right. Rhinox, Tigatron, bring them." Optimus started out.
Rattrap started to follow. "Hey, I'm comin', too."
"You're more use to me up here," said Optimus.
Which was the polite way of saying, You've got no training in the biological sciences whatsoever and would be underfoot. Rattrap plunked down in the nearest chair. "I'll take over your shift so's you can go look after the neophytes, then." And keep me from hoverin'. Got an image to maintain after all. Still, he could just happen to keep watch with the security camera in the xenobiology lab.
Dinobot left with the others, talking to Optimus, which Rattrap found somewhat unfair. Enh, probably just telling Optimus that he didn't do it.
Airazor glanced back at the corridor. "I hope they can fix whatever's wrong."
Rattrap's mind was otherwise occupied so he never noticed Terrorsaur listening in from the roof, or slip away to sneak back in through the cargo entrance.
Dinobot aimlessly prowled the Axalon's corridors. Movement helped him think. He'd talked to Optimus, who had rather distractedly told him Megatron's decision not to return to the Predacon base.
Megatron still felt too unwell to travel. Good. That meant Dinobot probably had a few days to work with. But how do I reach the Predacon base? Taking the hoversled was unlikely. He would never be able to come up with a good excuse why he needed it alone for an afternoon. He couldn't just take it - Rattrap had done something to the device, removed some part so that Megatron couldn't slip away without the Maximals knowing. Walking would take weeks, even ignoring the mountains and the lava fields. It was completely unfeasible. Even if I did manage to take the hoversled ... if Megatron did turn off the environmental controls it would be suicide to go inside. And even after all that everyone would know where I had been because of the smell!
But I need the Golden Disc.
He would figure out what to do with it once it was in his hands. The important thing was to have it.
The last thing Dinobot wanted to do was confront Megatron but he couldn't see any alternative. Almost unconsciously, Dinobot had gone down to the quarters section of the ship. While he sternly told himself that he was not going to go talk to Megatron, the rest of his body didn't seem to be getting the message.
He paused. Footsteps, only one set, and the muttering announced that Waspinator was annoyed about something.
When Waspinator rounded the corner, Dinobot grabbed her and pulled her into an unoccupied set of quarters. Dinobot twisted the scout's arms behind her back, pushed her into the wall, and pinned her there with his weight. It was safer to deal with one of the warriors than to let Megatron drip poison in his ear. "You know where we are."
She tried to squirm out of his grip. "Waspinator is here. Lizard-bot is behind her. Release Waspinator!"
"Don't play stupid."
"Waspinator not playing!"
There was the possibility that Waspinator really did know nothing. That was the problem with trying to predict Megatron's plans - he didn't always tell his minions what they were. Dinobot decided to stick with Waspinator for now. "I've seen you watching the moon. You know where we are."
Waspinator brought her heel down sharply on Dinobot's foot and twisted. Dinobot simply accepted the pain and crushed the Predacon scout into the wall until she gasped for breath and stopped.
He supposed that it really didn't matter how much Waspinator knew about the Golden Disc. Dinobot twisted Waspinator's arm a bit, just enough to elicit a squeak. "Did Megatron shut off the base's environmental controls?"
"Lizard-bot can go eat slag!"
The dodge answer tipped things in favour of 'no'. After all, Megatron didn't know when he left that he wouldn't be returning to his base. Still, it wasn't something he could chance. "Yes or no, insect."
"Nng! Go swim in a smelter!"
The walls weren't thin but Waspinator was shouting. There was a voice in the hall: "Waspinator!"
"Terror-bot!" Waspinator shrieked and the strain was finally too much for her throat, sending her into a fit of coughing.
Dinobot hadn't had a chance to lock the door. He twisted, bringing the scout around with him, still holding her arms. Terrorsaur stepped in, a knife already in his hand. They weren't supposed to carry weapons in the Axalon but a knife could be claimed to be a tool.
"Picking on a poor injured Predacon," Terrorsaur rasped, circling, but Dinobot kept Waspinator between them. "Not very honourable." And, "I can't leave you alone for a minute, can I, Waspinator?"
"Like is Waspinator's fault flyer-bots sent to different places." At 'places', Waspinator drove her foot back into Dinobot's shin while trying to twist out of his grasp. No longer braced by the wall, underestimating Waspinator's strength and his own weakness, they went down in a tangle.
In those few seconds, Dinobot considered his position and found it unfavourable. When Terrorsaur stepped forward and grabbed Waspinator's hand, Dinobot let him yank her away. He stood up once she got clear.
Waspinator's cheek was leaking a clear fluid - the blister had torn sometime during the struggle. She didn't tend to it and Terrorsaur barely glanced at her. Both Predacons had enough sense to realise what the immediate threat was and they weren't about to let Dinobot catch them by surprise. "What was he roughing you up for?" Terrorsaur asked Waspinator without looking away from Dinobot.
"Lizard-bot wants to get back into Predacon base," said Waspinator.
Terrorsaur lifted an eyebrow. "What're you after, Dinobot?"
Dinobot considered telling them. Terrorsaur was notoriously gullible when it came to offers of power. On the other hand he might not be gullible twice. Waspinator wasn't very smart but she was more discerning than her partner. But even if they agreed, they were no use to him. Dinobot answered him with silence.
"Fine." With that, Terrorsaur and Waspinator left.
They would tell Megatron. Let them, Dinobot thought. Megatron would have already considered the possibility that Dinobot knew where they were and what the Golden Disc meant.
They might tell Optimus.
That was an unpleasant thought. Not Optimus knowing, no, but hearing it under those circumstances. Then it would be, 'Why did I hear this from a couple of Predacons? Why did you keep this secret? We need all the information we can get!' and, 'What were you planning to do with the Disc that you couldn't tell us about?' And he wouldn't be able to explain that it wasn't for any harmful purpose, that his motivations were entirely personal, because they wouldn't understand and because the admission of his fears would leave him too vulnerable.
I wanted to be certain before telling you, Optimus. I know we need information but false information is more harmful than none at all. Except that he was certain and when it came right down to it, Dinobot hated to lie. Omission was allowable but outright lying was dishonourable.
But then they might not go to Optimus at all. Knowing they were on Earth was an advantage and they wouldn't want to give that up. They might not even think that far ahead, the idea of going to the Maximal leader with a problem too alien to them. Terrorsaur and Waspinator hated the Maximals - they wouldn't ask one for help.
So, my choices - head off the flyers and go to Optimus myself or trust that they won't talk to him.
Returning to the Axalon turned out to be for the best. That was where the lavatory was, after all. While not an absolute necessity, it did make life more convenient and hygienic.
"Hey! I was startin' to wonder if we'd hafta send out a search party for you."
Silverbolt glared at Quickstrike, embarrassed at his arrival being announced. He slunk into the xenobiology lab and slipped back into the chair that he'd slid as far away from everyone as possible - if it wasn't on a track, he'd be in the corner. For reasons Optimus couldn't understand, it made Silverbolt uncomfortable when he knew that other people knew he'd been using the lavatory. Quickstrike had the same hang-up to a lesser degree and covered it by making jokes, but it really upset Silverbolt.
Whatever was wrong with the two newest Maximals, it was getting worse and it seemed determined to clean out their digestive systems. Only Quickstrike had thrown up - Silverbolt hadn't eaten that morning, already feeling a bit off. But matter reaching the main tank was only the first part of the digestive process. Once food was dissolved into sludge and passed to the unnervingly tangled-looking tube organs for nutrient extraction the only way it could go was down.
Right now it was being very insistent about going down.
They'd both developed a thirst as well, which bolstered the 'system purge' theory. "If their systems are trying to flush themselves out it might mean they ingested something incompatible with their chemistry," said Rhinox, who hadn't noticed that Silverbolt had returned or even that he'd left in the first place. He was sitting at the computer with Tigatron reading over his shoulder.
"Doubtful. I have eaten nothing that no one else has," said Silverbolt, blushing furiously.
Quickstrike, sitting on one table, looked away from counting Tigatron's stripes long enough to shake his head. "If that's a problem, how come I'm sick and Rattrap ain't?"
"No, I suppose that isn't fair," said Optimus, leaning back on the opposite table, succeeding at keeping a neutral expression. He had already broken up one game of I Dare You To Eat This between Rattrap and Tarantulas. Anyone else and he might have felt a twinge of pleasure that the factions were getting along. Rattrap and Tarantulas had simply found a new way to fight. "Are the rest of us in danger of contracting whatever they have?"
"Maybe," said Rhinox. "Depends on what's causing it. Nobody else has shown these symptoms."
"Perhaps ..." started Tigatron but trailed off uncomfortably.
"We can take it, sugar," Quickstrike assured her.
"Your pods were badly damaged," said the tracker. "You might have been ... constructed wrong."
"It's not that," said Rhinox, swivelling his chair to face the room. "If nothing else, these bodies are easy to compare structurally. There's nothing wrong with how Quickstrike and Silverbolt were built."
"That's a relief, anyway," said Optimus. "Then whatever's happening to them has some kind of outside cause. But we don't know how to begin curing it without knowing what set it off. Maybe all we can do is wait for their systems to cleanse themselves of the contamination."
Quickstrike laughed and reached for his canteen. "Believe me, it's tryin'. 'Least I don't have to taste it any more."
"If it's not something big, perhaps we should be looking for something small. A parasite or bacteria," said Tigatron. "I've yet to see an animal with these symptoms but sick animals tend to hide."
"An animal ..." murmured Silverbolt.
Quickstrike slapped his hand down on the table. "Right! We never ate anything different from you but we did drink different. There was that oasis out in the wasteland, before y'all found us. And that lion that attacked us ... well, I ain't real sure what a lion's supposed to be like but that one looked pretty rough."
"They had bloodstains on their clothing when they arrived," said Optimus. "And water when they tried to wash it off. Would you be able to sample from that, Rhinox?"
"We already disposed of our original garments," said Silverbolt.
"It probably wouldn't have been enough to work from, anyway." Rhinox folded his arms and tapped his fingers on his forearm. "We could get samples if we went back to the oasis, but how are we supposed to find the place?"
Optimus shrugged. "Borrow a Predacon. It's their territory. I'll talk to Megatron."
Megatron listened to the flyers' reports, then shooed them away so he could think.
Dinobot knew about the Disc and knew what planet he was on. Well, that was to be expected. He could deal with Dinobot.
And the two new Maximals were malfunctioning. Optimus, Rhinox, and Tigatron would likely be devoting all their energies to finding out what was wrong, why it went wrong, and trying to fix it. They would probably borrow Tarantulas to help them. If they didn't, Megatron would have to suggest her himself. The rest of the Maximals would be worried about their comrades.
In short, everyone that Megatron considered a possible threat to his plans was distracted.
He'd hoped to put it off for a few days so he could finish healing - he had no desire to subject his burns to the heat of the Predacon base again - but he hated to turn down such an opportunity.
Megatron checked the repair bay first, chuckled to himself when he found it empty, and then went to the xenobiology lab. He caught Optimus just as he was exiting.
"Ah, Optimus, just the being I wanted to see," Megatron announced, falling into step beside his Maximal counterpart. "I've changed my mind. I think I will return to my base, if only to pick up the alien disc."
Optimus stopped and raised an eyebrow. "What brought this about?" Optimus sounded suspicious but that was only natural. Megatron would have thought less of the Maximal if he hadn't been wary.
"Boredom, mostly," he lied. "Continuing my translations of the disc will give me something to do." Something to do that doesn't involve physical activity, Megatron added mentally. If I tired merely holding council with my troops, this little field trip is going to exhaust me.
"Dinobot told me you dabble in the biological sciences," said Optimus. "Maybe you should stay here and help us."
"The neophytes are malfunctioning."
"I build clones. I do not heal sick primates," Megatron informed him. "But I know what equipment might be helpful, yes."
Optimus sighed. "No matter what I say, you're going to find a way around it, aren't you? I'm surprised you're asking my permission."
Megatron smiled thinly. "Don't pretend that you don't know the rat sabotaged the loader sled." Of course Megatron already had duplicates of the parts Rattrap had removed, but let the Maximals think him trapped.
"Right." The Maximal sounded guilty. How nice that Optimus wishes he could trust us. How nice that it upsets him that his crew knows he can't. "Who are you expecting to take along?"
"Alas, I will need assistance with any heavy lifting now. In my preference I would take Scorponok, Terrorsaur, and Waspinator." I would have preferred Inferno. Scorponok isn't healing as well as the others and the flyers aren't the most useful of beings.
"Any one of them is fine. I can lend you Dinobot and Rattrap."
He'd known Optimus would veto an all-Predacon team but it was worth a try. Megatron didn't have to fake a look of displeasure. "The traitor and the vermin together. You are either trying to assassinate me or goad me into a truce violation."
"They both know your base pretty well already and Dinobot's good for heavy lifting," said Optimus.
"I will tolerate one or the other. Not both at once."
"Hm." Optimus looked back over his shoulder down the hall they'd just left. "If you'll make a side-trip into the wasteland I can send Rhinox."
"All right. Dinobot and Rhinox. Happy?"
"Ecstatic," said Megatron with flat sarcasm, gloating inwardly. You've handed me Dinobot with only the slightest nudge on my part. The day improves. "Oh yes, and you might want to talk to Tarantulas if you haven't already. She's the one that knows biological sciences, though you might wish to keep an eye on her while she's working."
On to Ill Feelings - part three
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