Other Vengeance 2.0
This Most Bloody Piece Of Work
( part four )

wayward@insecticons.com

"Why would a Maximal hide a body?" asked Dinobot. He'd gone back to the cargo bay and after a quick search found a small personal computer and a cable.

Rattrap had decided to follow him. "What kinda question is that?"

"It is the one that I asked you."

The Maximal frowned. "Obvious, isn't it? The killer didn't want people to know he'd killed."

Dinobot set the small computer on the makeshift table near Crossbolt's head and attached the cable to it. "I know that, vermin," he growled in annoyance. "Why would he not want it known?"

"So that he wouldn't be caught and punished. Why else?" asked Rattrap. "Or are you allowed to just go around offin' people you don't like in Pred Land? ... What? What's that look supposed to mean? Don't tell me I offended your delicate Predacon sensibilities!"

Dinobot schooled his expression and shook his head. "I can understand how it can sometimes be ... prudent for the assassin to remain anonymous but to hide the deed entirely is cowardly."

"I'll remember to paint 'Rattrap Did It' across your shell when I ... You again?" The latter was directed at Terrorsaur who had just walked in with Waspinator in tow. His hair was down and strangely ropey and she had her long coat again. Dinobot arched an eyebrow when the fliers came in but didn't say anything. The question was plain: Who let you back in here?

"Tigatron and Airazor kicked us back in, so we're going to take over the cargo lift," said Terrorsaur with as much defiance as he could for someone admitting he'd been pushed around, then narrowed his eyes at Rattrap. "If that's allowed."

Dinobot waved the Predacons past and they vanished down the large elevator. "You gotta stop lettin' the Preds climb all over the evidence," said Rattrap.

"They're not."

The temperature dropped a few degrees as a breeze from the open shaft found its way up into the cargo bay. Rattrap huddled into himself, glared briefly at the open lift, then made a noise that dismissed both Predacons and Dinobot's defence of them. "You actually find anything in all your stompin' around?"

"Rhinox is not the assassin."

Rattrap rolled his eyes. "Wow, you're real good at this, ain'tcha?"

"He would have been too bulky to fit in the crawlspace."

"Brilliant. Wait, what're you doing?" Rattrap asked when Dinobot carefully removed the front panel of Crossbolt's helm.

Dinobot held up the loose end of the cable. "The shot went through Crossbolt's processor but not his memory module. Perhaps he saw his killer."

"Oh, yeah, bronto-brain with the logic," said Rattrap, pushing a crate beside where Dinobot was standing. "You might have noticed that he was shot in the back of the head."

"He may have seen the assassin prior to the shot, or perhaps in a reflection."

Rattrap climbed up on his crate to look over the warrior's shoulder. "You're not exactly the techiest 'bot. You'll probably erase his memories by accident."

"Why do you think I waited until I had pursued all other leads before attempting this?" asked Dinobot, attaching the cable to the memory module.

"Wait, you don't know what you're -"

Dinobot was never able to get the order straight in his mind afterward. He activated the link, then Rattrap tackled him from the side, there was an explosion, there was burning pain, and there was a strangely muffled feeling that he hadn't experienced since the initial change.

Dinobot opened his eyes and found himself face-down on the floor. The computer was in front of him, screen cracked and leaking smoke. Did the computer explode? he wondered hazily, trying to pull himself back to full awareness. Augh, this hurts ... Agony burned down his right arm and leg. It was almost enough to eclipse the pain in his ears.

The alarm klaxons were flashing but the sound was wrong, just one high frequency monotone that drowned out everything else. There was a weight on his back that moved weakly. Dinobot pushed himself up on his hands, dislodging it. Rattrap flopped onto his back like he was made of rubber and his face twisted as if he cried out, but he made no sound. Dinobot knelt by the Maximal's side. "Rattrap?" His injuries are not so severe ... His arms and legs were streaked and patched with blood - a dozen pieces of shrapnel were visible in his bare arms and the loose fabric of his trousers was tattered and bloody. Surface wounds, limb wounds, he's been through worse and laughed.

Then Dinobot saw the blood seeping out from underneath the Maximal's shoulder and pulled him to a seated position. Rattrap didn't struggle, just slumped forward against the warrior's arm. Dinobot couldn't see the extent of the wounds on Rattrap's back. There was too much shredded fabric and blood in the way.

He took Rattrap's chin and shook his head a bit to get his attention. At least Rattrap reacted, opening his eyes part way and saying something, or trying to. "Conserve your energy," Dinobot ordered. What do I do? I need to do something!

Remove the shrapnel. In the haze of panic and pain it seemed sensible. Dinobot grabbed the biggest piece, one in Rattrap's left wrist, then suddenly jerked back. Hot! Blast it, these bodies have such poor temperature resistance ...

Then he realised his mistake was worse than just singed fingers. He had torn the metal out of Rattrap's wrist, making the wound larger. No longer just seeping, blood flowed steadily from the Maximal. Uncertain what else to do, Dinobot clamped his hand around the wound, trying to stop the leak. Not like this! I've said that I would kill you someday, vermin, but not like this, not in some idiot accident ...

... Not after you just saved my life.

Movement and a flash of green in the pulsing red of alarm lights and blood caught his attention, and Dinobot looked up at two of his former comrades. Terrorsaur and Waspinator were in the cargo lift. They came when they heard the explosion - others must have as well! Terrorsaur was talking but Dinobot couldn't hear him - that was when it sank in that his audios were damaged. The siren scream was in his head.

Not that Terrorsaur ever says anything important. "Get down here and hold this wound closed," Dinobot ordered. He couldn't hear his own voice but he knew he spoke because the fliers reacted. Terrorsaur baulked and Waspinator made a face and said something likely along the lines of 'we're not helping any Maximal.' "Now, Terrorsaur!"

Dinobot knew he must have roared because it hurt his throat and the fliers looked terrified. Waspinator gave Terrorsaur a little push and the air warrior finally knelt, taking a few seconds to gingerly probe the edges of the wound with his long fingers before wrapping them around Rattrap's wrist. That's slowed the leak, at least. Now I need to seal it off, Dinobot thought, glancing back at the makeshift table. I have a welder up ... no, that would just cause more damage. Slag!

Waspinator said something and bolted. Terrorsaur called after her but didn't seem angry, which implied the scout was off to get help rather than simply running away.

The door opened just as she reached it. Waspinator ran right into Inferno, who threw the scout aside, knocking her to the floor. This didn't stop Waspinator from gesturing wildly, trying to explain to Megatron what happened. Megatron knew it was faster to look for himself than to try to decipher Waspinator's report and walked right past her, Inferno in tow.

Megatron made it four steps. Rhinox arrived and shoved the Predacon commander back at Inferno. Inferno's legs got tangled with Waspinator's, who was still sitting on the floor, and she went down in a pile of outrage. Megatron regained his footing and readied himself to attack. Rhinox paid him no attention. The engineer was focused on Terrorsaur, anger radiating off him in a tangible wave. Terrorsaur cringed and looked ready to bolt, about to decide he was more afraid of Rhinox than Dinobot.

"The Predacons didn't do this!" Dinobot shouted. "There was an explosion!"

The anger dissipated and Rhinox dropped to his knees beside Rattrap, patting at his face and talking. Rattrap barely responded, a flutter of the lids that didn't quite open, mouth not moving enough for speech. Rhinox tried to speak to Dinobot, indicated his wounds, but Dinobot shook his head. "Rattrap pushed me out of the way and took more of the blast. My damages are not important." Rattrap's eyes opened suddenly and his free hand caught and twisted in the fabric of Rhinox's shirt, which worried Dinobot more than the blood - he had never seen the Maximal hurt badly enough to make such a help me, don't leave me gesture before.

Rhinox reacted to something Dinobot couldn't see, glancing back over his shoulder, face anguished, words painful. Hesitation, more words, and he looked back down, apology in every line of him, and gently took Rattrap's hand from his shirt. The meaning was plain this time: I'm sorry. I have to leave but I'll come back soon. I promise.

Rhinox reluctantly left, immediately replaced by Optimus, who was shouting orders. Some of those were given to Dinobot, who couldn't understand. Now a hand on his shoulder, a searching look, a question? Dinobot growled. "I'm fine." Optimus' attention shifted to Terrorsaur. More words, no hesitation in him now - Terrorsaur helped Optimus carry Rattrap out. Rattrap was small enough that anyone could have carried him easily but the need to keep pressure on his wrist made it awkward.

With his view no longer blocked by Rhinox or Optimus, Dinobot could see that everyone else had arrived, drawn by the explosion. In the absence of the senior Maximals, Tigatron seemed to be the one giving orders. At her gesture, Cheetor bolted. The Predacons weren't paying her any attention. Most were in a huddle near the door, talking and glancing back at him, except Waspinator who was clinging to Silverbolt's arm and Tarantulas who was missing entirely. The alarm lights shut off.

Still kneeling, Dinobot glanced down at himself. He was soaked with blood. Most of it was Rattrap's. Ignoring the pain of his wounds, Dinobot stood up.

He had been fine when he was kneeling but it was hard to keep on his feet. It felt like the deck tilted below him though he knew it hadn't. Ignoring the warnings of his stabilisation system, Dinobot took a step forward, trying to use sight alone to keep himself balanced. It worked for three steps, then the Axalon slid out sideways from under him.

Two sets of hands caught him before he fell - Megatron and Tigatron. They argued past him - Megatron calm, Tigatron suspicious. Dinobot snarled and cut them short. "I am going to the xenobiology lab. Tigatron, keep order." Tigatron nodded and turned away, returning her attention to the remaining Maximals.

Megatron shot a triumphant grin at the tracker's back, then hooked his arm under Dinobot's shoulders. Much as he hated to appear weak, Dinobot knew he couldn't walk on his own. Much as he didn't want help from Megatron, better him than the already stretched-thin Maximals. Putting his arm over his former commander's shoulders for balance, he growled, "Don't make too much of this," and felt the answering laugh.

By the time they reached the xenobiology lab, Optimus had already laid Rattrap out on one of the two tables, face-down, left arm extended above his head. Terrorsaur had vanished - Optimus was holding Rattrap's wrist. Blood seeped through his fingers, noticeable only because Dinobot was looking for it. Merely carrying Rattrap to the lab had left Optimus' arms and torso red. He was hunched forward, talking quickly, worry and reassurance - We're going to repair you. You'll be fine. Stay with us. Rattrap didn't react.

Rhinox appeared a moment later with Tarantulas. Tarantulas immediately went to check on Rattrap. She had no interest in his well-being but she liked blood.

Megatron led Dinobot to one of the chairs and helped him sit, mindful of his injuries. Dinobot automatically reached to pull a bit of metal out of his arm but stopped before he could complete the action. No. It was my clumsiness that made Rattrap's injuries worse. If I attempt to treat myself, I may end up like him.

Having metal in my body again shouldn't hurt so much! Every time he moved, the shrapnel cut his flesh.

He realised Optimus was trying to talk to him and shook his head. "I can't hear you," Dinobot admitted. "My audios were damaged. All I can hear is a high-frequency tone." Now that he had a minute to think, that was the muffled feeling he'd recognised from the initial change - a sudden lack of sensory input.

Optimus said something to him, paused for a moment, then spoke to Megatron instead. Megatron shrugged and returned a few minutes later with a datapad, which he handed to Dinobot. Optimus spoke, spoke again, and this time words appeared on the screen.

Optimus Primal: I've programmed Sentinel to transcribe everything said in this room to this datapad. But it picked up everyone in the room, so there was also:

Tarantulas: Do you want all his blood to leak out?

Rhinox: No!

Tarantulas: Then leave the shrapnel in. It's plugging the leaks.

And, Megatron, picking at the blood on his sleeve where it transferred from Dinobot: Don't tell me I require new clothing again.

He saved my life. Dinobot stared at the words for a moment before realising they were his.

Optimus Primal: Options?

Rhinox: Protein polymer. It might bond to real flesh. I'll try it.

Tarantulas: Don't glue your fingers to him.

Megatron: I would say the wounds should be cleaned as well. Sealing in bits of metal and dirt couldn't be good for them, no.

Rhinox left. Optimus looked back down at Rattrap. We'll need to get his clothing off to reach his damages. The Maximal leader started to take a step, then stopped, looking down at where his hand was clamped around Rattrap's wrist. Tarantulas, there should be a pair of metal snips in the second locker over there.

This was the Optimus that Dinobot knew - level-headed and in command. Tarantulas didn't even cast an asking glance at Megatron before moving to obey. Given a crisis, Optimus had snapped out of his weakness and depression. He has some strength left. Good. May it last.

Tarantulas returned with the snips and carefully removed Rattrap's clothing to expose his damages. Simply tugging it off would snag on the shrapnel and make the wounds worse. There wasn't much metal in his back - the shrapnel had cut across without lodging in his flesh. His arms and legs were a different story. Most of the shrapnel was in his left limbs, a couple dozen small shards almost hidden in his flesh. The few pieces in his right were comparatively shallow ricochets. By the time Tarantulas finished removing Rattrap's clothing, she found two knives and a small laser pistol hidden on him. The gun was technically a truce violation and Optimus looked upset but Megatron laughed so hard he had a coughing fit.

Megatron gestured to Tarantulas, who handed him the snips. Dinobot glared at him. "No." Since he was mostly shielded by Rattrap, he had only been hit by a few ricochets in his right limbs. "I can wait."

His former commander gave him a wounded look that almost seemed sincere. You don't trust me?

"No."

Rhinox returned then, dropping an armload of equipment on the table near Rattrap's feet with what must have been an impressive crash. He turned with surprising speed and grabbed Tarantulas' upraised wrist.

Rhinox: Don't do that.

Tarantulas blinked at him. Don't do what?

Rhinox: You were licking his blood off your fingers. He squeezed a little tighter. Don't do that.

Tarantulas: All right! All right!

Megatron smirked at Dinobot, tapping the snips against his open palm. Well now, it looks like everyone else is occupied. Shall I tend to your wounds or would you rather be stubborn?

Dinobot growled but extended his leg. He expected trickery and didn't receive it - Megatron did nothing more than slit his trouser leg up to the thigh and carefully peel it back. Against his preference, Dinobot let Megatron do his repairs. He had steady hands, a knowledge of biology, and a knack for fiddly work so Dinobot could acknowledge the logic in letting him do it, but his former commander only performed acts of kindness if he thought he could get something out of them later.

Dinobot knew he should stay focused on Megatron to make sure he wasn't going to make things worse but he kept trying to see what was happening to Rattrap. He couldn't see much - the others blocked the view of the table. Purposeful movement of arms and shoulders, gestures with red-coated hands, but all that could be seen of Rattrap was his blood as it dripped to the floor. 'It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood.' Yet who would have thought the Maximal to have had so much blood in him?

Megatron, already finished with the few shards in Dinobot's arm, kneeling now, removing shrapnel from his thigh with long-nosed pliers, tapped him on a bit of untorn flesh to get his attention, spoke, and pointed at the datapad. Do you mark that?

"How can I?" Dinobot snarled. "I can't hear!"

His former commander rolled his eyes and reached up to tap the scroll button on the datapad to show the last few minutes of conversation. Dinobot had been watching, not reading, so it was all new to him. Most was the clipped conversation of Optimus, Rhinox, and Tarantulas as they worked: This section's clear. Hand me the sprayer. - Carefully, carefully. - Am I the only one who finds it weird that most of the shrapnel is in perfect little blue rectangles? - I don't want to think about that right now. - Hold the edges together so I can apply the polymer. - His skin shouldn't be this colour. - Bruised? He was cut, not hit.

And, finally: It will have blood, they say, blood will have blood. Yet who would have thought the Maximal to have had so much blood in him?

Megatron: Do you mark that?

Dinobot: How can I? I can't hear!

Megatron: I thought you were quoting to give yourself something to focus on. I was playing along.

"Don't."

Megatron didn't reply, just gave a mild shrug and got back to work, bloody hands moving efficiently. Dinobot found himself automatically finishing the quote Megatron had started, taking care not to speak aloud: 'The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean? No more o' that, my lord, no more o' that: you mar all with this starting.'

As if hearing his thought, Megatron startled - only in expression, too disciplined to let his hands slip - and threw a quick glance over his shoulder. Dinobot looked over at the work table - there was more strain in the backs of the Maximals and their movements were more controlled ... No, not the right word. It's the control of one who knows that if he doesn't hold on as tight as he can, he's going to collapse. Dinobot checked the datapad to see what had caught Megatron's attention.

Rhinox: Hold still! We're trying to help you!

Optimus: He can't hear you. And you can stop laughing!

Tarantulas: Oh, don't take it so personally. I laugh at everything.

Nothing that would have made Megatron jump. "What happened?"

Megatron: Nothing to concern yourself with.

Nothing to concern myself with? He saved my life! Dinobot thought and realised he'd shouted when his throat hurt and the others glanced back at him.

Megatron: Hold still, idiot. He finished patching the last wound just below Dinobot's knee, then stood, rinsed his hands off with the sprayer, and went over to see what the others were doing. After a moment, Megatron shook his head. Move aside, Primal. I'm not used to feeling embarrassed for Maximals.

Optimus Primal: What? Megatron.

Megatron: Keep up this slipshod work and you'll kill the rat before you repair him. Move aside.

Optimus looked back at Dinobot, not speaking but the question was there: Can we trust him? Should I let him do this?

Dinobot nodded, and Optimus stepped back to let Megatron work. No, you can't trust him, but he has skills that you lack. You mean well, Optimus, but you are already under too much strain. Rhinox can fix any machine but his knowledge of organics is limited to plants. Tarantulas knows how organics are put together only because she takes them apart for fun. Megatron's knowledge of biology is more theoretical than practical but he does take pride in delicate work.

'Here's the smell of the blood still ...' Drawn by the mess, one of the Axalon's small cleaner drones darted under the table and started scrubbing industriously. When it bumped into Tarantulas' foot, she gave it a kick that sent it skidding across the room. Ow! As soon as I'm done here, I'm putting steel toes in my shoes.

Optimus: Sentinel, shut off the drones.

Megatron: Do try to stay focused, Tarantulas.

Tarantulas: As if I want to be distracted. This is the most fun I've had since I was metal!

Optimus' hand clamped down on Rhinox's shoulder before a tightening in the muscles could become action. Dinobot growled. If I could stand, he would have had to restrain me. Optimus says, 'No.' I say, 'Not yet.' Tarantulas is useful for the moment ... and moments end.

This situation is intolerable! Rattrap took the blast that was meant for me! He saved my life and I can do nothing! The only ones who can do anything hate Maximals on principle if they didn't have reasons to hate the vermin personally! Dinobot glanced at the datapad and found no conversation, just orders. Megatron had smoothly taken over the operation. I know your skill, Megatron. Fail and you will answer to me.

The two Maximals were doing little that Dinobot could see - cleaning wounds, handing tools, and trying to comfort Rattrap as well as they could. Most of the work was being done by the Predacons, more efficiently now that they were together and could pool their skills, 'their hands and faces were all badged with blood; so were their daggers, which unwiped we found upon their pillows. They stared, and were distracted; no man's life was to be trusted with them ...'

Finally Optimus asked, Is that all?

Tarantulas picked up a scanner and fiddled with it, somehow able to still find the controls despite the blood smeared on it. The scanner isn't detecting any metal in his body beyond the trace amounts that are supposed to be there.

Megatron set about washing his hands. Rhinox touched the back of Rattrap's neck, one of the few undamaged places on him. His skin feels wrong. He shouldn't be this cold. And his heartbeat is weak.

Tarantulas: Organics can't lose much blood before it becomes fatal. It's not like our fuel systems.

Rhinox: If we could set up something like a fuel transfer.

Dinobot immediately got to his feet and would have fallen if he hadn't caught the table. "He risked his life to save mine! It's only right that I give up my blood for him!"

Rhinox: You're missing enough of your own already!

Tarantulas: Blood can't be transferred like fuel. Not exactly.

Optimus Primal: What? Explain!

Tarantulas shrugged. There's different kinds of blood. Some are incompatible with others.

Rhinox: How do you know this?

The scientist laughed. Sentinel didn't think it needed to transcribe it. I've taken blood samples of everyone since the change. I had to dispose of them somehow.

Megatron: You mixed a drink.

Tarantulas: The blood went strange depending on which samples were combined. Further scans indicated what seemed to be six strains. I'm not sure. Quickstrike and Silverbolt are rather odd.

Optimus Primal: Who's Rattrap compatible with? Dinobot couldn't hear his voice but his expression was enough. There was nothing Optimus could do now, the situation was entirely out of his control. When the day had started one of his crew was already dead, killed when his stasis pod exploded. This morning another had been found murdered. Now Rattrap was dying. Dinobot's fists clenched. He saved my life.

Tarantulas chuckled again. He has the most common type actually. It might be another trait tied in with our beast-modes, because all his compatibles used to be arthropods.

Rhinox pushed past her and started typing at the computer, leaving bloody fingerprints on the console. Tarantulas reached past him and tapped a few keys. My research.

Rattrap and I are similar, said Rhinox after several too-long minutes.

Tarantulas: Do you want to take the chance that you're similar enough?

Rhinox dragged the back of his hand across his damp forehead and left a red smear. I'm surprised you warned us at all.

Tarantulas shrugged. This procedure might be needed on a Predacon some day. The scientific solution is to try it on the rat first.

Megatron, not quite hiding a smirk: Yes, try it on the rat. Ask for volunteers to donate, Primal. See how far that gets you.

Optimus, all vulnerability now, not in any shape to stand up to Megatron: But.

Tarantulas drifted over to stand a bit behind Megatron, putting herself out of Maximal reach. Megatron continued: The only answer you'll hear is a resounding and insulted no. You Maximals have taken everything else from we Predacons and now you ask the fuel from our lines?

It wasn't a fair complaint - the crew of the Axalon had done nothing to the Predacon faction but be built Maximals - but any thought Dinobot had of threatening and ordering one of the Predacons to donate his blood died with those words. Dinobot fought against Megatron, not against the Predacons as a species, and making that kind of demand was too fundamental a betrayal. He could stand them passing in the hall and hissing 'traitor' under their breath; he couldn't take wounded glances and, 'you used to understand.'

The Predacon commander was still talking: And for the rat? The single most troublesome member of your crew? What has he ever done to make us desire his continued existence?

Rhinox was by the table, holding Rattrap as best he could despite the angle, as if physical contact could keep his spark in his body. He looked about to speak but changed his mind and said nothing. Dinobot couldn't decide if it was a wise move or a foolish one. Ask, beg, or order in this and Megatron will be so offended that it will end your precious truce. On the other hand, if the truce dissolves, you may take what you need by force ...

But I suppose I've already put this much effort into him. Megatron turned suddenly and strode to the door but it was only to tap the intercom. Inferno, report to the xenobiology lab immediately.

Rhinox hurried back to the xenobiology lab. "Has he regained consciousness yet?" he asked, then felt bad for asking.

"We would have told you if he had," said Optimus without insult. Then, quieter, "Find anything?"

"No." He wasn't meant to. Optimus didn't ask any more questions, knowing that Rhinox needed a few minutes to check on his friend.

Rhinox always forgot how small Rattrap was until he was injured. Active, Rattrap filled more space than his actual body did. This flesh-form didn't help. Without the added bulk of his beast-mode, without armour, without even clothing, Rattrap looked so small and vulnerable that Rhinox was almost afraid to touch him.

They'd cleaned up the blood, unrolled a sheet of packing foam on the table, then laid Rattrap on it on his front. There hadn't been time for delicacy - the polymer had been smeared on, leaving Rattrap with grayish stripes across his back and patches on his arms and legs. It was easy to tell where Megatron had taken over the operation - the patches were much smoother and tidier. The polymer looked like flesh but was actually more like rubber. Hopefully Rattrap's body would heal its wounds on its own, under the polymer, which could then be peeled off.

Rhinox sat on the table next to Rattrap and lightly rested his hand on his friend's shoulder. No space on his back - what wasn't covered by gray polymer was covered by reddish-purple bruises they'd found when they washed off the blood. No scanners, no sensors, just flesh-damped senses, the contact was a way of reassuring himself that Rattrap was still alive. His breathing was ragged and his heartbeat was too fast but it was strong.

Rattrap hadn't regained full consciousness since the explosion. Sometimes his eyes would open and he'd try to talk before the pain put him back into stasis. Rhinox envied Dinobot's hearing loss. Dinobot couldn't hear Rattrap's whimpering as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He didn't hear his screams when the shrapnel was removed. I wish there was something I could do, some way to take his pain away.

Optimus had remained by Rattrap's side, determined not to lose another friend. Megatron had slipped away as soon as the transfusion was done, complaining about the blood under his nails. Inferno had seemed a bit dizzy afterwards but insisted she was fine. Tarantulas had been forced to wash her hands before she left. Dinobot hadn't left after his own wounds had been treated. When Rhinox said he could go, Dinobot merely repeated, "He saved my life." Rhinox couldn't blame Dinobot for being a bit stuck on that point. Before, such an explosion would have been an inconvenience. Now just the edge of it nearly killed Rattrap. If Dinobot had been alone ...

"I'm surprised Megatron helped us," said Rhinox quietly. "If he hadn't ..."

"It's probably as Tarantulas said - try the experiment on a Maximal first. He just wanted to see if he could do it." Optimus shook his head. "I suppose he didn't do it out of a feeling of camaraderie."

"'Make good of bad, and friends of foes.' Of course not. He wants something," Dinobot grumbled.

"Under the circumstances, I'd rather owe Megatron," said Rhinox, squeezing Rattrap's shoulder lightly. But I only nearly lost a friend today, and I have work to do ... With Dinobot wounded and unable to complete his investigation, Rhinox had stepped in to finish up. "There was nothing to recover, Optimus," he said after a moment. "The explosion completely destroyed Crossbolt's head. There wasn't a scrap of viable circuitry left. At the same time a surge destroyed the computer Dinobot was using to tap into his memory module."

"So it was a power surge," said Optimus hopefully.

The engineer shook his head. "It was a bomb. The pattern of damage was clear and I found fragments of the device. Crossbolt's love of etching didn't do us any favours - it just weakened his plating and made more shrapnel. The bomb didn't cause the surge though. The computer was destroyed by a virus."

"One of the flashburn viruses," said Dinobot. "I've seen them before."

Rattrap twitched suddenly, mumbled something incomprehensible, tried to get up, and screamed, clawing at the table. Rhinox got down and leaned over, patting his friend's neck and shoulders until he calmed down.

After a minute, Rattrap opened his eyes. He managed to smile faintly. "Knew you'd be here. Where's Dinobot?"

"He's fine," said Rhinox without thinking, then tapped Rattrap on the shoulder and moved aside so he could see the warrior sitting by the opposite table.

Rattrap made a face but his relief was obvious. He pushed himself up on his elbows though it was obvious that moving hurt. "Nngh. Just hate to think I risked my hide for ..." He trailed off, a kind of horrified realisation coming over his features. Rhinox pushed a datapad into his hands, the first words on the screen being, Your audios are damaged. When he finished reading the report, Rattrap groaned and sank back onto the table. Rhinox patted him on an undamaged bit of his shoulder. "How are you feeling?"

"How d'you think I'm feelin'?" Rattrap demanded, addressing the datapad. He spoke like Dinobot did now, too harsh and too loud, unable to hear his own voice to modulate it. "Can't ... can't shut off my pain receptors. Gotta feel everything. An' why's it so cold in here?"

Rhinox pulled off his shirt and draped it over Rattrap. There were bloodstains on it - he hadn't had a chance to change his clothes - but he doubted Rattrap would mind. Rattrap tried to turn on his side to curl up, winced, and settled onto his front again, shrugging the fabric up over his shoulders. There was a snort from Dinobot. "Only you would squeak of pain when you are lucky to be alive, mouse," he said, glancing up from his datapad.

Rattrap turned his head to glare. "Ain't me that's lucky, scalebelly. If I hadn't been there, you'd be perforated Pred!"

Dinobot looked away and curled into himself so slightly that Rhinox only saw it because he knew it was there, a physical manifestation of the words he'd said a dozen times before: I know. You saved my life.

Awkward silence, the argument cut short by honesty. Optimus rescued them both by breaking it: "How did you know to act, Rattrap?"

Rattrap shrugged awkwardly, then winced at the movement. "Spent a lotta time in demolitions. I hear a special little click, I hit the deck." He sighed. "Last thing I ever heard. Great."

"Your hearing loss might be temporary," Rhinox reminded him, settling back on the table by Rattrap's head and putting his hand back on his shoulder. "Your body may heal on its own."

"Might not," grumbled Rattrap. "I gotta hear this siren for the rest of my life, too?"

"We don't know yet."

Rattrap shook his head. "Great. So that's two of us down for a while. You just know Megs and them are gonna try to find a way to take advantage."

"Even with both of you out, they don't have the advantage of numbers," said Optimus.

"Quickstrike and Silverbolt are not ready." Dinobot glanced over at the engineer. "Though perhaps it doesn't matter. I think the Predacons have a renewed respect for Rhinox. Not many people can get away with shoving Megatron."

Rhinox felt his cheeks go hot. "The cargo bay was full of Predacons, you were both covered in blood, and Terrorsaur was crouched over Rattrap. What was I supposed to think?"

"You thought Terrorsaur got the best of me?" Rattrap heckled. "I'm insulted!" Rhinox relaxed his grip on Rattrap's shoulder. If he was cracking jokes, he was going to be fine.

Optimus seemed to think so as well. "Are you up to discussing Dinobot's investigation?"

"Yeah, why not?" Rattrap asked. "Give me somethin' to think about other than how much everything hurts."

"All right," said Optimus. "Dinobot?"

"The shot was at a downward angle. The killer was either tall, hovering, or, most likely, lying in the crawlspace. Rhinox could not have been the killer," said Dinobot, nodding to the engineer. "He would have been too large to fit in the crawlspace. As well, I have him on camera in the engineering section at the time of the murder. As for Cheetor, there were too many people walking in and out of the control room for him to have left without being noticed. However, he was in the perfect place to tamper with the security system."

"He did not," snapped Rhinox.

"I didn't say he did. It is a possibility. I found Crossbolt's things hidden in the wall between Crossbolt's and Cheetor's quarters," Dinobot snarled back. "You, vermin, claim to have alibis, none of which I can check. This includes the alibi of distance, if you didn't sneak up to the Axalon and only reveal yourself later, after you had been summoned." Rattrap made a face at him. "Optimus, I cannot place at the time of death. He appears in no security footage."

"I was out in the hangar organising the loaders," said Optimus.

"No one here can vouch for that."

Rhinox glared at the warrior. "I can't believe you suspect Optimus. Or any of us!"

"'To show an unfelt sorrow is an office which the false man does easy.' I suspect everyone. You certainly have the skill to bypass the security system, Rhinox. It was not necessarily anyone in the crew. There were the workers. Someone else may have slipped aboard. I do not have enough information to give you any answers!" Dinobot finished, punching his chair's armrest.

"All right," said Rhinox quietly, though the tone of voice would be lost on Dinobot. "We're all frustrated and on edge here. It's been a hard day."

"I should have realised Crossbolt was equipped with an explosive device," said Dinobot, angry but the anger directed inward. "Especially considering the other traps in his body. I have ... encountered such things before, though never in a civilian."

"Could it have been added after? By his killer as a way of causing more damage?" asked Optimus. "Wait ... Other traps?"

"Your friend was very well-armed." Dinobot shook his head. "If the assassin wanted Crossbolt's memory module destroyed, he could have shot it easily enough. There is no reason to have taken the time to install a bomb that does so little damage. Relatively speaking." He paused, then, "It was not one of the Predacons, before anyone accuses them."

"You left Terrorsaur alone with the body!" Rattrap accused.

"He has the skill to rig a bomb. He does not have the skill to implant a virus," said Dinobot.

"But it's fine to accuse us," grumbled Rhinox to himself.

It wasn't meant to be heard but he realised Sentinel picked it up and transcribed it anyway when Dinobot growled. "I have known Terrorsaur for years; I know what he is and is not capable of. I do not know you Maximals nearly so well."

"Crossbolt was an information trader as well as cargo," said Optimus. "Maybe he had the traps installed as a precaution."

"I've only ever heard of 'em in spies," said Rattrap quietly, or what should have been quiet if he could hear.

"He wasn't a spy," said Optimus firmly. "I've got the rank to know."

"You wouldn't. 'Cause that's what a spy is."

Optimus shot him a look of wounded anger, then left without a word. Dinobot stood up after a moment, muttering something about returning to his quarters, though Rhinox didn't know if it was directed at him or if Dinobot was thinking out loud again. The warrior gave Rattrap an unreadable look, then left, carefully holding onto the wall for balance.

Alone, Rhinox frowned at Rattrap. "That was vicious."

"Well, he wouldn't know," Rattrap mumbled, looking upset.

Rattrap hadn't meant it unkindly, he'd just been tactless. Rhinox reached down and squeezed his friend's hand. "You saved Dinobot's life and you're still alive. I'd say you did good."

Rattrap squeezed back, hard. "Just ... just doin' my job."

"You're going to be fine," Rhinox insisted. "You want me to get you anything?"

"We still got crocodile around?"

"We're going to have crocodile around for days."

Head pillowed on his right arm, Rattrap stretched out his left and wiggled his fingers, watching them through half-closed eyes. So I got Predacon fuel runnin' through my lines now. Ain't the first time. Getting put back together by a Predacon, that was new and unnerving. Especially Megatron - Rattrap had no illusions what the Predacon commander thought of him. He tried curling up to get more comfortable and to tuck Rhinox's shirt around himself better but moving pulled on his wounds. He was pretty sure the protein polymer wouldn't pull off, it just hurt too much to move. He'd just have to put up with his legs being cold for a while.

Rattrap managed to prop himself up on his elbows when the door opened. Rhinox back already? No. Too big, too dark. Megatron. How long's he been hangin' around waitin' for me to be awake and alone? Better question - why? Best question - where's my gun?

Smiling, the Predacon handed him a datapad. On the screen was typed: Did they tell you that I saved your life?

Oh, good, he's just here for a gloat. Apparently Megatron didn't want to leave a record of this little conversation, choosing to write it out instead of letting Sentinel transcribe him. Rattrap decided to play along and typed on the next line: It might have been mentioned in passing.

Megatron smirked at that. This is simply a friendly warning - one day I will ask that the debt be repaid.

Rattrap grinned back and typed: Yeah, good luck with that. Get in line.

He stopped grinning when he read Megatron's response. If you don't repay me, Dinobot will.

Dream on.

You were hurt badly while saving his life, then he accidentally made things worse trying to tend your wounds. He feels deeply indebted to you and will continue to do so until he finds a way to reciprocate. He could do this by fulfilling your debt to me.

Rattrap read the paragraph over three times. Oh, cheese, no. Dinobot and his stupid honour. He would follow through with it, the big idiot. Rattrap typed: What are you after?

The Predacon didn't answer, merely took the datapad from Rattrap's hands, smiled, and left.

Rattrap settled himself as comfortably as he could on the table. He'll spring it on me when the time's right. Of course. Classic Megatron.

All I gotta do is get Dinobot out of my debt, then I can tell Megatron to cram it.

 

To be continued ...

 

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