The wound was at a downward angle. The assassin was either very tall or hovering - Crossbolt was as big as Optimus had been as a robot.
The realisation startled Dinobot. I'm used to Optimus being smaller than me yet this person is his true size.
Dinobot removed the burned panel. The metal was textured - etchings made a grid pattern all over Crossbolt's helm. The motif was echoed on his arm and leg panels. Foolish. Etchings weaken the metal. Some people thought aesthetics were more important than practicality.
The shot had gone clean through the processor. A low-level laser blast then, enough to destroy the processor and shatter the optics, but not enough to come out the other side.
He turned the head to the side so that he could see the face. It held no particular emotion - no surprise, no pain, no fear of death. Crossbolt must have died so quickly he never noticed he'd been shot. The neutral expression only enhanced the horror of the dark optics with ragged glass still clinging to their frames. 'Thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with!' Another may find you frightening but I am used to the various manifestations of death.
Dinobot stood back, frowning at the body, his mind on decoration over function, which was why he noticed it. In a well-designed Cybertronian body all parts were functional. Even on someone as vain as Terrorsaur there was no extraneous metal. But there were pieces on Crossbolt that looked like they were supposed to be there, only Dinobot couldn't see how they fit or what use they would be.
There was a semi-cylindrical raised section on the corpse's forearm. He levered a wedge into the seam where the raised section attached and pried it open. It was more difficult than he expected, even remembering his decreased strength - the etched plates had reinforcing panels behind them. On the inside, Dinobot could see that the raised bit on the body's inner arm wasn't a random detail, it was a casing to hide a wrist canon. Dinobot prodded at the assembly with the wedge, trying to find the control to open the outer casing ...
Something inside the corpse's arm bit off the end of the wedge. Dinobot regarded the sheared end of the tool. Had I been using my fingers, I would have none now. It seems Crossbolt booby-trapped himself. If all these useless-seeming pieces hide weapons, he's very well-armed. Hnn. I approve of your choice of friends, Optimus.
But this means little. It made sense for a person who spent most of his life hauling cargo alone on the spaceways to be well-armed but not advertise it. At least it made Maximal-sense, preferring to be seen as friends and not conquerors while still able to defend themselves.
Dinobot sighed. Were he anyone but someone meant to be in the Axalon's crew, I would say that anyone might have killed him anywhere then simply stowed him on the ship as a way to dispose of the body. It isn't as if it was a secret that the Axalon was going on a long-range mission.
When the door opened, Rhinox barely glanced back. One other person knew the code to his quarters and he couldn't see why anyone else would bother trying to hack it.
Rattrap came in without a word, then climbed up on the berth to sit cross-legged with his elbows on his knees and his chin on his hands. When he didn't say anything, Rhinox continued reading his computer screen. Tarantulas had sent him a lot of scan data and he didn't understand any of it despite his best efforts - he was a botanist, not a biologist. However, he didn't like the thought of the care of the neophytes being solely in the Predacon scientist's hands so he tried to make sense of it.
After ten minutes, Rattrap still hadn't spoken. Rhinox didn't find the silence uncomfortable but glanced back anyway. "What are you thinking?"
Rattrap laughed, a bit nervously. "Oh, nothin'. Buncha mushy friendship stuff you don't wanna hear."
"Trust me, you don't," said Rattrap with mock severity, hopping down from the berth. He paused long enough to hug Rhinox tightly, then retreated.
Rattrap had always been demonstrative with his emotions, but that hug had felt surprisingly vulnerable. Under the circumstances, Rhinox could understand it. If that had been you under the deck plates, I'd be as badly off as Optimus.
The Axalon had imperfect soundproofing. If someone was shouting it could be heard in the next room or in the hallway outside. Certainly the noise of the renovations to his quarters could be heard in the main hallway. Megatron glanced over - he was outside Waspinator's room, and she and Terrorsaur were yelling at each other loud enough to be heard over the construction down the hall.
Megatron sighed and kept walking. If Terrorsaur or Waspinator was upset it was one's default action to run to the other. When they got mad at each other they'd split up for several hours to cool off. However, the stress of being trapped inside the enemy base was causing them to stick together even when they were angry with each other.
The Predacon commander dropped off what was left of the alien sphere in Scorponok's room, then backtracked and pressed the chime beside Waspinator's door.
The door opened. Waspinator looked up at him, ready to shout at the intrusion, and visibly reined herself in. "Megatron? What does Megatron want?"
"Come with me," he ordered. He looked past the scout at Terrorsaur. "Both of you."
They followed him to the xenobiology lab. Tarantulas looked up from the computer. "What, is data compiling a spectator sport now?"
Megatron told them about the corpse. Tarantulas grinned. "Really? A dead Maximal?"
"Still robotic. You can't eat him," said Megatron, then turned to the flyers. "I want you two to keep track of the Maximals."
Terrorsaur raised an eyebrow. "What, all of them?"
"Just Dinobot and Optimus. Do not interfere with them. Simply watch and report back to me if they do anything interesting."
Terrorsaur and Waspinator left. Tarantulas swivelled her chair to look up at Megatron. "We've got something as fun as a murdered Maximal on the ship and you're trusting them to gather information?"
"No, I'm trusting Dinobot to gather information. I'm just keeping the flyers occupied and apart."
"Hm." Tarantulas touched her fingers together. "So you came all the way up here to deliver gossip in person."
Megatron leaned back on the closest table and drummed his fingers on the edge. "I have other matters to discuss with you. You must have seen the Axalon's records on humans by now," he said. "One very basic encyclopaedia entry. The only vital information in it we hadn't already deduced was our expected lifespans." Which are pathetically short. One vorn! The Predacon commander shook his head. "Earth was the last major alien battleground in the Great War. There should be more information about it and its inhabitants."
Tarantulas shrugged. "The Maximal government declared the place forbidden. They clamped down on the information available as well."
"I'd always assumed it was because the humans were fed up with us and asked that we forget about them and leave them alone," said Tarantulas. "What does Dinobot know?"
"He knows that he likes the writings of that one human," said Megatron flatly. He had read translations of several of Dinobot's beloved plays himself. The themes and motivations were generally accessible enough but they were set on an alien world in an alien culture and he missed all the subtleties. Dinobot might know a bit more so that he could fully appreciate the stories but Megatron didn't see what use culture would be to their situation. "He knows we're on Earth. He's certainly deduced what species we are." And while he threatened to tell the Maximals what he knows, he hasn't yet done so. "He knows nothing we do not."
Tarantulas looked back at the computer screen. "Why is it everyone who comes out of a pod has amnesia?" she asked suddenly.
"Sometimes, perhaps. Blackarachnia's pod was fine but I reprogrammed her. Inferno's pod was in perfect condition and the only thing I did to her programming then was change her faction," Tarantulas said. "You said Tigatron wasn't even sure she was a Maximal when she was decanted. Silverbolt and Quickstrike could be blamed on energon radiation ... Does Airazor remember her life on Cybertron?"
"How should I know?" demanded Megatron, stepping away from the table to pace. "Terrorsaur's report said there were problems with her pod, however."
"Including energon radiation." Tarantulas frowned. "I wonder if memory loss is common among those put into protoform stasis. I've never heard of it before but I haven't dealt with protoforms in this sort of situation before. Maybe it's just the energon."
"They still have their skills and personalities," said Megatron, thinking aloud. "Though personality would be more a function of the spark and the two from the wasteland seem to have no skills at all. But the others ... skills but no memories."
Tarantulas shook her head. "Sparks also store memories."
"The people in the stasis pods are new creations, then." His pacing brought him to Tarantulas, where he stopped and looked over her shoulder at the data on the screen.
"Blackarachnia definitely had a previous life on Cybertron. I should know - I'm the one who removed it. Inferno ..." Tarantulas shrugged. "Nobody's programming could be as messed up as Inferno's was without a lot of dabbling. Her pod was a bit unusual. I wish I'd had a better look at it."
If the Maximals had ever wondered why Inferno was rarely seen for her first few weeks after activation, they never asked. Megatron and Tarantulas had taken the warrior apart, trying to fix her programming to rid her of her belief that she was an ant. They only partially succeeded and decided to give up in case they made things even worse. "If there was a way to reach sparks now ..." Megatron started, then shook his head. "I will make quiet inquiries about the previous lives if any of the other protoforms. What are you doing?"
"This?" asked Tarantulas, waving at the computer screen. "Genetic analysis of Quickstrike and Silverbolt. Frankly, I'm surprised they've got the right number of limbs, their DNA is so strange. I'll let you know when I've figured it out."
"Speaking vaguely of genetics, have you determined why we all seem to be the same age?"
"Not exactly the same, I think."
"Close enough," said Megatron. "The aliens scaled our heights, approximated our colours and builds, and then they put us all at the same developmental stage regardless of our true ages."
Tarantulas chuckled. "Given that there's nearly a four-vorn gap between Scorponok and Terrorsaur, scaling might be difficult. And some of us have ... complicated ages. After all, would you count Blackarachnia's age from when she was first sparked or from when I made her into a new person? But I think it ties in with something else - these bodies are as perfect as flesh can achieve. We're strong and healthy, our eyesight is clear, our hearing is sharp ... Oh, there are individual differences, but what can you expect from organics? And now we find that we're young adults - right at the peak of our physical development, I'd expect. We're prime specimens of this species, I just don't know why."
Terrorsaur had chosen Dinobot. It wasn't that he had any real desire to be around the warrior, it was that he was in the cargo bay. The nice, big cargo bay.
It wasn't ideal, it wasn't even very good, but it was better than his quarters or the hallways that he would swear were slowly constricting. Terrorsaur stepped into the room and took a deep breath. He'd grown so used to the feeling that there was a tight band around his chest that it was a surprise to breathe normally again.
Dinobot was sitting on a crate behind the makeshift table, watching him, had been as soon as he heard the door open. Terrorsaur smirked at him. "Enjoying your new office?"
The smirk became a scowl. Terrorsaur's claustrophobia was no secret and he resented anyone who used it against him. "I suppose this brings back memories for you," he said, gesturing at the corpse. "Did you pull the job randomly or does Optimus know you used to be a -"
Dinobot snarled and his glare was so murderous that his eyes should have gone green. Terrorsaur ended the sentence in a strangled squawk before realising that he hadn't been shot. He coughed and pulled himself back together. Well, we're even now.
The warrior returned his attention to the body shell, tapping a pair of pliers against an open panel, one of a half-dozen. Dinobot had removed the corpse's plating in several places. Terrorsaur couldn't think of why - Megatron had said the Maximal had been shot in the head. "This was never my function but I know the procedure."
Terrorsaur walked over, standing across the table from Dinobot. "What have you got?"
Dinobot shook his head. "You're a terrible spy."
"I can't just be curious?" asked Terrorsaur, bringing a hand to his chest in a wounded gesture. "I suppose this is the first time you've been in a room with a corpse you didn't make."
"I do not hide bodies," said Dinobot. He shook his head. "The Axalon was delayed for three megacycles looking for this person."
"They can't have searched very hard."
"If they hadn't been delayed," said Dinobot, more to himself than to Terrorsaur, "the Axalon would not have been in a place to pursue our ship. We would have been destroyed by that warship." For all Megatron's careful planning, the Predacons had still been detected and chased by one of the Maximal defence ships.
Terrorsaur shrugged. "We were evading it pretty well. Maybe they sent the Axalon after us because it was more manoeuvrable. Maybe the Axalon got in the way and the warship didn't want to hit it. Who knows why Maximals do anything?" Terrorsaur made a noise of disgust. "Like this etchwork. Nobody's done rectangular etchings for decades. It's all curves and scrollwork now."
"So he didn't keep up with fashion trends."
"Etching weakens the plating - the only thing it's good for is decoration, so why waste it on an ugly design? And these washed-out colours ... So which one of your new friends did it?"
The sudden question caught Dinobot off-guard, as it was meant to, but he rallied too quickly to blurt out anything incriminating. "The investigation is ongoing."
So he hasn't actually figured anything out yet. "I hope it's Cheetor," said Terrorsaur. "It might make that little puffball interesting." Depending on how long this takes and how badly Megatron wants to upset the Maximals, we could start a betting pool.
"It was not necessarily one of them." Dinobot stood suddenly and walked past him.
Terrorsaur moved so that the table stayed between them. "Where are you going?"
"I need more information," said Dinobot, already halfway through the door. "Don't touch anything."
The door closed. Terrorsaur glanced at the corpse and huffed quietly. "Not my kind of materials."
Dinobot found Rhinox in his room. Optimus might be a better source of information regarding the Axalon but Dinobot had just enough tact to not want to bother him more than he had to.
Rhinox waved him in. "Who was on the Axalon on the day of the murder?" Dinobot asked before the door closed.
"There were maybe forty loaders and technicians working on the Axalon on the last day," said Rhinox. "That doesn't count the bystanders who came to say goodbye or who just wanted to watch the ship launch."
"As I thought - most of my suspects are on Cybertron," said Dinobot, shaking his head. "This assignment is an exercise in frustration."
Rhinox frowned. "Most of?"
"The crew is here," said Dinobot flatly.
"You think one of us could have done it?" Rhinox demanded. "I know you're trying to cover all possibilities but that's just too much."
"Could have, certainly." Not particularly likely for practical reasons. It would have been better to leave the body back on Cybertron if it was one of them. "When did you see Crossbolt last?"
"Two days before takeoff." When Dinobot looked disbelieving, Rhinox spread his hands. "We were working in different sections of the ship. I was double-checking the systems, he was loading cargo."
"Hnh." It put Crossbolt in the area of the cargo bay at least. "Is there a list of the people who were working on the ship?"
The engineer thought about that. "Of the technicians who built the Axalon, yes. Not of the labourers loading supplies. There would be records of them on Cybertron, not here."
Dinobot growled. "Whatever you can give me."
Rhinox swapped out the datadisc at his computer, typed for a few seconds, then removed the disc and handed it to Dinobot. "I know there's not nearly enough information. No one's expecting a miracle, Dinobot. Anything you find will be appreciated."
"I do not do things by halves."
"I know you'll do whatever you can."
Trying may be enough for a Maximal but failure is failure to me. Dinobot tucked the datadisc into a pocket. "One unrelated question ... why did the warship stand down while the Axalon pursued our ship?"
"We were the only ship in the area that could track a transwarp jump," said Rhinox with a shrug. "When you shot at the warship, you knocked out their scanning array."
Dinobot frowned. "They told you that?"
"Yes." Then, sensing Dinobot's sudden tension, "Why?"
The warrior felt his fists clench. I will own my crimes. I will not accept blame for one I didn't commit. "We never fired on the warship."
It took Rhinox a minute to find his voice. Seeing the Maximal off-balance and nervous was unsettling - usually he was as sure and steady as a rock. "You're certain?"
"I was the one at the weapon controls," said Dinobot. "Our plan was to out-manoeuvre them. We didn't have the firepower to fight a Maximal warship."
"They must have had a malfunction then ..." said Rhinox uncertainly.
"Or they lied to you."
"They wouldn't," Rhinox insisted. "There must have been a malfunction and they thought it was caused by your ship." He paused. "But if we hadn't been delayed ..."
Dinobot nodded. "Possibly we would have been destroyed by the warship. Possibly Megatron's plans would have continued unopposed. The time seems so short. Could not a long-term mission be delayed for a few days?"
"No," said Rhinox flatly. "It couldn't. Can we cut this short? I need to get back to the xenobiology lab."
The warrior let himself be evicted from Rhinox's quarters and watched the engineer walk off down the hall, not quite stomping but visibly agitated. Some sort of conspiracy, perhaps, some undivulged pretence of treasonous malice ... Dinobot shook his head. Ridiculous. If someone wanted the Axalon delayed for a few megacycles, they could have found an easier way than vanishing one of the crew.
Tarantulas looked up. "Megatron tells me Scorponok found a dead Maximal on the ship."
"He's metal," said Rhinox. "You can't eat him."
"Megatron said the same thing. Tch, it's like I have a reputation." The Predacon shook her head and changed the subject. "Oh, and guess what I found out about your neophytes!"
"What?" asked Rhinox. If Tarantulas sounded this cheerful, it could only mean bad news.
The Predacon beamed. "They've both got two sets of DNA."
Of all the answers he was anticipating, that one wasn't on the list. "Is that even possible?"
"Apparently," shrugged Tarantulas. "The DNA in Quickstrike's blood isn't the same as the DNA in his hair, for instance. I don't understand how it works yet, it just does. It gets better."
Rhinox covered his eyes with his hand briefly. "What is it?"
"I'm pretty sure they've got the same DNA."
Tarantulas shook her head. "Nor like twins. They're chimeras. Each had his own set of DNA, but somewhere along the line bits got swapped out with each other. Probably when the pods scanned each other. To put it in simplest terms, for an example, it might be that Silverbolt's DNA said he was to be blond while Quickstrike would have black hair, but those factors got switched around."
Rhinox considered that. "The records from their pods show DNA scans from four different animals - two each, not the same two for both."
"I can't tell which sections of their DNA were swapped around but I can tell you there are only two patterns." She laughed. "We knew the change happened fast, but so fast it caught those two in mid-scan? I could almost find the aliens impressive."
"That's what's making them glitch?" Rhinox asked, hope sinking. I was so certain it wasn't a structural problem. I can't repair damage to their genes!
"Oh?" Tarantulas picked a datapad out of the pile and tossed it to him. "Oh, no. That water they drank out in the wasteland had a type of aggressive amoeba in it that's attacking their intestinal linings. Hungry little things."
You figured it out megacycles ago and didn't bother telling me, thought Rhinox, angry, but didn't bother voicing it. It wouldn't do any good. Tarantulas was only doing the work because she found biology interesting, not because she cared about the health of her patients, and Rhinox needed her to do it. He read the report carefully. "Any ideas on how to cure the infection?"
"Hadn't thought about it. Trying to figure out how their DNA works was more fun."
Don't hit the Predacon. The Predacon knows more about biology than you do. You need the Predacon's help. Focus on finding a solution. "Nanites, maybe. The amoebas are big enough that they could be identified and killed."
Tarantulas considered that. "They'll have nanites floating around in their systems."
"I can program them to disintegrate at a given signal. They'll just become a bit more iron in their blood."
"Mmph," said Tarantulas. "Maybe once won't cause them any undue harm." There was an unspoken, Too bad. It might have been interesting.
"Who ordered you to come on the Axalon mission?"
Rattrap yelped and nearly dropped a wrench on his foot. He turned to glare. "I liked you better with metal feet."
It had taken some work to locate Rattrap. Dinobot finally found him hidden away in Sentinel's chamber, doing minor repairs. "Who ordered you to come on the Axalon mission?" he repeated.
"What do you care?"
Dinobot folded his arms across his chest. "Because the possibility exists that whoever ordered your presence also ... created the circumstance that you could be ordered."
"We're Maximals, all right?" snapped Rattrap, crouching to retrieve his wrench. "We don't do that. You've been around Megatron too long to think there might be other ways of doin' things."
"Then explain so I may understand." The request for information was genuine enough, though he couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"Fine." Rattrap turned back to his repairs, poking at the exposed panel without really doing anything. "I was actually the Axalon project's first choice for a jack-of-all-trades type but I said no 'cause I didn't wanna leave Cybertron. Crossbolt was the second choice and he took it. Crossbolt went missin'. They looked all over for him. They couldn't find him, they called me back. They were in a hurry so they didn't give me a choice. The end." He looked back at Dinobot and made a face. "Need to see my transfer documentation?"
Dinobot ignored the sarcasm. "Yes."
"You're serious about this."
It was the incredulity in the Maximal's voice that did it. Dinobot grabbed the front of Rattrap's shirt and lifted him off the floor. "I have been set a task. I will complete it."
"Cheese, chopperface, settle down." Once back on the floor, Rattrap turned and started away. "C'mon then."
Dinobot followed Rattrap down to his quarters. He had never actually been inside the Maximal's room before and found himself hoping he never would be again. The room stank with odours both machine and organic, crates and boxes were stacked haphazardly around the walls, and the floor was nearly hidden under a layer of debris. Dinobot kicked a small spool of wire and lost it in the mess. "Did the cleaner drones give up in despair?"
Rattrap was already digging through a storage locker. "Nah. I closed off their runs to the room."
The Maximal shrugged. "Cyberbees. Spiderdrones. Reprogrammed cleaner drones. You name it."
"Why would anyone want to spy on you?"
"Why wouldn't they?" Rattrap retorted, striking a suggestive pose. Dinobot rolled his eyes at him and Rattrap chortled and went back to his search.
Dinobot remained near the door, not trusting a floor he couldn't see. Rattrap's small feet could navigate the mess but anyone else would trip over something. "Did you know Crossbolt?"
The tone said more than the words. "You didn't get along."
Rattrap shrugged without turning around. "Optimus saw one side of him, I saw another."
"What did you see?" asked Dinobot.
The Maximal paused in his rummage through the locker, considering. "I guess he could be friendly enough, but he was chilly, y'know? Like he could just switch off his emotions whenever he wanted to. Real professional," said Rattrap bitterly.
"You speak ill of the deceased."
Rattrap made a derisive noise and slotted a disc into a datapad, then tossed it to Dinobot. "I think he tried to be a good guy, he just made bad choices. And if that idiot didn't get himself killed, I'd be back on Cybertron, in a bar, one hand full of high-grade and the other full of serverbot." Red eyes narrowed. "Comin' on this mission wasn't my choice but I figured I'd eventually have the option of goin' home. I tried to make the best of it, and now we're stuck on this nutty planet and we ain't even the right species! You think I wanted this?" As he spoke, the Maximal's voice got louder until he was shouting. "And don't you dare tell Optimus I said any of that!"
Dinobot let Rattrap think about what he'd just admitted, then nodded. Rattrap's desire to be back on Cybertron was generally known but Dinobot hadn't realised how vehement it was. "Where were you on the day of the launch?"
"Down on Cybertron," said Rattrap, clearing the top of a crate with a clatter so he could sit on it. "I got a whole bar in Nova Valvolux that can alibi me if you wanna try to interview 'em."
"You weren't watching the launch?" asked Dinobot. "I would have thought you would at least go to see Rhinox off."
The Maximal shrugged. "Rhinox knows I don't like good-byes."
Dinobot activated the datapad. The transfer form looked like any he had ever seen. Then he saw the name at the bottom. "Zenith? Of the Council of Elders?"
Rattrap looked over in surprise. "You recognise the name? I don't know five Maximals that know their names, let alone any Preds. Everyone just thinks of 'em in the collective."
"I ... know politics," said Dinobot. "Why would a Maximal Elder have such an interest in the Axalon's mission?"
"You ... know politics," Rattrap mimicked. "Optimus' got the rank to be on their radar." Dinobot nodded - they called their leader 'Optimus' so casually it was easy to forget it was his title, not his name. "And Zenith knew Rhinox. He'd ... Basically, if you see an Elder outside the Citadel, it's probably Zenith checkin' up on something. So he'd been to the colony a few times."
Dinobot growled. "Maximals have many colonies. You spread yourselves thin and take away resources that could be better used on Cybertron."
"Makin' more Preds ain't what I'd call 'better use'," said Rattrap flatly. "I'm talking Colony Omicron." The way he said it, it seemed like Rattrap thought it didn't need further elaboration.
Dinobot crossed his arms impatiently. "And?"
"You never heard of the place?"
"I don't keep track of Maximal colonies."
"It ... Well it was the last assignment Optimus and Rhinox had before the Axalon was built." He paused, considering. "That's where Optimus met Crossbolt, too. Omicron was one of his regular stops."
The huff of disapproval caught Optimus' attention and he looked up from the central workstation to see Dinobot standing at the entry to the command centre, frowning across the room. Waspinator was at the far right station, absorbed in the flashing colours on the screen. Dinobot went over to Optimus and dropped his voice: "She should not be using the computers in here."
Optimus felt himself smile slightly for the first time in hours. "I'm pretty sure Megatron sent her up to spy on us. Cheetor loaded up a video game for her. She's forgotten we're even here."
"Hff. I suppose if she's playing, she's not hacking the computer."
From Dinobot it was praise. Cheetor walked over and beamed at him. "What do you need, Dinobot?"
"I wanted to speak to you," said Dinobot, glancing back at Waspinator. Apparently deciding that the Predacon was no threat, he continued. "As the pilot, you would have been up here during the final megacycles before take-off."
Cheetor nodded. "Yeah, I was doing pre-flight checks and stuff." Cheetor glanced up at Optimus and cringed in on himself, looking miserable. Optimus reached over and patted his arm. "If anyone noticed something was wrong, it should've been me. Sometimes an alarm would get tripped by accident. I mean, the ship was crawling with people. I checked up each time because it's policy to always check on an alarm even when you know it's an accident. But there wasn't an alarm for Crossbolt."
"When did you see him last?"
"Just before the shift started," said Cheetor. "He was chatting to Optimus outside the cargo entrance. I went over to say hi and Crossbolt made some joke about there still being time to back out and I told him that I wasn't going to. Then he went inside the ship."
"I will be accessing the security logs later," said Dinobot. "Optimus, I have some questions -"
Anything else the warrior would have said was cut off by a shriek. "Useless!" yelled Terrorsaur, stomping into the command centre. "Oh, sure, you can shoot a crocodile but you can't watch a Maximal!"
Waspinator scrambled to her feet and shouted back: "Terror-bot doing his job so much he let lizard-bot wander away!"
"Yeah, well, I found him again. He'd have gone back to the cargo bay eventually anyway."
"Terror-bot says Waspinator is slacking off when terror-bot not even in the right room!"
I don't need this. I can't deal with a couple of Predacons screeching at each other, not right now. "Both of you - out," said Optimus. "Now."
Their anger immediately changed targets. Terrorsaur glared at him. "You don't order us, Maximal."
"Oh, terror-bot knows Maximals. Always think they can tell Predacons what to do," Waspinator snapped.
If they don't go away, I'm going to hit one of them, Optimus thought. And the worst of it is I don't think they're doing it on purpose. "Leave."
"I can't take this any more!" Terrorsaur screeched, eye twitching, rounding on Waspinator again. "I have to put up with your incompetence every day and if you ever sing again -"
Dinobot grabbed each flyer by the arm and threw them onto the lift, then punched the control that made it descend at maximum speed.
The lift returned, occupied with a dripping wet Tigatron. Dinobot gave her a small nod of approval - the tracker was as fully dressed as she ever was and had a hand laser and a knife hanging from her belt, practicality winning out over ideals. She also had one of the experimental commlinks around her wrist and a box strapped to her back. "Cheetor told me what happened. I returned as soon as I could. Why are you dropping Predacons on me?" she asked.
"It was the fastest way to get rid of them," said Dinobot.
Cheetor glanced at Optimus. "That wasn't a truce violation, was it?"
"Not when it was also the fastest way to end Terrorsaur's panic attack." Dinobot frowned, glancing back at the hallway.
Right. Terrorsaur's claustrophobic. "Is that how it usually manifests?" asked Optimus.
"That's how it starts."
When it was clear Dinobot wasn't going to elaborate, Optimus shrugged inwardly. Dinobot had told them various traits of the Predacons but rarely went into detail. He had enough respect for his former comrades not to talk about their personal lives.
Optimus changed the subject. "Tigatron, dry off and take over monitor duty. Cheetor, come find me when Tigatron's relieved you. I'll be in my quarters. Dinobot, come with me." He knew he wouldn't be able to talk about Crossbolt without getting upset. If a Predacon saw, it would just give Megatron something else to use against him. Better to have this discussion in the privacy of his room.
It surprised him when the first question Dinobot asked when the door closed behind him was, "How did Rattrap meet Rhinox?"
Optimus glanced over. "Rattrap did some trading between Cybertron and a few of the colonies, including one Rhinox was on."
How did he hear about Colony Omicron? There's no record in the Axalon! "... Yes."
He was saved having to explain further. Dinobot nodded. "Rattrap said he knew Crossbolt. If they had overlapping trade routes, it explains the connection."
Of course Colony Omicron would mean nothing to Dinobot. To a Predacon it was just another Maximal colony. At most he might know it had been destroyed. Optimus relaxed a bit, though made a mental note to reprimand Rattrap later. There were words it was better not to say at all. "I didn't know they'd met."
"Did Crossbolt have any enemies that you know of?"
Optimus sat on his berth, elbows on his knees and hands dangling. "He didn't have any."
"He had at least one."
"He was just a trader!"
"Everything points to Crossbolt being targeted specifically." Dinobot paced the room angrily. "I thought possibly someone wanted Rattrap on this mission but it would have been easier to transfer Crossbolt away." Dinobot stopped suddenly, looking back over his shoulder. "Could this have been targeted at you? As far as you knew, your friend abandoned you without so much as an explanation. Something to demoralise you."
"I ..." Optimus considered that a moment. "No. I wasn't the most popular Optimus and there were people who were jealous that I got the assignment to start an outer colony, but they wouldn't have killed someone for it."
"Then we are back to Crossbolt himself. This was no crime of opportunity. There was too much effort involved," Dinobot insisted. "It was common knowledge that the Axalon was going on a long-term mission. Exploring and colonising, which says to me that 'long-term' could easily be 'permanent' if you found a suitable world. If someone merely wished for Crossbolt to be out of the way, he was already putting himself out of the way. Instead, someone snuck aboard a ship crawling with workers and killed him without setting off an alarm. Then he hid the body." The warrior paused. "Were you not suspicious when Crossbolt left without taking his things?"
"His quarters were cleaned out," said Optimus. "It's why we thought he just left."
"So time was taken to do that as well. Which quarters were his?"
"It's the room Airazor and Tigatron have now," said Optimus. The door chimed. "That'll be Cheetor."
Dinobot hissed in annoyance, either at him or the world in general. "Then I will find one of them." He stalked out, though the effect wasn't as impressive as it had been when he had a tail to lash.
Cheetor slipped in. "You okay, big bot?"
"I'll recover." A part of Optimus' mind insisted that they were in the middle of a crisis, that he didn't have time to mourn and mope about and cling to his friends. It was right, which only added a layer of guilt. He shoved it aside - better to take some time now to grieve than to bottle it up. In these bodies, there were no more physical advantages - he needed his mind clear to deal with the situation and with the Predacons.
Tomorrow I'll get back to acting like the Optimus I'm supposed to be. For today, I just want to be Primal, who lost a friend.
On to This Most Bloody Piece Of Work - part three
Back to Other Vengeance 2.0
Back to In Space, No One Can Hear Starscream