The main problem about being the in-house tech at an outpost, Alkali decided, was the 'out' part.
The Seeker behind the desk pointed a finger at her without looking up from his holomap. "Don't call me that. You only use my title when you want something."
Which was true. Skycoil was a rather unusual Decepticon in that he insisted that everyone in the base was equal. More or less. Of course he was still their leader, but he didn't like the formality of the title. Things might be different if they were in a populated area, but with no one else around, he thought insisting on his title was a bit silly. Alkali was used to commanding officers who insisted she speak to them respectfully no matter what, and the habit was hard to break. "I need to make a supply run, Skycoil."
To be honest, her supplies would hold out for another few weeks, but she liked to restock before she ran out of anything. A run could take days or weeks, and she had to make sure nothing was planned in her absence. She was the only real technician on the base. If there was a battle or a raid planned, she would be sorely missed after the fact.
Her current place of employment was a tiny outpost in the Eighth Sector, near the Five-Eight border. The warriors had dubbed the place Middle long before Alkali had joined the crew, and she wasn't surprised to learn it was short for 'Middle Of A Primus-Forsaken Crater.' There had been a city once, but it had been razed some four-hundred-thousand years ago, and no one cared what its name was any more. Sometimes there was life in the ruins, but it was almost invariably neutral scavengers or empties. The nearest cluster of life was a borehole of a town called Yix, and Alkali was sure the place only existed because it had the only oil house in the region. The whole area was a wasteland. Still, someone higher up had decided that there was some kind of tactical advantage to be had out there, so Middle existed. Alkali had been there for thirty-six years now.
Oh, there were advantages to it. Alkali wasn't fond of cities in general, for one. The fact that the outpost was small enough that she was the only real technician on staff was another plus. She usually worked alone. The outpost got few visitors - Alkali didn't mind people, no, but she didn't like them just dropping in. She had her own projects to work on and didn't like to be interrupted. With forewarning she could be friendly, but not without notice.
The disadvantage was that supplies weren't as easily obtained as they could be in a city. In theory she could ask Skycoil to have things brought in with the regular supply shipments, but Alkali didn't trust a middlemech not to mess up her order or try to figure out what she was up to, and Alkali was an artist. Artists didn't give up their secrets willingly.
Captain Skycoil was one of a legion of such beings she had worked for over the course of her life - a Decepticon base commander with an interest in the arts. He gave her space to work and a small gallery, and let her use her spare time however she wished. In return, she kept the base and the warriors in good condition, and helped with interrogations. Skycoil appreciated her art, but in a fairly limited way.
She rather liked how he ran the place though, so she forgave him for being less cultured than previous masters. Skycoil had fourteen air warriors of various types under his command, for fifteen total. However, he insisted that they all be able to work together in any configuration, forbidding the usual trines. He was all for organisation and teamwork, but he didn't allow set teams within his subordinates.
With Alkali they were sixteen, and when she asked to come along on missions, Skycoil generally let her. She wasn't at the warriors' level of skill, but she could hold her own against an ordinary Autobot soldier. Alkali supposed she could just ask the air warriors to bring a few prisoners back, but, really, she thought of the outings as supply runs rather than battles, and she liked to pick out her own materials.
She got along well enough with Skycoil and his warriors. A few only tolerated her because she repaired them after battles, but most were friendly enough. When they went to Yix to drink, they tended to invite Alkali along. Alkali added an extra bit of fun to pubbing. As well, the warriors knew that bringing their technician an empty or two could yield a few hours of amusement if she was in a mood to show off her skills.
But for her art, she needed specific supplies. The closest real city - at least, the closest one that was under Decepticon control - was Aradix, in the Fifth Sector.
Skycoil finally looked up. "Eight days, Alkali."
"That will be sufficient." With a slight bow, the chemist left his office.
Alkali returned to her workshop. She needed to pick up her inventory list and trailer first, then she could start for Aradix.
She found Polestar waiting for her in the workshop. Polestar was a Vilnacron-C07 gliderjet, a breed that held some mild interest for an art student. Several of the recent Vilnacron flight styles were created by Calliper, who had been fairly well-known as a body-shell designer. She had finally sold out at the beginning of the last war, and likely only joined the Decepticons because they were the ones she happened across first. Alkali had met the designer twice, both times before Calliper had signed on, and frankly hadn't been surprised when she heard she had sold out. Calliper was mercenary, and had only held out so long because claiming neutrality was considered rebellious.
The warrior grinned at her. "Your vibes are positive. Skycoil let you go?"
"I've got eight days to get to Aradix, pick up my supplies, and get back." It wasn't a daunting prospect. The city was less than two days' drive at a reasonable speed.
"Want an escort?"
Alkali turned away so Polestar couldn't see her visor flash. Emotion still radiated from her, and probably struck a sensitive like Polestar like a slap. "I don't need one."
Receding footfalls and the sound of the door signalled Polestar's retreat. Alkali sighed. She knew she had hurt the warrior. Polestar thought that Alkali and her art were fascinating. She knew enough not to ask how it was done and she knew enough to properly appreciate it. As the unofficial secondary technician, Polestar was extremely useful. She was also determined to befriend everyone in the outpost. Alkali rather liked her, which meant that if Polestar didn't die or back off soon, Alkali was going to have to leave. Skycoil would never let Alkali get away with the murder of one of his troops.
Aradix had begun existence as a xenoimport spaceport, with a few refineries to process the alien materials for shipping to other parts of Cybertron. The spaceport was rarely used any more, but the refineries were. The warriors of Middle sometimes went to the city to support its defenders on those occasions it was attacked, but more often they just went to drop off the body-shells of those they had killed. Scrap metal was scrap metal, Alkali couldn't conjure materials from the air, and the Aradix refineries were of much better quality than the little one in the outpost.
Despite trade dropping off during the last war, Aradix was still known as a place to go for xenoimports. Aradix's governor even had a few aliens on staff for dealing with races that otherwise wouldn't do business with Decepticons. Because of this, sometimes Alkali could get her hands on chemicals that she couldn't ordinarily procure on Cybertron. If her dealers happened to have something interesting in Alkali might try it, but she rarely looked specifically for novelty chemicals.
The chemist shifted her attention to the figure across the road. There was no mistaking a being that looked to be half made of keyboards. "Euphony."
There was no proper Artist's Quarter in Aradix, but there were still a few scattered artists and assayers who either worked for the governor or just wanted first crack at alien artefacts and ideas. Euphony was one of the latter, a refugee from Betacron. Despite that, he was no artist himself, but a supplier - Euphony was a collector and dealer in sound. Alkali had never known him to wear a faction symbol, but she had seen him fight before, and his warrior's skill was probably a large part of the reason he was still alive. Given his inability to fly, she suspected he had started his life as an Autobot.
He jogged over to her. "It's good to hear the voice of an artist again."
Alkali transformed. "There are others in the city."
Euphony waved a hand dismissively. "Pah."
Which, given Euphony, meant nothing more than that none of the others wanted to listen to him. Like any collector, he showed off his collection at any opportunity. Generally, those opportunities were found by cornering someone. "But I wanted to find you, anyway," Euphony continued, extending two sonic collectors from his back. "Sing the tertiary voice of the first twelve bars of the Canthrethan Aishea for me."
"Do it, or I give you a lecture on the technical reasons why I want your voice for it," Euphony threatened.
She had never had an interest in music, but millennia of going to various bashes and gathers gave her a working knowledge of the better-known pieces. Too surprised by the request to argue, Alkali sang it, then shook her head. "Ach, I'll never understand you audiles."
"Your voice has the right harmonics for a project I'm working on," shrugged Euphony, retracting his sonic collectors. "And while I've got you, I want to see what you make of this. It's a bit of xeno music I received a few hours ago."
"I didn't see any ships."
"No, it came over the space-bridge. One of Straxus' lieutenants sends me any music they end up with, and in return gets to think he's part of the artistic community." Euphony had a web of contacts on both sides, and played them like he played his own keyboards. He tapped a few notes on the small keyboard set into his right arm, and a low, monotonous hum issued from the speakers on his arms.
Alkali listened to the droning noise for a minute, then realised what was bothering her about it. "This has words."
The collector smiled smugly and waited. Alkali hazarded, "This is a dirge?"
Given Euphony's sense of humour, she knew she was wrong as soon as she asked. "Oh, stop thinking like a Cybertronian," he teased. "No, the song is a protest. An expression of the artist's individuality."
"Ach, most art is."
"No, no, that's what she's singing about. The lyrics speak about how she's an individual and wants to live her own life, without this person from her past returning to control her."
Alkali made a face. "She has to use words for that?"
Euphony shrugged. "You heard how limited the music was. The idea can't be expressed through the music itself, so lyrics are put in to compensate."
"Is it all like that?"
"From that world? Of course not, but it all sounds the same after a while. They have such a limited hearing range, so all their music falls in that span." Euphony's hand went to the keyboard on his left side. "I've also acquired a selection of Thahiri hymns, the latest from Jazz, the sound of a phythas tree burning, a recent speech by Megatron, the dying scream of a ..."
"I've only got four days in the city, Euphony."
"Churl. I'll make a music-lover of you yet," said Euphony, but he smiled before he turned away. "Flux is hosting a bash next month, and I know you'll make time for him. I'll beam you the details when I get them," he called over his shoulder.
Alkali chuckled a bit as she resumed her truck-mode. Euphony could be an over-enthusiastic nuisance, but he was still a good contact. Besides, now he owed her a favour for use of her voice.
Her primary dealer lacked most of what she wanted, and Alkali left rather disappointed. When she returned to where she left her trailer, her radiation sensors flickered slightly.
Mid-transform, her sensors flashed a warning before her systems went offline.
The Sapphire City was the second-largest of the Decepticon metropoli, surpassed only by Polyhex. Either were good places to get lost in, though Polyhex held the Darkmount which held the spacebridge which attached to Earth, and Earth held ...
Steelcast glowered at her energon cube. She had come to the Sapphire City to not think about just who was on Earth. She would clear her mind and then think about them - not before. This was too large a decision to rush into without considering every angle. That, and she had been herself for too long to give that up easily.
She preferred her cities on a smaller scale, if only because it was easier to find a bar. A large city had too much choice, if such a thing was possible. Steelcast had decided to go for a place that combined proximity to the refinery and general seediness. Clean, respectable oil houses felt wrong. If she couldn't write her name in the dirt on the wall, the bar wasn't right for her. Currently, she was sitting at a small table at the back of a tavern. She had already scratched "For a good time, tell Auger he's a useless lump" and his radio frequency in the grime, and she was now nursing an energon cube.
Work was easy to find. It wasn't that she had such an amazing reputation that people fell over themselves to have her on their projects. She couldn't even pick out some piece of architecture or invention or process and say, "Hey, I did that." Prefab design wasn't something that impressed anyone. Still, people were always dying, or being drafted, or both, and needing to be replaced, and she had a wide skill set and six million years of experience. Steelcast could join almost any kind of project with no warning and minimal instruction.
Another thing that worked in her favour was that she wasn't picky. Her current assignment was nothing more glamorous than slag-hauling. Most techs wouldn't touch such a job, seeing it as below them. To Steelcast, work was work, and personal honour could go hang. She preferred designing prefab pieces and structures, but she would put up with grunt work. She didn't lose anything by doing it and it kept her busy. Besides, she never stayed in one place for long, so it wasn't like she would be working below her potential for the rest of her life.
That, and she liked working in refineries. It probably had to do with her alt-mode, but Steelcast enjoyed temperatures that others considered oppressively hot and she liked the smell of molten metal. Other Transformers found it a bit morbid, but to Steelcast it was comforting and familiar, a smell of creation rather than destruction. Sometimes she would scoop up a handful from the smelter just to feel it run through her fingers.
She kept with those thoughts. Mindless busywork was good for clearing the mind and volcanic conditions were comfortable for a being who once repaired a crack at the bottom of Straxus' smelting pool without the thing being drained first. Granted, she had to have some pretty serious repairs after that one, but she couldn't name anyone else who could have pulled a stunt like that and lived ...
Steelcast watched the last of the energon drain from the cube, retracted her siphon back into her side, and watched the cube dissipate. She was deciding whether or not she wanted another one when a large fist crashed down on her table. Steelcast glanced up without interest. "Hi, Turbine. I can't think of a single thing I've done that could have got you mad."
Turbine was the kind of generally unpleasant, by-the-books supervisor type that Steelcast didn't like but would generally let alone. More importantly, he was her current boss. For once she hadn't stolen anything or otherwise caused a fuss. She had spent her time in his section hauling slag and keeping out of the way, so she was rather confused.
Her supervisor glared down at her. "I found your military service record. The lack of it, anyway."
Oh. That was it. "You ever been anywhere near a battle?"
"At least I went through basic," Turbine retorted.
"Then you've seen my civilian service record, too. That's why I'm a better tech than you - I don't waste my time picking up skills I know I'll never use."
Steelcast knew she was being goaded and didn't like it. As well, it seemed out of character for Turbine to resort to insults and put himself at risk. While it was true she wanted to punch Turbine's face in now, well, she was trying to work on controlling her temper, so it wouldn't do to just attack him. She had no mouth, but she radiated the equivalent of a nasty smile. "They don't want me because I'm a great tech and more useful doing civilian duties. What's your excuse?"
She was trying to work on controlling her temper, but it didn't count if the other person threw the first punch. Turbine roared and attacked, throwing himself over the small table ... tried to. Steelcast brought her knee up, half-tearing the tabletop from the bolted-down stand, and caught Turbine in the neck with the edge.
Steelcast had no formal combat training. She enjoyed brawling and wasn't too bad at it, but that was mostly because she was rather bigger and much heavier than most techs, and she knew how to use that. She had once won a fight merely because she fell on her opponent.
She stepped out from behind the table and lifted Turbine by his neck. "If you wanted me out of your section, you could have just transferred me."
Turbine was looking past her. He wasn't cunning enough to be pulling any sort of trick, so Steelcast turned to see what he was looking at.
Something touched her back before she completed the move, and the world erupted in lights.
The return to consciousness was painful. Alkali's circuits tingled unpleasantly from the effects of a nullifier, and it felt as if she had been dropped on the floor from a height. Wherever she was, it had the feel of rust and corrosion, though the floor she could see was spotless. The walls had a type of low-level radiation seeping through them, but nothing she could determine as dangerous. The floor was gray-purple. She levered herself up on one arm and found the walls were gray-purple as well. A Decepticon building, or at least not an Autobot one. That was either mildly good or extremely bad. Given how she had arrived, she decided it was extremely bad. She stood up.
Her pick was gone, as was the cable that connected it to her body; only the connector on her gauntlet showed it had ever been there at all. There was an inhibitor field that jammed her access to packet pockets but didn't interfere with transformation, or at least with part of it - her trailer wasn't with her. She couldn't feel it, but she didn't think it had been destroyed. She would have felt it if it was. Just the inhibiting field blocking access, then. It was still unnerving being unable to feel most of her body.
Alkali was certain the room was a holding cell, despite its odd shape. It was domed, the top half of a sphere. The only real feature was a recharge port at about waist-height. She walked over and scanned it, just for something to do. It was an ordinary recharge port. She wouldn't be left to de-energize, at least.
There had to be a door, but she couldn't find it. Alkali spent the next while scanning the room with every sense at her disposal, and finding nothing she could use.
Almost an hour later, a circular port partway up the wall opened and Alkali got company. A large Decepticon that stank of smelt and furnaces fell out of the opening and landed with a crash.
By look, scent, and energy fields, the newcomer was a tech - now on her aft and swearing vehemently. There were vague similarities between them: both had hauler-alts, but where Alkali was the cab of a chemical transport, this one was a complete crucible-hauler. Both had short flanges on their helms, but where Alkali's helmet was designed in the traditional chemist style, the other's seemed to be merely the thing on her head to protect her cranial unit. She didn't smell like a chemist anyway.
The other glared at Alkali as she got up. "You bring me here?"
Standing, the other was about a metre taller and rather bulkier than Alkali. She wondered if she could take her in a fight if it came to that. "I'm trapped myself."
"Slot. I want to punch something and now it can't be you." She turned and punched the wall instead. The paint scuffed a bit, but the wall otherwise remained undamaged. She twisted at the waist to look back at Alkali - if she had only turned her head, the view would have been blocked by a sweep of her crucible. "How long you been here for?"
"About an hour." Then, because she might as well, she said, "I'm Alkali."
"Steelcast. How'd you get grabbed?"
Alkali shrugged. "I was on a supply run in Aradix when someone got me with a nullifier. I didn't get a look at him, but I did touch his field. He was tainted with the radiation of this building."
The other nodded. "A lump picked a fight with me in a bar in the Sapphire City, then someone tagged me in the back with a surger." Steelcast walked over to the wall, laid her palm on it, then started walking, tracing the wall with her fingers. "Hnh, so we were both in Sector Five. If we're still in Five, it means we've been grabbed by Eidolon."
Alkali made a face. "The Monitor?" In Alkali's book, Monitors were nothing better than a bunch of lazy, backstabbing wirepullers. "What makes you so sure?"
Steelcast kept up her walk along the perimeter, tapping her fingers against the wall. Alkali had done much the same thing when she had first arrived and almost stopped the other tech, but decided that maybe the hauler might catch something she had missed. "This place feels like a watchtower," said Steelcast.
"Yeah?" Alkali really didn't like the idea of being in a Monitor's watchtower.
"Yeah. My trinemate is one of the in-house techs at the Amnimount, and I've worked contracts at the Second and Eighth watchtowers. You get to recognise the charge in the fields - it's more like a personal aura than a building one."
Alkali didn't want to think about the fact that she was trapped in what was in essence a living building, so she focused on the first half of the sentence instead. She knew her interest in other people's groups bordered on obsessive, but she had her reasons. My trinemate, not, one of my trinemates. So, Steelcast implied she was one of two who had once been three. Two who weren't actually together but sounded like they were still on friendly terms. Alkali wasn't quite sure what to make of that yet, but she already didn't like it.
She became aware of Steelcast's attention and looked up. "Pardon?"
"Asked if you had any tools or weapons on you."
"Doesn't matter - there's an inhibitor field up that blocks packet access. I can feel that my weapons are gone, though I got my tools."
Steelcast stepped off the ground, hovering a few metres off the deck to continue her scans. Alkali watched for a while, then: "If we're caught by a Monitor like you think, you know she's watching us."
The hauler snorted and directed a rude gesture at the ceiling. The half-expected punishment failed to come, so Steelcast shrugged and turned back to the wall. "Proves nothing, I know. Any idea why you're here?"
Alkali frowned. "There's got to be a pattern. What do you do?"
"I've done almost everything at least once and I travel around as a work-for-hire. My primary's prefab design ... don't give me that emanation," Steelcast scolded as Alkali's radiations became haughty. "The stuff's useful and it can be good if done right, just nobody bothers doing it right except me. What are you - an architect afraid I'm going to take your job?"
Steelcast was annoyed rather than angry; she was probably used to being looked down on for her primary function. Alkali softened a little - she understood the attitude. "I'm a general tech. Right now I'm stationed in an outpost in Eight."
"General tech's not worth kidnapping," Steelcast snorted. "You've got 'chemist' written on you in three languages. What's your real function?"
"Chemical emotive sculptor." She said it like a dare.
Steelcast shrugged. "That's worth grabbing, though slagged if I know what someone wants with a mind-artist and a prefab designer. Our products are pretty well opposites."
"You've heard of my art?" asked Alkali with some surprise. Chemical emotive sculpting was a rare craft. "You don't smell like a chemist - you must have some artistic background. Why didn't you mention it?"
"You don't want to hear it. I'm a hobbyist."
"You're a poseur?"
"This from a specialised drink-doper," Steelcast snapped. "I dabble in my spare time and try to keep up on the trends and lingo. I do not pose."
The automatic response - "I am not a drink-doper!" - would be untrue, and if Steelcast was a poseur she'd probably have been killed long ago. "All right," said Alkali.
Steelcast grinned, in her way. "You got a cocktail with a title like 'Shuts The Slag Up About How Great He Is'?"
"I have nine flavours of humility."
"I'm commissioning you once we're out of here."
"Lumps and braggarts, the lot of 'em."
It was a truce. Alkali went back to the original topic: "So we're both experts in our fields, with a broad skill base besides, though our fields have nothing to do with one another."
Steelcast nodded. "Though really I'd like to know what was so important that we couldn't just be, y'know, hired."
"You've done work in watchtowers," said Alkali. "Maybe you're wanted for that."
"Why not the in-house techs, then? Why not any of a thousand techs who know more than me?" demanded the hauler. "And why chemical emotive sculpting? Turn down any commissions lately?"
"No. As far as I know, I haven't got any enemies." Alkali thought that over. "Well, no more than the usual Autobots, but I can't think of anyone who would benefit from my disappearance." No one who was in any place to have her kidnapped. "My boss thinks I'm on a supply run, and if one of the High Council said she wanted to borrow me, he hasn't got the rank to fight back," grumbled Alkali. "Anyone going to miss you, Steelcast?"
"Ha. I'm the nomadic independent contractor. I could be gone for years before anyone thinks to look for me."
"So nobody's looking for us." Alkali snorted. "This just keeps getting less cheery the more I think about it."
There was a pneumatic hiss and a section of the wall drew back. The one standing in the doorway nodded slightly. "I am Memory, assistant to the Monitor Eidolon. I will give you your instructions, and you will carry them out."
Another tech, Alkali decided. The general corrosive stink of the place clung to her strongly, and her personal energy fields were weaker than any Alkali had ever felt in a non-spook. She was much smaller than either chemist or designer; she didn't even reach Alkali's shoulder, and her build was oddly slender. Odd because her legs were treads, and treads were usually only worn by the heavy, rugged types. She was painted overall in rust and gold - colours whose meanings didn't match and thus grated against Alkali's artistic sensibilities. Thick scarlet cables that ended in datataps hung to Memory's waist and swayed slightly with her movements. There was no place that they could go with her transform, and it clicked into place - Memory's hideous form made no sense because she was an Actionmaster.
"Where's the in-house techs?" asked Steelcast.
"The Monitor keeps none," said Memory. "The day-to-day maintenance is performed by drones. For this task, sentient, creative workers are required. You will fulfill this role."
Steelcast folded her arms. "I think it's traditional to ask, 'and if we don't?'"
Alkali knew it was coming and braced herself, but it didn't help. The radiation in the walls suddenly surged forth. The attack went straight to her mind, freezing her processor with dread. The part of her mind that was chemical emotive sculptor knew that it was just radiation messing with her processor, forcing her neural net to mix memory and imagination into nightmares, but the rest of her curled up in a ball and whimpered.
The surge only lasted for a few seconds, but it took several minutes for the radiation to clear. Alkali eventually managed to speak again. "You stupid bootleg."
Steelcast sat up from where she had been lying on the floor. "If I'm going to let myself be threatened, the one doing the threatening had better be able to back it up."
"The threat is indeed real," said Memory. "Such is the power of the Monitor. Are you now sufficiently intimidated that I may tell you your tasks?"
She left a thread of her consciousness watching over Memory, then returned to her own body.
The Monitor Eidolon sat in her control centre. Like everything else about her and the Nyxmount, it was carefully designed to intimidate any who experienced it. The room was high and vaulted, not that the ceiling could be seen without switching to other senses. The metal was rough and unpolished, and upswept piers and loose cables gave the place a strangely organic feel. Shadows clung to every crevice. Eidolon's command chair was on a high dais, with steps so steep that she had to fly to reach her throne of blades. Monitor screens hung from the ceiling showing various scenes around the Fifth Sector. It was permeated with her aura. It was an adytum of nightmare.
With a silent command from its master, a screen lowered, showing another room. This one looked like a fairly ordinary work bay, except for the large cylinder in the centre that reached from floor to ceiling. Another thought, and her mind touched the cylinder and that which was inside.
Six minds roused in stasis-held bodies, resenting the intrusion of the Monitor. Their personal feelings were irrelevant.
She activated the control centre's comm unit. There was a suggestion of a sneer from one. "Find it yet, trinket?"
Their feelings were irrelevant, but it bothered Eidolon that they weren't afraid of her. Her radiations affected them, of course, but they didn't fear her. Of course, that was because they feared something else that blocked all lesser terrors from their minds, but Eidolon still didn't like it. Still, she was the one in control, and reminded them of that fact at any opportunity. "I will find it, even if I must vivisect you all to do so."
"Take us apart and it will cease to exist," said another, a voice of assumed sophistication.
"There is no sign of it when you are apart, yet the effect of your combined mode is documented," said Eidolon. "I have performed the most thorough scans on you that my technology can provide, with special attention to your links. I have searched your packet connections for those pieces that are not a physical part of you when you are separate. They are dead metal in the void."
"Not inactive, fool. Not in potentia, not in stasis, not deactivated or drained - dead." She hissed in annoyance. "Where does it go? None of you have such weapons as your combined form does. Even taking all you are and all in your packets, such weapons cannot be built."
"We're the ultimate gestalt - the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts!" sang another, an unsophisticated singsong screech.
Erudite accent forgotten in annoyance: "Shut up, Wildfly."
"It's not part of us," wailed one, a perpetual whine. "Don't you think we've tried to find it? We'd help you if we could ..."
"No we wouldn't," boomed the fifth.
"Yes we would! I would!" Wildfly chimed.
"Know not, you, the forces with which you tamper," the last warned. "He is not of us. Controlled, he cannot be."
"Slog, as an artist you are brilliant, but as a Decepticon you are a disgrace," said Eidolon. "Sleep again. I have no more need of you at present."
Memory had led them to a proper repair bay, though the door was locked from the outside and didn't even have an inside control. The Actionmaster had sketched out the basic requirements, then left to let the techs figure out how to make the ideas reality. Alkali asked that she get her trailer back, but Memory said she would need to consult the Monitor. She had also left behind a disc with the more detailed requirements, which Alkali was reading off the table's computer with an ever-increasing feeling of disbelief.
"Ach, listen to this: 'Shackles strong enough to hold a gestalt warrior, made of dead material,'" Alkali read, propped up on her elbows as she sat at the table.
Steelcast glanced back from where she was rummaging through a supply cabinet. "What the blazes does that mean? Can we use energy bonds?"
"Nope. Has to be physical, has to be dead."
Steelcast snorted. "Metal's metal. It's not alive unless we put life into it."
"Maybe she means inert."
"What, like solid xenon or something? How cold would it have to be for that?"
"Colder than feasible," said Alkali. "Maybe we could freeze ordinary metal, bringing the molecular motion down ... no. Frozen matter is just matter waiting to be thawed. It's not dead, it's in stasis."
"Make 'em out of dead body-shells?" Steelcast suggested.
"Would that kind of metal be strong enough to hold a gestalt?"
Steelcast shut the cupboard and wandered back. "Maybe. We'll get back to it. What else she want?"
"Defences against a corrosive aura and energy draining."
The designer slumped into a chair. "Tell me this thing has appendices that tell us what the slag we're up against."
Alkali skipped a bit. "Whatever the plan is, it looks like it's centred around gestalts. Hnh. I've worked with them before, but not often. Can't stand them. Too blasted perfect."
"Ha. 'S what you think," rumbled the designer. "How are you on their internal mechanics?"
"I know what chemistry goes on inside them and I've done research on emotional overflow theory. Other than that, just the basic idea. You?"
Steelcast spread her hands. "My practical experience is ... well, let's say I've done a crash course on the psychology recently. After that, only what any tech knows."
"Ugh. I wouldn't be able to stand being in a gestalt," said Alkali. "I don't need anyone in my head and they all blend together after a while. They stop being able to experience new things, so they go stagnant."
Steelcast laughed. Alkali decided she didn't care what the joke was and returned her attention to the computer screen. The chemist tapped a few buttons, skimming the information. "Looks like Eidolon's supplied us with her research. That's good. Now we got a neutral's chance in the smelting pools to figure out what she wants ... Oh, Spires. It's Monstructor."
"Ach - anyone would think you're the kept tech and I'm the traveller!"
"So I avoid the war. Just tell me about him."
"All right, all right," said Alkali. "He's one of the few true six-binders. He's a rogue - he doesn't show up often, but when he does, he kills everyone on the battlefield, including Decepticons. No one's really sure who his components are because if someone's close enough to see him combine, they're dead. Of course there've been a few survivors, but since they're generally mind-shattered babbling messes, that doesn't help much."
"Oh, goody. And Eidolon's trying to catch him."
"Sounds like it ... oh, Spires."
Steelcast moved to look over her shoulder. "What is it?"
"There's a detailed study of a combiner's mergetech and energy fields," said Alkali. "She's already caught him, she's just keeping him in his component members."
To be continued ...
On to But Fear Itself - Chapter Two
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