The fabricator could create parts but not a complete machine. Blackarachnia and Scorponok had to piece together their commlinks by hand. They only made three to start with, an initial design to be tested and built on. The two were holed up in the materials lab, the largest and most obviously used of the three laboratories on the Axalon. The xenobiology and xenobotany labs were really quite clean in comparison. The materials lab was an explosion of organised clutter, tools and parts covering every surface and those surfaces were covered in scratches and stains. The Maximals might have found the study of plants and animals interesting but they got far more use out of metal and robotics.
When Scorponok needed fingers back at the Predacon base, he would either use the manipulator arms in his lab or borrow Waspinator. He found his new hands with their five fingers were more suited to his current task than his claws would have been. There were burns on the backs of his hands similar to the ones on his face but healing more slowly because he couldn't help picking at them. At least the injuries didn't get in the way of his work. Blackarachnia, sitting across the table from Scorponok, found her fingers clumsy and confusing. Better at grasping tools but not as good at delicate detail work as her pedipalp-hands had been.
Scorponok shook his head. "How can you find fingers confusing? You used to have eight legs."
"Not on the ends of my arms! They're in the wrong place! How come you're fine with yours?"
He shrugged. "It's not too bad if you just do the work without thinking about the shape of your hands." He tapped the casing of the commlink he was working on. "You think these'll work?"
"I think they'll work," said Blackarachnia. "I don't think they'll work well. We had enough problems trying to cut through the energon radiation before." As robots, their commlinks had tapped into their internal power structure, which was sometimes enough to cut through the interference. Now they had to run the devices on batteries. That had been Scorponok's part of it. "Jamming towers."
Scorponok didn't look up from his work. "What about them?"
"We might be able to reprogram them into signal boosters if the energy wave didn't destroy whichever ones the Maximals haven't pulled down," said Blackarachnia. "We'll have to use the Axalon's transmitter to see which towers are still functional."
"At worst we can make more." The towers were mostly pre-fabricated, though they would need machines to lift the pieces now. Scorponok leaned his elbows on the table and tapped his pliers against his palm thoughtfully. "I wonder if we could use the CR chambers to make bigger and more complicated things. CRs already tie in with the fabricators to make new parts but those are often bigger than the fabricator allows for and it pieces bodies together automatically. If we could override the protocols so that instead of repairing, it creates ..."
"Don't let your imagination run away with you," said Blackarachnia. "They might let us play with their toys but I doubt the Maximals are going to let us mess with their ship."
"They might if it'll benefit them."
The door opened and Megatron stepped in. "How goes your work?"
Scorponok answered for both of them. "We're nearly done with the prototypes, we just need to finish putting them together."
Megatron nodded. "Good. Blackarachnia, finish this. Scorponok, you're with me."
Optimus never came back to the command centre to finish off his shift. He'd left the xenobiology lab and Rattrap lost track of his leader until he appeared in the stasis hold and stayed there, picking over protoform data. Airazor slipped off before he could ask her to take over - something about foraging because their food supplies were getting low. When Cheetor finally appeared for his shift, Rattrap immediately left to go look in on the neophytes.
Not that Rattrap hadn't kept tabs on what was going on. Every so often, he tapped into the laboratory computer to see what information had been entered. They'd already run scans on everyone to try to estimate what counted as 'normal' now. None of them had been put under nearly as detailed scrutiny as Quickstrike and Silverbolt currently were. In the absence of knowing what was actively harmful, Tigatron and Tarantulas were merely trying to determine what was different. This was more Tarantulas' kind of science - take samples of everything that can be sampled, then poke them to see if they dance.
Both biologists were caught up in their own work - Tarantulas on the main computer, standing to work, Tigatron sitting at the end of one of the two tables, picking over a datapad. Where Tarantulas pored over details, Tigatron was more about the big picture, cataloguing physical reactions and weighing them against behaviour she'd observed in the wild. She was also there to keep an eye on Tarantulas but nobody said that.
Tigatron looked up when Rattrap walked in so he smiled at her, made a face at Tarantulas' back, and turned to the neophytes. "How're you two holdin' up?"
"Got two pretty girls fussin' over me," said Quickstrike, lying back on the table Tigatron was sitting at, legs bent to keep them out of her way. He had draped an arm over his eyes but lifted it to look at Rattrap. His face was pale and he was sweating despite the coolness of the room but he still managed a smirk. "Can't complain. 'Cept maybe about how 'Ranty threatened me with a probe."
"I needed a stool sample. You baulked at the idea of bringing one," said Tarantulas without turning around. "Until I told you the alternative, heh heh heh."
"Yeah, and waved it at me." Quickstrike covered his eyes again. "You coulda just said 'please', sugar."
Rattrap grinned. He rather liked Quickstrike. Reminds me of me, if I was young, fearless, and dumber than rocks. But now I know he's malfunctioning - Tigatron's right there and he's not lookin' at her!
Hnh. And Silverbolt's not trying to not look at her, thought Rattrap. For his part, he didn't care that Tigatron tended to wear nothing but her boots and hair clips indoors, but the neophytes did. If they weren't giving Tigatron any kind of special attention it meant they were too focused on their insides to notice anything outside.
"This is ... terribly embarrassing," said Silverbolt, fiddling with the cap of his canteen before taking a drink. He had the other chair and was sitting primly at the opposite table. He'd been reading a datapad but put it down when Rattrap came in. He seemed to have lucked out - whatever was wrong, it didn't appear to affect Silverbolt as badly as it did Quickstrike.
"Enh, so you're glitchin'. It's not like you're doin' it on purpose," said Rattrap. "Remind me to tell you two about the time Rhinox got infected with an energon discharge virus ... Or maybe you could tell 'em about it, eight-eyes."
Tarantulas didn't bother looking up from the console. "I was unconscious at the time."
"And how is it my fault that Preds are rock magnets?" asked Rattrap.
"As I recall, the rock didn't happen until after you and Dinobot hunted me down and shot me."
Rattrap was suddenly aware of both neophytes staring at him in horror. Silverbolt found his voice first. "You shot a woman?"
"She's a Predacon!" Rattrap protested. "She'd infected Rhinox with somethin' that was killin' him! And she wasn't a woman then anyway!"
"Then the rock fell on me. Did you dislodge it on purpose or was that an accident caused by your blundering?" asked Tarantulas, continuing as if there had been no interruption, plainly enjoying herself. "Oh, and then you dragged me for kilometres down that underground passage. And then when I was regaining consciousness, you both punched me in the face. And after more dragging, you used me as a shield and got me shot by Megatron." She sighed dramatically, resting a hand lightly on her chest. "Is it any wonder I don't remember?"
"Would anyone have a problem if I hit Tarantulas?" Tigatron growled.
"Go for it, stripes."
"I ... have not yet considered the morality of that possibility ..."
"Can 'Ranty strip down first?"
The argument might have continued if nothing interrupted. With a quick, "Excuse me," Silverbolt dashed from the room.
"Think we'd've run out by now," mumbled Quickstrike from under his arm.
Rattrap decided to leave before Silverbolt returned. Rattrap knew he wouldn't be able to keep a straight face if Silverbolt tried to apologise for the fact that his elimination system functioned. A bit over-enthusiastically at the moment but it wasn't like Silverbolt had a choice in the matter.
"Hey, boss monkey."
Optimus jumped slightly at the sudden voice. He'd been lost in the shimmer of the blank protoform, sleeping quietly in its pod on the wall. It had taken a loader drone to lift it up there. "Sorry I didn't come back up. I meant to just quickly check in here and got distracted. What brings you down here?"
Rattrap shrugged. "Enh. Neophytes on my mind." He crossed the stasis hold to the pod Tarantulas had tried to turn into an escape ship and ran a finger along it idly.
"Clever, isn't it?" asked Optimus. "It almost worked."
Rattrap flinched, drawing his hand back quickly. "Yeah. Clever. Too bad the spider-bot failed, eh? We might not be lookin' like this if she hadn't."
"All Tarantulas was doing was trying to get off the planet."
"Yeah, but we coulda stuck a bomb in it or somethin' and sent it to blow up that fake moon." Rattrap stepped around the modified pod to stand with Optimus in front of the blank. "Why're you down here?"
"Just thinking." Optimus looked back up at the blank. "There's no traces of the alien energy in it. Megatron didn't believe it and reprogrammed one of the scanners to detect the alien frequency. Nothing. Not in any of the pods, not in the shell fragments Rhinox brought back, not even in us."
"Does that mean we could spark this one and have it come out a robot?"
"The alien energy wave was what knocked it out of orbit so the pod was certainly affected by it. And then we'd need to find our spark surgeon ... I don't know." Optimus felt something break inside him. The last four days had been a daze of survival and strangeness and saying the words made him realise how hopeless it all was. He ran his hands back through his hair and shook his head. "I don't know."
Rattrap took Optimus' arm and helped him sit down by the wall. Optimus drew his knees up to fold his arms across them and hung his head. "What am I doing here? Half the crew is amnesiac or malfunctioning or both - every stasis pod that's opened has had something wrong with it. The ship is full of Predacons - and if I kick them out, they'll be killed by the environment. I can't do that. Fighting them is one thing but I can't pass a death sentence. And I think we need them because a pack of aliens we can't even properly communicate with decided to turn us into a completely different species! We can't even transform!"
Rattrap settled cross-legged on the floor, facing him. "You're doin' what you can."
"It's not enough," said Optimus. "I don't know how to fix it."
"Could be worse," said Rattrap. "We're alive, aren't we? We're out here 'cause you were tryin' to do somethin' good. You couldn't have known the Preds were gonna show up and crash us. You've done everything possible to get us home - no thanks to the Preds that we're still here. And who knows? If you hadn't talked to the aliens, they mighta decided to just kill us instead. I ain't found much to recommend these bodies either but I'd rather be organic and complainin' than metal and slagged."
"Most of us are alive," Optimus corrected, glancing up at a table covered in the scrap of the third wasteland pod. "I don't even know his name," he said. "The pod computer is too damaged to pull any information out of it. I want to recycle the pieces properly - it's the least I can do for him - but I don't dare in case the pieces hold some clue as to what the aliens did to us."
The largest piece of the dead Maximal was a hand and a bit of forearm - in metal, not flesh. "I'm pretty sure it's that whatever it is doesn't turn us organic until after the protoform's solidified," said Rattrap. "It's just that this one went boom before the process could start. Or finish. Whichever."
"We need to find a live, closed stasis pod," Optimus agreed. "It's the only way we'll know how the change happens exactly."
"Let's just hope it's one of the crew."
"Do we need to be quite this high up?" asked Rhinox, which might have sounded snippy if there wasn't a bit of a waver to his voice.
Megatron added Fear of heights? to his mental file on the Maximal engineer. Most of the journey had been quite near the ground but now they were over the lava fields. "To be honest, I don't know exactly the altitude required to avoid the worst of the lava fumes. I thought it better to err on the side of caution."
It had been a quiet ride to the Predacon base. Of course, what is there for us to talk about? Megatron was chatty by nature but he was concentrating on flying the hoversled. Rhinox had briefly tried to make small talk with Dinobot and Scorponok but neither of them felt like talking.
Megatron looked down at his base. The lava had been quite near the surface of the plain. When the ship crashed, the thin rock crust cracked, creating an effect like a spider web. Or a target, he thought glumly. He frowned, calculating angles. It would be so much easier if they could use the roof hatch but that unfortunately opened into the lava-flooded control room. "Speed will be of the essence," said Megatron, taking his gloves from his pocket and drawing them on. "You may wish to hold on. And hold your breath."
They dropped. Megatron almost wished he could turn to see Rhinox's face. The engineer did gasp in alarm so Megatron contented himself with that. The hoversled dropped to the cargo entrance and Megatron reached over to tap the entry code. He could feel the hot metal through his gloves but they saved him from any further injuries.
It was hot inside, even though the cargo bay was sealed off from the lava and the environmental compensators had been running, but not so hot the air would burn them. Megatron's facial burns immediately began to hurt nearly as much as they did when he first received them and the headache that he'd finally managed to shake off returned full-force. He felt choked by the heat and the stench and had to fight down an unexpected surge of panic. It's safe here, he told himself sternly. Such as it is. It's not so hot that it will cause harm. "I suppose I don't have to explain what will happen if you enter one of the sections with lava-flooding," said Megatron, knowing his and Scorponok's injuries were adequate warning. "I trust you all know where they are. Work quickly - we cannot remain in this environment for long, no."
"Where are you going?" asked Rhinox. The engineer was sweating already and ran a hand over his scalp to wipe it off.
"My quarters," Megatron said over his shoulder. "I need to pick up the alien disc and my files on it. Scorponok knows what equipment we have well enough."
"One thing," Rhinox started. "Could the floating platforms be adapted to long-range use?"
"Probably. They're all in the command centre, however ... No," said Megatron. "Two are out in the hall by the lab." He might have been able to summon the hoverpads by voice command, but it wasn't useful if there happened to be a closed door in the way.
Megatron left the others and quickly made his way to his room. Now to do what I would have done days ago if I was not distracted by pain, he thought, annoyed.
He climbed up onto his chair but didn't stay there for more than a few seconds. It made him feel uncomfortably small. Instead, Megatron pulled the computers down on their runners - installed so he could move his workstations to his bath - so he could use them while standing. It is thoroughly unfair that I have been cut to half my size while Rattrap remains the same height he always was.
He took off his gloves and activated both of his computers - his personal one and the one that tied in with the ship's systems. After slipping a datadisc into his personal computer and setting it to download what he wanted of his research of the aliens and their artefacts, Megatron turned to his other console and ran a full diagnostic of the ship. He had run some scans right after the alien energy wave hit but hadn't been able to concentrate and read more than the basics. Now he knew his worst fears were realised - the pumps down on the control deck that they used to keep the lava to a reasonable level were damaged. Repairs would be easy ... if he were fireproof.
Megatron deactivated the systems the base wouldn't need for a while - the CR tanks, the defence grid - so that more power could go to the environmental compensators. He would have to set up a remote activation once Blackarachnia was done with the commlinks. No need to have the compensators using energy if no one was there and it would be a deterrent to any Maximals who got ideas about sneaking in. Megatron quickly checked in on the cargo bay - some things had been loaded on the hoversled but no one was there now. "Computer, scan for Di ... No. Computer, scan for organic beings over fifty kilograms." That would keep the computer from pointing out every rat and spider that had slipped aboard.
The computer found all four of them. Crosschecking with the security cameras, he found Rhinox and Scorponok collecting the two hoverpads from the hallway and Dinobot entering his old quarters. Not that there was anything in there. The Predacons hadn't even bothered trashing it.
Megatron walked over to his bath - now the size of a small pool - and tapped his rubber duck on the head, sending it bobbing. It was quite possibly the only personal item any of them had brought from Cybertron. Given the circumstances of their departure it wasn't as if they could pack for the trip. But he had brought the duck, stashed in one of his compartments. It had been a present from Scorponok who had heard somewhere that a rubber duck was the thing to have if one took baths. That didn't confer any special symbolism or meaning to it. It was his and he liked it and that was reason enough.
There were other personal items in the room but most of them weren't his. They'd stolen the ship before it had been completed but after some of the crew had started to move their things into it. Whoever the original captain was, he played various sports and won and collected Great War replica items.
There were two pictures that were Megatron's, both of himself - a painting and a photograph. The photo had been taken on this planet, a still from a cyberbee's footage. The painting was Terrorsaur's work, just something to keep the air warrior busy and out of the way, a product of if you're bored, I'll find something for you to do. It was simply Megatron from the waist up, in his pre-Earth body, standing in front of a cityscape. It was an accurate enough picture but nothing special. Paint wasn't Terrorsaur's medium anyway.
A rack on another wall held his spare tail-weapons, now as tall as he was. He managed to lift one down but couldn't wield it. Even if it wasn't too heavy, the handle was too big to grip. Megatron spent several minutes trying to fit his hand to it, toying with the connections, stroking the scales. Even those felt alien, memory distorted by too-soft fingers.
He returned to the bath and picked up the duck, careful not to touch the liquid it floated in, cool and inviting as it looked. The chemicals evaporated within seconds and he held up the toy to inspect it. Even the duck was too big now. Making it squeak involved wrapping both arms around it and squeezing.
"You've always been far too fond of that toy."
Megatron tucked the duck under one arm, entirely unashamed to have been caught hugging it. He glanced over at the door. "Feeling homesick yet?"
"I made my choice," said Dinobot. "I stand by it."
"Like you stood by your choice to serve me," said Megatron, setting the duck on his chair before turning around. He wiped a hand across his forehead before the sweat could drip into his eyes. Well, I finally understand that cloth band Dinobot wears around his forehead. "Why are you here?"
"I do not trust you. Can you blame me for that?"
"I suppose not." Inwardly, Megatron shrugged. It wasn't as if he was doing anything particularly secret right now. He turned back to his console. "Computer, scan the coordinates of the alien moon. Is it still there? Use the alien frequency."
"Acknowledged." There was a busy silence, then, "The alien moon is at the expected coordinates."
"Do you think that destroying the device will return our previous forms?" asked Dinobot.
Megatron shook his head. "No." But its destruction would mean that the aliens couldn't turn us organic again if we do manage to regain our robotic bodies. But perhaps we shouldn't destroy it, not yet. Maybe we can reprogram it to reverse the change.
Ha. If we could reach it. Finish up Tarantulas' little stasis pod ship and then what? Suffocate on the way up or die in a vacuum?
Dinobot was standing by the discs, watching them hover suspended in their forcefield, but made no move to touch them. Megatron smiled. At least being with the Maximals hasn't made him careless. He tapped a code into the console and glanced back. "You can lift it down now, Dinobot. I've deactivated the security system."
The warrior gave him a suspicious look but bravado won out. Dinobot wiped sweat-damp hands on his trousers, then reached up. Megatron chuckled. "No, not the Golden Disc. The alien one."
"I thought both ..."
"What could I possibly use the Golden Disc for at this point in time?" Megatron knew he was being dreadfully obvious but Dinobot wasn't very good at subtle. If he still thought the Golden Disc was good for nothing but a map to energon the hint would go right past him.
Dinobot tensed, lips tightened to a thin line, and Megatron knew that the warrior already realised the Disc's full potential. And he wants it for himself. A change of command codes doesn't mean a change of spark, does it, Dinobot?
The warrior pretended that the last five seconds hadn't happened, turned away, and tugged the alien disc out of the field. The angle was awkward and Megatron watched as Dinobot's grimly determined expression flickered into surprise. At the last second, Dinobot jumped back so the alien artefact wouldn't land on his feet.
Megatron winced at the crash, unable to damp his hearing though he knew it was coming. Dinobot tried to lift the edge of it to check for scratches but Megatron wasn't worried. The artefact had survived Inferno's rough handling when it was first found; a short drop wouldn't damage it. "It's heavier than it looks," he said mildly. Dinobot growled at him.
"I suppose you've seen the moon," Megatron said casually. Pretend all you like - I won't let you forget who holds the power.
Dinobot hissed. "Yes."
"Here we are, exactly where I said we'd be. Don't you feel foolish for leaving us now?"
"You got the time wrong."
"Details. This time will suit my purposes just as well, perhaps even better." Megatron picked up his duck and cradled it in one arm, then leaned back against his chair. "Primal hasn't confronted me about it yet ... Oh, my." He tilted his head and smiled slowly. "You haven't told them. They don't know where they are."
"Perhaps I will rectify that oversight when we return to the Axalon."
"Perhaps, but the fact that you hesitated at all warms my spark."
"Megatron!" Scorponok had reached the door at a run but stopped when he failed to see any danger, standing uneasily in the doorway. "I heard a crash."
"We merely forgot how heavy the alien disc is, so it fell," explained Megatron. "Would you mind helping Dinobot take it down to the hoversled?"
With an angry snarl and much effort, Dinobot lifted the alien disc so he could tuck it under his arm. "I will manage," he growled, then awkwardly stalked out, shouldering Scorponok aside.
The Predacon commander chuckled. "If he wasn't so easily goaded he wouldn't be nearly as much fun." He returned his attention to his personal computer, switched out the datadisc, and set about picking through his files of what he knew of the aliens, choosing what he wanted to share with the Maximals. After all, it wouldn't do to give too much away, no ...
Megatron nodded. "He knows, the Maximals do not, and pride keeps him from admitting I was right. Return to supervising Rhinox." Scorponok shot a quick glare back over his shoulder at where Dinobot had been but nodded and left.
The datadisc for the Maximals completed, Megatron hesitated a moment and got out another one for himself to copy the information he had on the Golden Disc. A final plan for if all else fails.
When he was done, he reactivated the security system around the Golden Disc, pocketed his datadiscs, picked up his duck, and locked up his room. The Disc would be as safe there as anywhere.
Megatron took a look through the crew quarters but didn't feel the need to explore. Inferno's room was practically empty - but for a few spare weapons, it could have been any unoccupied room. Tarantulas' was entirely empty but that was because she had stripped everything out and moved it to her lair months ago. Given her sense of humour the empty room was probably booby-trapped. Waspinator's room was full of clutter, collections of rocks and feathers and plants and debris - generally anything that was colourful or shiny. Likewise Terrorsaur, though his room was much tidier and he only seemed to collect plants. These were all dead from the heat since the environmental compensators had never been enough for the delicate organic constructs and he hadn't been back to replenish his supply. Blackarachnia's room was a highly ordered mess, full of parts and equipment and computers snitched from various parts of the ship, with half-completed devices spread out over every work surface. There might be useful things inside but Megatron suspected she also went in for booby traps.
Scorponok's was similar in appearance to Blackarachnia's but Megatron knew it would be safe. He went in, looked around, and picked up one of Scorponok's extra cyberbees in case his technician hadn't had a chance to grab one. The little drones had dozens of uses and Scorponok would be pleased to have one again. It was awkward carrying both cyberbee and duck down to the cargo bay but Megatron managed it.
Cheetor knew he wasn't supposed to leave the command centre unguarded but he was only going to be gone for a minute and it was important. Luckily, Optimus hadn't gone far, just sitting near the edge of the chasm in the sunshine, reading a datapad. Cheetor took the lift down. "Optimus! The Standing Stones are giving off an energy reading!"
He had never seen his leader move so fast in his life. Seconds later, Optimus was on the lift, jabbing at the controls. "When did it start?"
"Maybe a minute ago," said Cheetor. "They're pretty low and it's ..."
Optimus ran over to the active workstation to check. "This isn't the alien energy signature."
Cheetor slipped back into his chair. "Yeah, but I figured you'd wanna know."
"I do," said Optimus, patting him on the shoulder. "Any change in an alien site means trouble. After what they've already done to us, I'm not looking forward to seeing their idea of an encore. I'll get the ... No, blast, Megatron has the hoversled. It would take hours to walk to the site."
"What should we do?"
"Keep monitoring it, Cheetor. Tell me if there's any change. It'll probably be faster to wait for Megatron to come back."
On to Ill Feelings - part four
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