"If you've scanned me, you know that we did not come to this planet by choice."
Yet you are Here.
"We mean no harm, to you or this planet."
It is too late. You and your enemies have already Contaminated the Project. The Harm has been Done. That which does Not become part of the One shall become Void.
"No, wait! We can fix whatever damage was done!"
We are Not Interested.
Other Vengeance 2.0
Part of the One
'Put the Predacons to work,' Dinobot had said. 'Set them tasks, ask for their aid. Treat them as equals, not as charity.' Dinobot had been right so far - the truce was holding. The Predacons tended to backtalk and complain when asked to do things but, to be fair, Maximals did that too.
The Predacons who had been in their base during the change - Megatron, Scorponok, Terrorsaur, and Waspinator - were healing and active but still tired more quickly than the rest of them did. Optimus felt guilty about ordering them to do things, but this task was just about information and wouldn't cause any physical strain.
Optimus pressed the door chime to Megatron's quarters. A moment later the Predacon was looming over him. "Optimus Primal."
"Megatron. We're trying to calculate likely alien sites and want to compare research."
"Wait a moment." Megatron vanished back into the room, to return a couple minutes later with a datadisc.
Optimus led the way up to the command centre, thoughts somewhere between that wasn't as difficult as I had worried it would be and I have invited Megatron, leader of the Predacons, to come up to the Axalon command centre. The Predacons would wander in and out at will but that was much different than a direct invitation.
Rhinox was already there at the navigation console, running the monitor shift and working on his own alien site calculations. Megatron handed the datadisc to him - "My maps, in a fifty-kilometre radius of my base," - then settled heavily in a chair.
Though Rhinox had only had access to the Alien Disc since yesterday, he had been searching on his own since the Flying Island incident, and of the five possible site locations he had calculated, three lined up with Megatron's dozen. One was in Maximal territory, two in Predacon. "This gives us an obvious place to start," said Rhinox, pointing out the nearest one, in Maximal territory, about ten kilometres from the Axalon.
The site wasn't on any of their patrol routes, but in an area Optimus knew that he at least had flown over more than once and never noticed anything unusual. "Scan it, Rhinox."
Static. "Energon interference," Rhinox reported. "I'll try the alien frequency, that seems to cut through -"
Both Maximals looked over at Megatron, who was on his feet but composed himself instantly. "I have the idea that these sites do not exist yet, and that scanning them with the alien frequency will cause them to manifest. The area should be surveyed visually first."
If it was a lie it was a strange one. Megatron sounded ... not embarrassed, not him, but just a little bit hesitant to admit his theory. "It would take about half a megacycle to get there by loader sled," said Optimus.
"Yes. I should go out there," said Megatron, considering, as he walked over to inspect the map. "After I've scouted the area, I will withdraw to a safe distance and have you scan the site with the alien frequency. It's a risk if I'm right - no doubt the aliens will notice - but the more information I have, the more I can interpret from the Alien Disc."
"No. We should avoid activating any more sites," said Optimus. And don't think I didn't notice all those 'I's and not 'we's.
"Come now, what if this is just another test? Maybe they want us to activate more sites."
"They don't," said Optimus. "Megatron, the aliens spoke to me. That's what the Biodome was, a communication device. They manifested as Unicron and spoke to me."
Megatron made a sound that wasn't quite a word as he tried to ask three questions at once. He closed his eyes, sighed in annoyance, and opened them again, scowling. "They spoke to you. As Unicron. Why didn't you mention this before?"
"Why bother? You always seem to know everything."
He instantly regretted the sarcasm - he was trying to get along with the Predacons, after all - but Megatron chuckled. "Only almost everything."
"When have I had time?" asked Optimus, with a bit more diplomacy, choosing to blame the fact that he'd been busy trying to sort out basic survival and repairs to the Axalon rather than point out that Megatron had spent most of the last two days asleep.
"Very well. What did they tell you?"
"I told them we were here by accident. They told me that they don't care about our motives, that it was too late, that the damage had been done and that we had contaminated their project. I offered to try to fix the damage but they told me that they weren't interested. Then they vanished. I assumed they were planning to destroy us and then this happened," he finished, taking in his organic body with a gesture. "They don't want us here. They don't want us messing with their things."
"They claimed they have no physical form we could understand and said Unicron was a 'figure of authority' that they'd pulled from my datatracks," Optimus explained. "I think I would have liked it better and been just as surprised if they manifested as my old mentor or one of the Maximal Elders."
"Ha. An obvious intimidation tactic. They're claiming that the being most like them in your experience is Unicron."
"They are powerful and dangerous."
Megatron mulled that over, then, "Unicron as a moon or Unicron as he arrived at Cybertron?"
"Moon." It was how almost all Cybertronians thought of Unicron, as the fifth moon of Cybertron, glaring down with dead optics.
"Mm. I'll give them that one, then. Their weapon was disguised as a moon, maybe that's their line of thinking." Then, dismissing the subject, "The more important question is the aliens' project. What is the project? We've taken their bait and run their mazes and now they claim we did it wrong. Apparently whatever damage we were doing, we were doing it as robots and we have been neutralised now. What threat did they make, that you thought they planned our destruction?"
"It was phrased oddly - 'That which does not become part of the One shall become Void.' I expected they were going to void us." Then, considering, "But if we haven't become Void, does that mean we've been made part of the One?"
"We don't know what 'the One' is," Rhinox reminded him. "The aliens could be a hive-mind for all we know, looking for more sapients to bring into their collective and they decided they didn't want us. For that matter, we don't know what they mean by 'Void'. Maybe these organic forms are Void, to them."
Optimus sighed. "The fact is we have no idea what the aliens are trying to do. We don't know what 'the project' is. They could be interested in things we can't even detect. We can guess but we don't really know what their tests were testing for. We don't know if they have a morality that looks anything like ours. All I know is that every encounter with them has been traumatic."
Megatron reached past Rhinox to retrieve his datadisc. "All these theories will get us nowhere without action. The possible alien sites need to be scouted - if only so we know where they are so we can avoid them. As well, one should be scanned with the alien frequency just to test the theory. If it activates the site, we know to be cautious. If it doesn't, we have a powerful tool we can use as we please. So I'm going," he said firmly. "Obviously nothing but talk will get done if I'm not involved. Primal, you have had the most hands-on experience with the sites. You will come with me."
Optimus bit back an automatic, Oh, I will, will I? and replaced it with, "Right now?" If I can order Predacons around, a bit of reciprocation is fair play. Though Megatron seems unusually eager to go - from what I've seen of him, he'd rather coordinate than lead. Maybe it's that he is the closest thing we've got to an expert. Or maybe he just doesn't trust anyone else to do it. "I don't know if you've looked outside today, but it's pouring rain."
Apparently he had not. "I've never liked rain," muttered Megatron. Then, louder, "How long is this supposed to last?"
"Another five days at least," said Rhinox, after a glance at the scanners.
Optimus waited, curious what Megatron would do next. He was still injured from the heat at the Predacon base, and going back yesterday couldn't have helped. Would he call off the mission because of the rain and give himself a few more days to rest, or was he determined to go to the potential site now that he'd announced his intention?
Apparently he'd shown too much bravado to back down now. "This is too important to put off. Primal, where is the fabricator?"
"Around back of the CR chamber, but the program is accessed from here. Just tell Sentinel what you want."
"One problem, since you're determined to go," said Rhinox. "We won't be able to communicate with you out there. If you want to be out there to see what happens during a scan, we'll have to do it by timing."
"One megacycle should be plenty of time to get there and scout the area, yes," said Megatron, turning away dismissively. "Computer, access scan data of - hm - Predacon unit Inferno ..."
While Optimus had a hooded jacket in the initial change, it was also very short and mostly useless for keeping dry. While Megatron played with the fabricator, Optimus just asked Rhinox if he could borrow the coat he'd appeared with, since one that nearly reached his knees. The only problem was that while he and Rhinox were fairly close in height now, Rhinox's shoulders were still far broader. It would serve for a couple megacycles to keep the rain off, at least. Optimus picked up a few other items while fetching the coat.
Megatron left for several cycles and returned with something like Inferno's long coat, but hooded and dark purple, and it nearly reached his ankles. He fastened it down the front and secured it at the waist then turned to Optimus. "Come. Rhinox, begin one megacycle countdown." Rhinox didn't look pleased to be ordered, but programmed the scanners. Optimus synchronised the timers on a pair of hand-scanners and passed one to Megatron, where it vanished somewhere in the big purple coat.
Under the Axalon, Optimus replaced the parts in the loader sled that Rattrap had removed. Megatron stood back, seemingly not paying attention but Optimus didn't doubt he was. The loader sled rose a little into the air, Optimus stepped up then paused, looking back at Megatron. "Or would you rather drive, since it's your loader sled?"
"The target site is in your territory." He'd apparently also gone to find his gloves, since he drew those on as well, pulled the hood down low over his face, and finally swung up onto the loader sled.
Optimus followed the river, lowered down the cliff, then headed east over the tops of the jungle trees. He risked a glance back at Megatron, who was braced back against the loader sled's rail, holding on with one hand, the other raised to shield his face from the rain. Optimus wished he had the option. I go through the effort of getting a coat with a hood, and all the rain is blowing into my face.
At first Optimus didn't understand Megatron's reluctance to go out in the rain - he showered daily, after all - but then he realised: Megatron had lived his entire life on Cybertron or, as a Predacon, more likely one of its moons. Optimus had spent his life out on colony worlds. He was used to water falling from the sky. Megatron had only known the caustic acid rains of Cybertron. He had lived for a year on this world but it wasn't long enough to be used to the idea of harmless rain.
Megatron regretted coming out in the rain and reminded himself it was all to the cause of getting his metal back. That didn't make the rain any less cold or make his clothing feel less clammy. It didn't help his fatigue - he let Optimus drive only because he didn't entirely trust himself, not yet. The excursion to the Predacon base yesterday had drained him. It wouldn't do to show weakness in front of the enemy leader. There was only one strange positive: The rain made everything in the distance blurry and gray and made the plants give off a strong, green smell. It gave him the brief illusion of being in beast-mode again, with its acute chemoreceptors and terrible vision.
The site would have been easily overlooked by Maximal patrols, just a tree in the middle of some grassland, interesting only because the tree was noticeably but not significantly larger than the other trees that dotted the grassland, and because there were three large stones in an equilateral triangle around it, each about twelve metres from the tree. The stones might have looked a little too regular, a little too much like squat, slightly-tapered columns roughened by the elements, but that might have just been that Megatron expected to see artificiality.
They parked the loader sled a short distance off by another one of the trees. Megatron let Optimus lead the way, the Maximal tromping through the mud and wet grass like he didn't care how filthy it made his feet. Though I suppose boots aren't technically feet. He still didn't like to see mud on them. Megatron picked his way through the grass carefully.
"I thought there would at least be some sort of monument," Optimus called back once he arrived at the perimeter of the site, or where they guessed it to be. "The other sites we've encountered have been obviously made things."
"The other sites we encountered were active." Megatron caught up to the Maximal a moment later, then reached into his coat to retrieve his scanner. "No energon readings above the baseline. The trap isn't baited."
"Maybe this isn't a site at all. The calculations could have been off. Or like you said, the site doesn't exist yet."
Megatron smiled thinly. "Approach the tree if you're so certain. But I expect there will be something here, yes. After all, the false moon wasn't a real moon that had been transmuted, it had always been the transmutation weapon, just waiting, camouflaged."
Optimus did not approach the tree but did walk over to inspect the nearest boulder. Without stepping between them, Megatron noted. Not that Megatron had any interest in getting closer either. With Optimus for scale, the stone looked to be about two metres tall. He returned his attention to the clearing. If it is like the Standing Stones, there will be a site core. Under the tree, or possibly inside of it ...
A sudden heavy squelching noise drew his attention - Optimus was on the ground. He sat up, realised he had an audience, and gave an awkward grin. "The grass was more slippery than I -" From his new angle, his gaze fell on the boulder. "The calculations were correct! Look."
Megatron joined him, crouching down to see what Optimus had pointed out. Near the ground, about the size of his hand, was an alien glyph: A triangle, point-down, with a dot inside, bars running parallel to the two lower sides, and something like a tree or a waterspout coming out of the top. Ah-ha, I now have a site for this sign. If my theories are correct it should be a communication tower when active. Now we just need to activate it.
"It looks like a potted plant," said Optimus, getting his feet back under him. "And a little like the central tree. I wonder how many of the glyphs on the Alien Disc correspond to sites. So far the trap glyph is the only one that doesn't."
"The false moon was a weapon rather than a site, or perhaps the traps could be seen as miniature sites." He peered closer at the glyph, then ran the scanner over it. "It looks like it was burned into the stone, but stone doesn't burn. Was this what the ones on the Flying Island looked like?"
"I never got close enough to really inspect those," said Optimus. He wiped the mud from his hands off on his trousers and Megatron wondered what was wrong with Optimus that he could stand to be covered in mud. "They were darker than the stones and trees they were on, anyway."
Something to ask Blackarachnia later. Megatron turned his attention to the tree. Most trees had a hard, brown covering, with branches and lots of small leaves. This one - and the others scattered around the area - seemed to be made of overlapping leaves that went up for three metres, then burst into dark pink stalks, each with a single three-metre long leaf growing up along it.
"How did you know the aliens would be coming?" Optimus asked. He'd drawn his own scanner and was giving the rock a thorough inspection. "Tigatron said you'd translated that much."
Ah, yes, when the tiger broke into my base during the first 'truce'. "Lucky guess."
Optimus fixed him with a look of disbelief. "What?"
Megatron sighed, hating to admit what he had to admit but knowing that his plans would be tangled up and stalled without it. "I have no idea what's on the Alien Disc. It seemed likely that the aliens' next step would be to come themselves. I falsified information so you and Tarantulas could steal it and set about working on countermeasures yourselves. It seemed important enough that I shouldn't be the only one planning for it."
"What?" Optimus demanded. "What was that truce, then?"
"Bait. So suspicious, you Maximals. I knew you'd come nosing around if I told you to stay away." He smiled and managed not to flinch as the gesture stretched the burns on his cheeks. "Did you think I could translate an alien language with no context in two megacycles? I think you may think more highly of me than I do."
Optimus frowned at him. "What's this truce?"
"You called the current one, Optimus Primal." He dropped his voice to what would have been a purr, if his throat wasn't damaged. It came out as a rasp, sounding more bitter than he intended: "You never believed that mine was genuine, but shouldn't you know if yours is?"
Optimus covered his eyes with his hand. "You really haven't managed to translate the Alien Disc?"
"I really haven't managed to translate the Alien Disc," Megatron repeated. "I have a handful of glyphs that correspond to sites and I have a few theories to test and no way of knowing if I'm even close to correct."
Optimus peered through his fingers at Megatron. "So everything Tigatron pulled from your computers - that the Disc is a beacon, that the aliens seeded the planet with energon ..."
"Hypotheses. I feel fairly certain that they created the energon, though. It seems to be too deliberately placed."
"Blast it, Megatron ..."
"But now," said Megatron as smoothly as he could manage, "I have time to devote to studying the Disc and testing those hypotheses, since I don't have to deal with Maximals interrupting me by sneaking in or blowing holes in my base every two days."
"I can't trust anything you say, can I?" sighed Optimus, sounding resigned.
"It goes against everything I am, but I'm being honest with you now, Primal. The Alien Disc is still a mystery to me. I am devoting all my efforts towards translation because I hope it will give us a way to get our metal back. And I will share information, in case your people see something I miss." Granted, that last one was only half a truth. "Is that enough?" It had better be. I have no oath a Maximal would accept.
Optimus looked at him a long moment, trying to read his face - no energy fields, but their faces were more mobile and open now. Apparently he accepted what he saw there. "All right. What have you got?"
"The Disc must have some purpose. It is probably not for communication, since the aliens have proved they can talk to us directly when they deign to. It may indeed be a beacon - there may be more to see inside the mountain Inferno collected it from. I suppose it's not another test if they're trying to get rid of us." Megatron returned his attention to the tree. "Organic beings seem unaffected by energon radiation. At least the local creatures don't seem harmed by it. There are areas we were unable to explore before."
"They're unaffected by the background radiation. We don't have data on higher concentrations," Optimus pointed out. Then, "We think the aliens put the energon here, too. Energon crystals can grow naturally, but the geology is wrong for them here."
"Good to have confirmation on my hypothesis, yes," said Megatron, adjusting the scanner to detect the alien frequency. Hnh. Another thing I couldn't have known for certain without the Maximals - none of my people know anything about geology. It was galling to have to admit, even just to himself, that the Maximals had their uses.
Megatron caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye and realised that Optimus had walked past him and into the site. So much for Maximal caution. I see why you keep getting trapped by these sites. "Primal!"
"I can see a few birds tucked between the leaves," Optimus called back. "It's probably safe."
Maximals are ridiculous. But there was no change in the energy readings and the grassy area remained a grassy area with one tree and three boulders, so Megatron pulled his coat tighter around himself and followed.
He caught up to Optimus by the tree. Optimus waved a hand at it but still refrained from actually touching it. "Maybe we're 'Void' to the aliens now, like Rhinox guessed. Maybe they can't detect organic beings."
"If they turned us invisible to themselves, they are fools," Megatron rumbled, dubiously eyeing Optimus' birds. Smallish, roundish, mostly black with white necks, they seemed to be ordinary wildlife rather than alien constructs. Looking up just made his face wet so he went back to looking down at his scanner. "They left us our ships and our technology. The only difference between ourselves and our technology is our sapience and our sparks, and we still have those."
"Do we?" There was a twinge of desperation in Optimus' voice, like he hadn't thought of that until now and just realised the implication. "Where do we keep our sparks now?"
"We do. We must." Reassurance for himself rather than for the Maximal. "Of course we still have our sparks. We can still adapt and learn. We're still ourselves."
Awkward silence. Megatron brushed raindrops from his scanner and focused on the tree and the ground below it, trying to detect any hint that the tree was a disguised construct. Though the false moon had baffled their scanners and they had only realised there was something amiss because it wasn't affecting gravity the way something of its size should have been. And, irritating realisation, Megatron knew that unless there was a tiny tower hidden inside the tree he wasn't likely to know the difference between an ordinary tree and a strange one. Well, analysing these scans should keep Rhinox occupied for a little while. Perhaps we can risk taking a sample of the plant itself.
Simply handing over information to Maximals rankled him, truce or no truce. To make himself feel better about the situation, Megatron fished a bit more: "What happened to you when the aliens took you at the Standing Stones? Was your body destroyed or simply put somewhere?" When it had happened, Megatron had assumed destruction. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case.
"Both, I think," said Optimus slowly. "I feel like my body had been taken apart at the molecular level, then drawn into the Probe so it could scan it."
"Hm. So the Probe was more interested in your materials than in what those materials formed."
"They scanned me again in the Biodome. That one didn't take me apart but it sure hurt like it did. They recognised me." Optimus looked back up into the tree. "Now you've got me wondering if they recognised me by the proportional amounts of my alloys. What happened to you and Waspinator when they took me?"
"We were deposited half-dead outside our base's entrance with our systems burnt-out." He didn't actually remember that. He remembered the Standing Stones, and light, and pain, and waking up in a CR tank. Scorponok told him what happened later.
"Hmm. The same thing happened to Dinobot ... How did they know Dinobot belonged at the Axalon? Did they pull it from my datatracks that quickly or were they watching us before that point?" asked Optimus. Megatron didn't reply, knowing that what he wanted to say was Dinobot belonged at my base. "Maybe the rest of you were caught by the edge of what they did to me. Though I can't think of why they sent you all back except so you could be repaired."
This put Megatron back on better footing. "Really? 'As a warning to the others' never crossed your mind?" Though I would like to know the method of transport. Some sort of teleportation ...
"Why lure us in and then warn us away?"
"We're assuming we were what they wanted to catch in the first place," said Megatron. "Lure once and send away, that would make sense to learn what we are and decide us unsuitable." He paused. "But they kept setting out lures." The signal that the Alien Disc gave off was the most obvious lure. They wanted us to take it. There was no puzzle there, no traps.
"One more thing," said Optimus, for once a welcome interruption. "I was conscious the entire time I was inside the Probe. I managed to tap into the Axalon's comm system to deliver a message."
This was new and interesting information and worth standing in the rain for. "What? How?"
"I don't know. I think I was able to use the Probe's systems a little, or the Standing Stones ... both? The Standing Stones were a signalling device, and if the Probe was tied into it at the time ..." Optimus shook his head. "It wasn't easy and I don't know how I did it. I was so desperate to tell the others I was still alive that I did."
Like the Monument. The test of the Flying Island seemed to involve taking control of the Monument. Was part of the test of the Standing Stones to take control of the Probe? Or was the test of the Flying Island designed after the aliens realised that the Cybertronians could commune with their devices? I will have to confer with Blackarachnia once I have a more solid hypothesis to work from. "Do you think you managed to take control of the Probe's systems or was it more like you were the Probe?"
"I didn't feel as though I had a body, so more likely that I took control." Optimus checked the chronometer on the scanner. "It's nearly time. We've got a few cycles to get out of range."
They returned to the loader sled and waited, both trying to watch the site and their scanners at the same time. A few nanoclicks after the arranged time, Optimus tapped the side of his scanner. "I'm not getting anything on the regular frequency but the Axalon's beam. It's strange to know the Axalon is scanning the area but not be able to feel it. Are you getting anything?"
"No. No change in the site's energy readings."
"Well, there's some good news in this - we're not likely to set off an alien site by scanning around with their frequency. Maybe we can adapt it to find our missing stasis pods."
"Sensible," Megatron acknowledged, not really paying attention, already thinking of ways to force a site to activate. The aliens seem to focus on the manipulation of energy in their tests ... But maybe it takes an energy signature to set it off, and we have none now. If I could collect one of the target boxes from my base and program one with Primal's signature ... they do seem to find him the most interesting one of us ... If the aliens thought there was still a robotic Cybertronian around, they might send a control signal to activate a site. Of course, the risk was that the aliens would simply try to kill them next time instead of transmuting them. But if the control signal could be duplicated ...
We could command the sites. We could have access to the aliens' molecular transmutation power.
We could get our metal back.
And if the Maximals were too timid to help him in his experiments, well, they wouldn't be in a place to claim the spoils of victory, now would they?
To be continued ...
On to This Most Bloody Piece Of Work - part one
Back to Other Vengeance 2.0
Back to In Space, No One Can Hear Starscream