Blackarachnia had caught the flyers, and before they could think of an excuse not to do her bidding, she'd slapped prototype commlinks on their wrists and ordered them to test the range.
"Megatron wants us to stick around and keep tabs on the Maximals," Terrorsaur protested.
"They're sitting around watching the new ones malfunction," Blackarachnia told him. "Get lost."
Terrorsaur and Waspinator complained out of spite more than anything else - they had seniority and hated taking orders from Blackarachnia. On the other hand, disobeying her tended to have nasty consequences and they were perfectly happy to have an excuse to go outside. So they took a walk, checking in with Blackarachnia every twenty cycles or whenever they remembered.
The Maximals had cut a path down to the lake below the waterfall for their own reasons, and that was how Terrorsaur and Waspinator got down the cliff. It felt like an insult to beings who four days ago would have simply flown and arrived in minutes. There wasn't much of a beach there, just a slightly wider bit of rocky shoreline. Thick reeds grew near the shore, sometimes trapping bits of driftwood, including an entire tree. Several large boulders had fallen down the cliffs. Some of the boulders had visible scorch marks.
They hadn't wanted to deal with a jungle. Their burns hadn't healed yet, but more than that, they couldn't fly. Terrorsaur flat-out refused to enter a jungle without his wings and Waspinator couldn't fault his logic - if they lacked the strength to fight and the speed to flee, they were going to avoid anything that so much as hinted at danger.
Terrorsaur's brilliant idea had turned out to be fishing. Waspinator's question of 'why?' had been answered with 'because I like to eat them,' and 'because I used to like to do it,' and 'how hard can it be to outsmart a fish?'
There were casualties but the fish were winning.
Waspinator rolled onto her front and watched Terrorsaur. She was staying out of his way, lying on a large, flat-topped boulder about ten metres away, enjoying the sunlight. Her partner was stalking the fish from the shore. His previous method of fishing was to do it in beast-mode, diving and scooping them up in his long beak. Waspinator suggested he try it that way now. Terrorsaur's reply had been rude.
Of course he tried shooting them but the water refracted the beam of his laser. Terrorsaur had then taken Waspinator's gun with its harpoon-like projectiles but the water slowed the missiles down too much to impale. Plus they exploded, which would have left them with fish paste if Terrorsaur had managed to hit one. It made an impressive splash, though.
So Terrorsaur moved on to more basic methods, taking one of his knives and tying it to a long, straight branch with a bit of fabric he'd cut off his jacket to make a spear. The problem there was that withdrawing the spear from the water too often withdrew the blade from the fish before he could reach it. His current method involved the knife pointed upwards at an angle. The fish came to inspect the shiny blade, then Terrorsaur yanked it up quickly, hooking the fish in the body and flipping it up onto the shore.
It was a system efficient enough to have caught three fat gray-brown fish, enough for lunch an hour ago but not much else. Waspinator could have taken or left the flavour and it was a nuisance to separate the flesh from the scales and the bones but Terrorsaur seemed happy with them. It could have been a type of beast-mode holdover or just being pleased that he'd killed something.
Waspinator's commlink beeped. "Blackarachnia to Waspinator."
Waspinator fiddled with the controls of the device strapped to her wrist. "Waspinator is here."
After several seconds of static, Blackarachnia replied. "It's been a megacycle since your last check-in. Where's 'here'? Your signal's weak."
"Lake below the plateau," said Waspinator, looking up, but she couldn't see the Axalon from that angle.
"You're still there? I told you I wanted distance measurements!"
"Terror-bot wanted to play with fish," said Waspinator. Hearing his name, Terrorsaur glanced back, realised who she was talking to, and returned to the fish.
"Get the screecher moving. I need to know the range."
Waspinator looked back at her partner, torn. Terrorsaur wasn't going to move just because Blackarachnia said so. Distance made him forget how unpleasant the technician could be. Waspinator shouldn't just ditch terror-bot. Waspinator is terror-bot's back-up!
Terrorsaur made a quick movement that failed to catch a fish. Back-up against fishies. Forget it! "Waspinator is taking a walk!" Waspinator announced.
Terrorsaur didn't even look back. "Don't fall in the lake."
Rhinox knelt by the scatter of bones that had once been a lion. All the soft parts were gone, already devoured by scavengers and insects. Even some of the bones were missing. So much for that.
Though it wasn't on any Predacon patrol route, both Megatron and Scorponok knew where the oasis was. The fact that the Predacons never bothered with the place beyond mapping it was probably why the lion had lived as long as it did.
It was less like a pond and more like a big puddle. Rhinox took a few samples of the water, careful not to touch it. If the contaminant was in it, he didn't want to take any chances. It didn't look too bad but there was a scent to it he didn't like.
"Hey, 'Bolt. Where'd Quickstrike go?"
Silverbolt looked uncomfortable. Rattrap shook his head. Right. Lavatory. Where else would he be?
After a few hours of picking over stasis pod records, Rattrap went back to the xenobiology lab. Tigatron looked up. "Are you going to be here for a while?" she asked. "I could use a break."
Rattrap sat on the other table, leaning back against the wall. "Sure thing, stripes."
"You needn't stay long. I have nothing to do here once I finish up a few tests," chuckled Tarantulas, standing to type on the computer, perfectly aware that she was informally under guard.
Tigatron tidied up the datadiscs she'd been scanning through and left. Several minutes later, Quickstrike returned, grumbling, "Don't see why I even bother comin' back here ..." but the corner of his mouth twitched up when he saw Tarantulas leaning over the computer. "Right."
After a moment, Tarantulas stood up properly and stretched, which Quickstrike also watched with rapt attention. "There," said the Predacon. "The computer should finish running my tests sometime tomorrow."
"That long?" asked Rattrap.
"Great. Another day of this," Quickstrike complained. "How's that go - 'Whatever doesn't kill me makes me wish it did'?" The way he was watching Tarantulas, Rattrap thought Quickstrike might have been feeling better. Apparently not.
"Ahh, shut it, 'Strike. Shove over, spider." Rattrap could still use the computer for what he wanted it for - Tarantulas' work would just run quietly in the background. He nudged the Predacon aside and popped a datadisc into the reader. "'Strike, 'Bolt, get over here. I know you've been havin' problems acceptin' what we really are ..."
"Do not think we believe you to be lying," Silverbolt said quickly. "Only ..."
Quickstrike made a derisive noise and walked over. "What's this 'we', partner?"
"... We cannot in ourselves accept what you say," Silverbolt finished as if Quickstrike hadn't spoken.
Behind him, Tarantulas laughed. Rattrap rolled his eyes. "I showed you the blank protoform two days ago."
"Yeah and we ain't made of that stuff," said Quickstrike. He glanced back. "You gonna join the party or what, 'Bolt?"
Silverbolt hadn't moved from his chair, sitting with his arms folded tightly across his chest, hands gripping his upper arms. He didn't seem inclined to move. "I can see from here if you step aside."
Rattrap had tried everything he could think of. He'd told them about the Matrix and the Pit back on Cybertron. He got Dinobot to talk history with them - okay, mostly military history, but there wasn't much else anyway. He showed them films about Cybertron. He'd showed them tech specs and security footage of himself and the others and had gotten, "Well, I suppose, if I squinted, maybe I can see how this robot might be analogue to that primate," in response.
Short of opening a stasis pod and having them watch the change, Rattrap had only one trick left to try to jolt the neophytes out of believing they were organic.
"I can't find anything on who you were on Cybertron but I managed to pull the data from the scanners on your pods," said Rattrap, tapping a few keys. "Now, I'll admit things got a little weird but I think that must've been because of all the energon radiation."
The images appeared on the screen to complete silence from the neophytes. Tarantulas chuckled. "Interesting. So their pods each scanned two animals at once and meshed them into one."
"Woulda thought that would turn you into a triplechanger," said Rattrap.
"Maybe but these two seem to be something else entirely. Fuzors."
Quickstrike shook his head. "Now I know you're all just makin' it up."
"It ... does seem a little far-fetched," said Silverbolt. "But, if I somehow was as you say I should be, I do like the design. The wings feel appropriate."
Rattrap sighed, defeated. Would've been easier if I knew who they used to be. Their memories are so scrambled that they might as well be new creations!
"'Least you got hands," Quickstrike heckled. "Havin' a snake for an arm might be fun, sure, but it don't make sense!" He jabbed a finger at the image of his beast-mode, something like a scorpion with a cobra for a tail. "Look, a critter like that can't exist. You can't mix species like that and expect it to work. They ain't even got their skeletons in the same place!"
"It doesn't have to make organic physiological sense," said Tarantulas. "It only needs to appear to work on the outside."
"But it don't look like it can work if'n you know anythin' about critters!"
"And I was a big purple spider. So what?"
Rattrap left them to bicker, then went back to check on Silverbolt. He patted the neophyte's shoulder, then reached down to touch the bare skin of his forearm, frowning. "Slag, 'Bolt, you always been this cold?"
Silverbolt pulled away from the contact, an automatic reaction that wasn't really a flinch. "I do not understand. Inside I feel very hot."
And thank you for telling us this when you first noticed, thought Rattrap, annoyed. These two are worse patients than Dinobot. "Anything else I should know?"
"Movement is ... difficult," Silverbolt admitted. "I cannot convince my body to obey my directions and it feels to be too much effort to try."
"You'll get over that pretty soon," said Quickstrike positively. "I was feelin' like that earlier."
Rattrap mentally counted to ten. "When, exactly?"
The blond smiled and climbed back up on his table. "Oh, megacycles ago. Right before I blew my tank."
Rattrap automatically stepped away from Silverbolt but not quickly enough to save his boots. The worst part about it, he decided, was the noise. The sight of half-digested matter didn't do anything to him at all, the smell affected his organic body and made his throat twitch involuntarily, but the sound reached him. It was a horrible, wet, organic sound that even his Cybertronian mind could recognise as malfunction. He started to reach over to pat Silverbolt on the back but decided against it. The neophyte didn't seem to like to be touched. Wait, this looks different from earlier. What Silverbolt had purged seemed to be mostly water with no solid matter in it. "You haven't eaten today, have you?"
Silverbolt spat and wiped at his mouth. "I have had no desire to. And I had ... hoped to avoid this."
"Eat something anyway. I don't need you falling over 'cause you didn't refuel. At least this'll be easy to clean up." Their old cleaning chemicals could deal with the mess easily. Might even work on my boots.
Quickstrike rocked back on the table and laughed. Silverbolt glared at him. "I would have thought one who previously had this experience would have more sympathy."
"I'd ask where your dignity was now, partner, but I can see it all over the floor. Whee-oo!"
Tarantulas rolled her eyes. "Delightful. Another sample to analyse."
She'd walked along the lakeshore for twenty minutes before giving up - the shore was just too narrow and rocky and Waspinator decided that she'd rather face Blackarachnia's annoyance than risk falling in the lake. Another twenty minutes brought her back to where Terrorsaur was fishing. Another twenty minutes of watching him was driving her crazy.
Waspinator leaned back on her hands and kicked her heels against the boulder. "Is terror-bot done yet?"
"No, terror-bot isn't done yet," Terrorsaur snapped over his shoulder.
Waspinator sighed and flopped onto her back, regretting that she'd gone with Terrorsaur. He was still having fun but Waspinator was bored. Waspinator doesn't have to follow terror-bot. Waspinator could find something else to do ... She considered just leaving but wasn't sure what she could do by herself. So other option is convincing terror-bot that he wants to do something else.
She had picked up her gun - she had to load it manually now and was considering switching to a laser - and was randomly sighting it on birds when she had the idea. Waspinator sat up and took careful aim - not at Terrorsaur but at the water near him. If he got a soaking he would want to go back to the Axalon for dry clothes. Or he'd just decide to sit in the sunlight until he dried off. Either way it would be funny and he'd give up on fishing.
The water exploded in scales and snapping jaws before Waspinator could pull the trigger.
Terrorsaur's reflexes were enough to save him from the crocodile's initial lunge and he flung himself away from the water's edge with a shriek. Waspinator quickly shifted her aim and fired. The little harpoon buried itself in the greenish brown scales and exploded, taking the top half of the crocodile's head off. The force of the blast would have knocked Terrorsaur to the ground if he wasn't already there.
Waspinator jumped down from her perch and dragged Terrorsaur out of range of the crocodile's death throes. "Terror-bot all right?"
Terrorsaur didn't answer, breath shallow and harsh, entirely focused on watching the reptile thrash. There was blood and flesh splattered on his clothes but none of it was his. Waspinator leaned down and patted Terrorsaur's hair and back and waited for him to calm down. Terrorsaur clung to her, knotting his hands in the hem of her shirt.
Several minutes later, Terrorsaur finally spoke. "That ... that ... Oh, primal forger of implosion!"
The crocodile had gone still. "Critter is dead." She giggled, verging on hysteria. "Terror-bot pokes around all day, catches little fishies. Waspinator catches big lizard! Obviously Waspinator uses better bait."
She expected a smack or at least a glare but Terrorsaur didn't even look at her, still clinging to her shirt. Waspinator stroked his shoulder. "Is all right now. Is just like always - terror-bot distracts and Waspinator shoots!"
Her partner still didn't respond. "Hmph. Waspinator blows off lizard's head, lizard thrashes around too dumb to realise it's dead. Remind terror-bot of anyone?"
The insult finally got through. Terrorsaur released Waspinator's shirt and slapped the back of her thigh. "What's wrong with you? That thing tried to eat me!"
"Terrorsaur should have been paying attention!" Waspinator snapped. If lizard had attacked when Waspinator wasn't here ... She smacked Terrorsaur in the side of the head, just hard enough to let him know she'd been scared, then walked over and prodded at the ruin of the reptile's head with the toe of her boot. "Think lizard is edible?"
"It thought I was, anyway," Terrorsaur complained, getting back to his feet. "Big, dumb, and violent. Megatron would've loved it. We'll never get this thing back up to the plateau. Maybe Megatron is back with the loader sled."
"Waspinator hasn't seen it." Of course the possibility existed that she just didn't notice or Megatron took the long way around.
"Worth a shot." Terrorsaur pressed the activation stud on his commlink. "Terrorsaur to Blackarachnia."
Blackarachnia's static-clouded voice came through a few seconds later. "Are you planning to bring my prototypes back sometime?"
"That's why I'm calling," said Terrorsaur. "We need a ride."
"We caught dinner - ow!" Terrorsaur yelped when Waspinator pinched him. "Waspinator killed one of those big water lizards. It's too large to carry."
"Megatron's not back with the hoversled yet." There was an annoyed sigh. "I'll see if the Maximals will let me borrow a loader drone."
"Blast it, Inferno, where are you?" Megatron grumbled when he found his quarters empty. Not a big problem, just an inconvenience - nothing could get the stench of lava out of fabric and he'd have to dispose of his clothing himself. Still, his warrior should have returned by now. With two guns, she must be having fun somewhere.
"She's not back yet."
Megatron fell into his chair, too tired to care if it made him look weak. Scorponok had retreated to his room to recuperate. Dinobot and Rhinox weren't nearly as badly off, since it was only their first exposure to the atmosphere of the Predacon base and then only in the safe areas. "Poor hunting today, I suppose." He'd used one of the hoverpads to carry the Alien Disc, the cyberbee, and his duck to his quarters. The room was small enough that the hoverpad floated in the doorway, propping it open and allowing passing Maximals to look in.
"Not for everyone," said Optimus. "Your flyers caught a crocodile. I sent Tigatron and Blackarachnia down with a loader drone to help them bring it up."
"Oh? Does that mean the commlinks are working?"
"To over a kilometre at least."
For lack of anywhere else to put it, Megatron had propped the Disc up on the berth. Optimus walked right in without asking - in someone else, Megatron might have thought he was just throwing his weight around or being rude. This was Optimus and it was more likely he was just too distracted by the Disc to remember social niceties.
"... Megatron, what is this?"
Or maybe he wasn't distracted by the Disc. "A bath toy."
Optimus shook his head. "I'm never going to understand you, am I?" To his credit, he didn't try to grab the duck. The Maximal had some manners, at least. Then, "So this is the Alien Disc?"
"Yes," said Megatron, then glanced at the Maximal in surprise. You honestly didn't know. Which means you've never actually seen the Golden Disc. You don't have the faintest idea what it is or what power it holds. Oh, delightful. I just hope Dinobot decides to remain quiet.
Optimus missed the reaction entirely, staring at the Disc. "... Two of the symbols just changed."
"They do that," said Megatron. "It's one of the reasons I've been finding translation difficult." He drew a datadisc out of his pocket and handed it to his counterpart. "Here. My researches on the aliens thus far. Perhaps you'll see something in it that I missed." The information on the datadisc would keep the Maximal busy for days. And who knows? Perhaps he will find something I overlooked.
"Don't bother. I aid you only for selfish purposes."
He'd said it straight and meant every word of it but Optimus took it for sarcasm and smiled slightly. "Thanks, anyway. Just as a head's up, I'm taking the hoversled. There were some energy readings at the Standing Stones."
Megatron frowned. "I thought that site was dead."
"So did I," said Optimus. "I don't plan on getting too close."
Optimus left. Megatron briefly considered going with him but decided against it. If there was danger, better to send a Maximal into it.
He'd worry about it when he had more data. For now, Megatron slumped deeper into his chair and glared at his room. Far too small. This will not do. Perhaps I can knock out a wall. But first I'm going to take a shower. Cooling down and getting rid of this stench should weaken this headache.
Of the three alien sites they'd encountered, Airazor had been attacked by two and Optimus had been attacked by one and captured, tortured, and scanned by two ... and one of the latter was the one they were approaching.
If Airazor was apprehensive about going to an alien site again, she didn't show it, standing right up beside him on the hoversled, leaning into the wind. Optimus worried for both of them. The Standing Stones were a dead site, or at least he'd been certain they were until the Axalon picked up new energy readings from them.
When they arrived, Optimus realised he needn't have worried. The Standing Stones were in disarray, scorched and cracked. He set the hoversled down about thirty metres away just to be careful and they approached on foot.
Airazor looked at the nearest stone. It was lying on its side, cracked into three pieces. A few were like that, though most of the stones were only scorched. "Why would the aliens ..." She trailed off, meeting Optimus' gaze, and realised they were thinking the same thing. "Not the aliens. Inferno."
Optimus nodded. "The heat-beam weapon she's got now couldn't do nearly this much damage alone. That's why she wanted one of Tigatron's guns - so she could heat the stones, then freeze them so they'd crack. This is what she planned to do all along."
"But why?" demanded Airazor, then, "Right. Why does Inferno do anything? Why did Megatron want the place destroyed? The site was deactivated."
"It's the closest one to the Axalon," said Optimus. "Inferno was acting alone, assuming I can trust Megatron's reactions. He was surprised Inferno wasn't back yet. I think he believed she really was just out hunting."
"Which brings us back to trying to guess Inferno's motives." They walked over to the remains of the central table-like structure. It was little more than rubble, stones cracked by extreme temperatures again and again until they were small enough to move. Airazor circled it carefully. "She was digging around here. All the rocks have been tossed out of the centre. If Inferno just felt like destroying something, why go through all this trouble? I'd have thought she'd just go set some wildlife on fire."
Optimus picked his way over the ruins of the table to see what Inferno had been doing. "It might just be that she's angry at the aliens and this was venting."
There was a hole in the centre, not dug by Predacon hands, forty centimetres in depth and diameter. It was lined with strangely blackened metal. At first he thought it was scorched but when he looked closer it was more like how a plant goes black when it dies. There were a few thin supports and trailing wires but the hole was otherwise empty.
"She took something from here."
The cleaning chemicals they'd used as robots were designed to dissolve the organic materials that they picked up from outdoors. They couldn't use them on themselves now - the chemicals burned their skin. Tigatron refused to let them just dump the stuff outside since it would destroy whatever organic material it touched.
It turned out to be for the best that they'd kept it. The chemicals were great for dealing with body wastes. They'd dissolve whatever they were poured on and dissipate as if they had never been. It gave off a lot of heat but that's what environmental controls were for. Cheetor thought it was pretty neat.
There was a groan from the next stall. Rattrap hadn't put those in - he'd installed the plumbing and called it a day. Silverbolt had insisted on partitions, which ended with Rattrap shoving a welding kit into his hands, pointing out where they kept extra metal sheeting, and telling him to have at it. The welds were a bit sloppy but all in all Silverbolt had done a pretty good job. Well, of course. He's Cybertronian. Welding is basic.
Cheetor knocked on the partition. "You okay? That sounded like it hurt."
"Would you please not talk to me in here?"
Silverbolt. Cheetor rolled his eyes, finished up, washed his hands, and waited. After a few minutes, Silverbolt emerged, tense and embarrassed and trying to pretend he was alone. His appearance surprised Cheetor, who hadn't seen him since the day before - the neophyte looked drawn and worn-out and pale. "You're not in there any more," said Cheetor. "You okay?"
"I do not wish to discuss it," said Silverbolt stiffly, washing his hands.
"Why do you find it embarrassing?"
"It is not a polite topic of conversation."
"Why not?" Cheetor persisted. "I mean, you're not embarrassed by eating, and this is just kind of the other end of that."
Silverbolt made an odd kind of strangled noise and closed his eyes, leaning against the sink. "I do not need to hear comparisons of bodily functions, Cheetor, thank you."
Sheesh. Rhinox wasn't kidding when he said Silverbolt was a bad patient. He can't even think about his body without getting embarrassed, let alone tell anyone what's wrong with it. Cheetor let Silverbolt retreat, then quickly checked the stall he'd been in. The chemicals took several minutes to do their work.
Cheetor caught up with Silverbolt in the corridor and fell into step beside him. "So ... have you told Rhinox about the blood or do you need me to do it?"
Dinobot stood in the shadow of the Axalon and looked up at the sky. The moon wasn't out yet and the alien device would be invisible anyway. It is impossible that the false moon remained undetected while the Great War was on Earth. Between now and then it must have been destroyed ...
... Or ... not?
He shut his eyes and clenched his fists, as if to hold his thoughts before they could slip away. Is this not how it was meant to be? Did we change the future by crashing here in the past? But then what agency removed the false moon before our era? Have we simply not done so yet? Is it nothing to do with us and the aliens will take it away at some later point?
Is this as it always was?
Everything I've done, everything I've fought for, the choices I've made ...
... Were they ever my choices?
Movement in the distance caught his attention and Dinobot automatically reached for his sword. He released it, undrawn, when he recognised the figure. A threat, but not one I may fight right now.
Inferno - dirty and dishevelled, hands and arms scraped up, trying to march but too exhausted. Her heat-beam weapon was strapped to her back while one hand gripped one of Tigatron's guns and the other held ... a rock? Dinobot frowned. No, not a rock. Something metal.
When she was about ten metres away, the lift hissed and Optimus jumped down before it finished descending. "Stop right there, Inferno."
The Predacon stopped but disengaged the safety on the cold-blaster. "I must report to Megatron."
There was no fight - Inferno was barely keeping on her feet as it was. Dinobot slapped the cold-blaster out of her hand and knocked her to her knees before she could even react. Inferno let the Maximals disarm her but refused to relinquish the other object. She simply hunkered down and curled around it so that Dinobot couldn't pry it out of her grasp. Optimus didn't even try.
Optimus said, "Megatron will be here soon."
Inferno glared up at him. "Very well."
Dinobot collected up the guns. "What is that she has?" All he could see was that it was dark, spherical, and it worried Optimus.
"An alien device. She found it under the Standing Stones."
Only when Megatron arrived did Inferno stagger to her feet and open her hands, offering up the device to her leader. "Forgive me for being unable to enact more than a token vengeance, Megatron."
The sphere was fifteen centimetres in diameter, a dark, tarnished blue with a gold band looping around it and blue glass insets. While metal, it had a strangely organic look to it. Megatron looked at it closely without taking it from his warrior's hands. "There seems to be writing on it but none of the symbols from the Disc."
"I'm not letting you bring that thing into the Axalon until I'm sure it's deactivated," said Optimus flatly.
Megatron made a derisive noise. "You think I would? You may have been the one the probe took but you are not the only one who was attacked by the Standing Stones."
To be continued ...
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