She wasn't much for art. Eidolon studied it in a detached way, interested in the way it evoked emotion but utterly bored by art for the sake of art. She liked practical applications. Chemical emotive sculpting she liked, and there were some artists who were doing interesting things with certain bands of radiation, but generally she only paid minimal attention to it. She did own one sculpture though, and it sat on a low pedestal in its own storeroom.
As a class, Monitors were realists, having no interest in anything that had to be taken on faith. The former lord of the Nyxmount was a bit unusual in that he had an interest in the supernatural. However, Wardword had researched the occult with every bit of scientific apparatus at his disposal. The Fifth Sector had been a dangerous place to be for anyone who claimed paranormal abilities. Everyone had heard stories of cultists sacrificing people to dark gods. In the Nyxmount, cultists were sacrificed to science. If it was unexplained, Wardword would dissect it.
As Wardword's pet scientist, Eidolon had assisted in most of his research, and had kept his records after she killed him. It wasn't her area of interest, but it made for fascinating reading. It was through Wardword's notes that she learned of Monstructor, a renegade Decepticon gestalt with powers that science couldn't explain. Most of the early records of him and his components had been systematically destroyed, as if someone tried to erase him from the public consciousness, but mysteries were even more intriguing. Eidolon managed to find which gestalt team formed him, then proceeded to scrounge every bit of information she could find on them. Most were nobodies, generic Decepticon cannon fodder that wouldn't get a second glance, but one turned out to be rather the celebrity.
Eidolon walked around the sculpture slowly. She had bought it at Slog's last exhibition, and while it was the dead body-shell of an Autobot, it wasn't rendered in Slog's usual style. He was best known for cyberbiotic deconstructionalism - known well enough that it was generally called 'slogism' - which involved ripping up a Transformer into an abstract, but this one hadn't been damaged at all. It was still a monument to the horrors of war, however - his pet subject.
Slog had tried to convince her to choose something more representational of his work, but Eidolon had eventually gotten her way. She had even managed not to laugh at the 'more representational of his work' line - she knew Slog hadn't killed this one at all. This was Monstructor's work.
As such, she had taken it back to the Nyxmount and performed every scan she could think of on it. They told her nothing more than what she already knew - the victim had died of fright.
With a thought, she tapped into the Nyxmount's systems, then sought out the work bay where she kept the Pretender Monsters. This time, she only activated one, tapping directly into his systems. "Wildfly."
Wildfly chuckled. < Finally got sick of the others, eh? >
"You seemed to be the one most inclined to assist me," said Eidolon.
< Oh, yeah. Power like him shouldn't be contained. 'S just not right. >
None of them ever said his name, Eidolon had noticed. Not even Wildfly. "Where does Monstructor's power come from?" she asked, and felt the warrior mentally cringe when she spoke the name.
< Dunno, Eidie. We weren't built with it. >
They hadn't been built with anything - the Pretender Monsters were a collected gestalt rather than a created one, compiled by Megadeath because he would rather have one large warrior than six half-size ones. Eidolon kept her irritation to herself. Wildfly was unintelligent and uncouth, but there was a better chance of getting information out of him than out of his comrades. It was true that Monitors could read minds, but only dead ones, and Eidolon needed the Pretender Monsters alive. "Where did it come from, then?"
< Dunno. Can't explain it, > said Wildfly. < 'Bout eight million years ago we were him one day and BAM! Next thing we know we're separate and have no idea where the last four days went. Then the next time we merged, he was there. Slaughtered every 'Bot on the field and most of the 'Cons, 'cept we freaked and unbound. >
"What was he before?"
< Typical gestalt. "Me smash Autobots!" an' all that. > There was a pause, almost thoughtful. < We don't touch in his mind any more. We can't. We never really merged, not completely - we were an experimental - but it's completely gone now. >
Eidolon's research told her Monstructor had been an experiment in partial-merging - traits taken from each component to create one unified mind rather than six voices fighting. It hadn't worked. "What happens to your minds when he is active?"
< Oh, we're all still aware, lookin' through his optics, feelin' him do stuff and not being able to control it at all. We can talk to each other and feel each other there. Usually Slog and Icepick and them are screamin' at each other, tryin' to get control and unbind him. >
< He's been gettin' stronger. There's less time between his manifestations, and it keeps gettin' harder and harder to unbind. >
"And you like that."
< I like that. I like livin' through him. Ain't no way I can cause that much destruction on my own. The others are all too scared to enjoy it. >
Eidolon nodded. "They do not like to think that such darkness lurks within themselves."
< Ha! I wish. No, they've been tellin' the truth - he's not us. He's something else from somewhere else. Slog could write a slotting sonnet cycle on him ... and I mean that literally. He's death, Eidie. >
When Eidolon didn't immediately respond, Wildfly filled the silence: < Eidie? You never said what you're going to do with him. >
"True." Eidolon cut the connection, putting the warrior back into stasis. All in good time. Monstructor was practically the living embodiment of terror. If Eidolon controlled the fear, she would never need to be afraid again.
The workshop door opened. Alkali glanced up, expecting Memory, and found half her senses struck by the gray bulk that was pushed into the room. "Oh, yes!"
She ran over to help pull it in, Steelcast following. "You got a trailer?"
"That's me." The chemist transformed to her truck-cab mode and felt the hitches settle into place. Alkali sighed; she was complete again. She pulled the trailer to a spot off to the side of the workshop, and with some reluctance, returned to her robot mode. After a moment, Alkali decided there was enough space and unfolded her trailer.
Steelcast laughed suddenly. "You turn into a bar? 'Li, I love you!"
"Ach! You should know better than that, dabbler!"
"And a chemical emotive sculptor should recognise exaggeration," Steelcast teased. "Got anything special in there?"
"No, but I've got my lab back, so I don't need to keep messing with the house equipment." Alkali stroked the top of her bar fondly, then, suddenly self-conscious, took her hand back. "I wonder if she's watching us."
The designer shrugged. "Probably not. She's got a whole Sector to look after." Then, louder: "Eidolon is a big, lazy slab who's too dumb to know what 'hire' means."
Alkali had time to flinch before the walls attacked.
"By Darkmount, you're stupid!" yelled Alkali when the radiation levels had died enough that she regained enough control to speak again. "You know backtalk is going to get you zapped."
"Look, I think we both know she's going to kill us anyway," Steelcast snapped. "If I'm going to die, I'm slagging well going to deserve it!"
"Ach, I know that, but maybe I want to spend my last days as pain-free as possible. It's an area effect - I get hit when you get punished. Besides, Eidolon's radiation might cause permanent damage. I'll need to study it more to be sure."
Steelcast got to her feet. "Fine. No more baiting the boss." She stalked over to a supply cupboard and started rooting through it.
Alkali picked herself up, sat at the worktable, and poked at her drafting datapad. "You bait a high-ranking Decepticon who holds your life in her hands. You could take a swim in a smelting pool. You get into brawls for fun. You admitted you were a hobbyist to an artist." Alkali shook her head. "I don't see how Eidolon's power can reach you."
Steelcast shrugged without looking back. "Everyone's scared of something."
"Yeah? It's obviously not a slow and painful death!"
"Like I'd tell you," said Steelcast, but without real malice.
"Keep your secrets. I just won't tell you mine," Alkali retorted. Not that Alkali had any intention of admitting her own fears, but Steelcast was drawing boundaries, and Alkali appreciated that. It meant that the designer still thought they had a chance of making it out of this alive. If Steelcast expected to die, she would be more open because nothing she said could matter, or at least she seemed to be that type. Instead she remained optimistic, and it gave Alkali hope.
The door opened again, this time framing Memory, but the Actionmaster didn't step into the workshop. Two large figures hung behind her in the shadows of the corridor. "If you two are done bickering, the Monitor asks your attendance."
The technicians shrugged and followed her, each to their own thoughts. Steelcast trailed one hand along the wall, but Alkali found their escorts more interesting than the building. The two hulking robots with Memory weren't warriors, but guardian drones. Alkali was somewhat annoyed that she didn't rate real warriors. Still, even one guardian drone would be a difficult fight. And then, even if they defeated the drones, they were still in a watchtower. Now was not a good time to try to escape.
Alkali expected to be taken up to the command centre, but Memory and the drones led them down three levels to a laboratory instead. Memory opened the door, ushering the technicians in while leaving the drones in the hall.
The aura of terror and stench of corrosion grew stronger, and Alkali finally saw her captor.
Eidolon was tall. While Monitors as a class tended to be tall, Eidolon was taller still. She was a blade-tank - a type of heavily-armoured combat vehicle that tended to be on the front lines, scything through ground-based troops. Two large blades swept off her back like wings, two more adorned her thighs. A spike folded back into her chest. Two bent panels of her tank's armour added another pair of wings on her lower back. Her lower legs and upper arms were treads, adding even more bulk. Even her helm was sharp; four blades framed her masked face. She was three shades of gray, all dead, causing her sigil to stand out in sharp relief on her chest, and her optics burned like an energon furnace. Her energy fields shone brightly, almost rudely, overpowering the ambient fields of the watchtower. Her body gave off a low-level radiation designed to cause fear in any who experienced it - that was what permeated the watchtower and had been concentrated into punishments. It was easily the most pretentious body Alkali had ever seen.
Alkali drew a bit closer to Steelcast, as if out of fear, but it was only to gain field-contact. She's overcompensating, Alkali sent, and felt the other's answering amusement. Then: "You summoned us, Lord Councillor?" she asked before Steelcast could say something they would both regret. If nothing else, Alkali knew how to play up a boss.
"I did," said Eidolon. "I have brought you here so that you may see what you are up against."
Memory had gone to a console. She tapped a button, and the large cylinder in the centre of the room retracted into the floor. Six Decepticons hung there in a circle, facing out; suspended by their wrists, secured by their ankles, with inhibitor claws dug into their chests. Various wires and cables trailed into their bodies, while arachnid medicroids perched in the tangle of machinery above. One Decepticon on the side away from Alkali spat a couple swear words at Eidolon, but for the most part they hung quietly, radiating hostility.
Alkali gasped, not in horror but in recognition of one of the warriors. Anyone who knew anything about art knew him, and she felt Steelcast stiffen beside her as the identification set in. He looked like nothing special: like his fellows, he was a small, blocky, generic-looking thing with no easily identifiable alt-mode. This one was shorter and broader than the others; the same mass in a stockier body. His colours had been gold and bronze once, but now they were faded and muddy - colours that spoke of modesty and resignation. He looked like any throwaway warrior, but Alkali knew those heavy hands were more delicate than an engineer's and the mind behind the yellow visor was one of the most creative on the planet. This was Slog, one of the greatest artists ever produced by Cybertron.
"These are the Pretender Monsters," said Eidolon, breaking the chemist's train of thought. "Alkali, you will observe."
"What should I look for?"
"Observe as you are trained to observe. I shall be too occupied to do so."
Watch like a chemical emotive sculptor, then. Observe everyone's feelings like she was going to try to duplicate them later. Maybe that was what Eidolon wanted her to do. It was one thing to record reactions, but it took years of training to be able to take apart the information and distil the conditions in a bottle.
"What are you doing?" Steelcast asked Eidolon.
"At this time, it would be dangerous to let them assume their combined form," said Eidolon. "I wish to see what happens if only their minds are merged. Memory - activate the machine."
"Do not. You know not ..." Slog began, but the words were lost in his scream of protest.
Terror flooded the room like a thick liquid, pouring from the six combiners and drowning the observers. It wasn't chemicals or radiation or energy - just fear.
"We are ... I am ... I am Monstructor."
Without a combined body, all six of the warriors spoke as one, but Alkali was certain she heard a seventh voice layered in - a hollow whisper that couldn't be heard, only remembered after the fact.
Eidolon had told her to observe, so she would observe. The Monitor stood tall before the gestalt warriors and her voice didn't waver, but her energy fields showed she felt the same fear that Alkali did. Memory stood by the controls, and if she felt anything, none of it showed in any way. Steelcast seemed frozen; with nothing to focus on, the irrational terror gripped her the worst. Of the combiners, Alkali could see only three of their faces - Slog, the scarlet and teal one on his left, and the winged one on his right. There was no change in the glow of their optics, but Alkali knew that they could no longer see - something else was using their sight. Slog's fields showed defiance, the scarlet and teal one radiated terror, but the winged one's face was a mask of ecstasy. With effort, she pulled herself from her spot to see the faces of the others.
Most of her sensors were focused on the Pretender Monsters, but not her hearing. Alkali could still easily listen to Eidolon and the voice of the combiners: "Set me free."
"No. You will be my weapon."
"I will be your weapon. I will give you power undreamed of. Set me free."
"How do I duplicate your powers?"
"Impossible, but no need. Set me free. I will be your weapon."
"Where do you go when they unbind?"
"Nowhere. Set me free."
Her strongest energy sensors were in her hands and antennae. Alkali reached out to the closest warrior - Scowl, the only other one she could name because he was also active in the artistic community - and froze as the full force of the terror aura gripped her. The energy field of the Pretender Monsters reacted as if it was a living thing, digging intangible claws into her own aura and trying to rip it from her body ...
Large hands caught Alkali by her waist and hauled her away from the warriors. "Now who's the stupid bootleg?" Steelcast hissed. "Gonna let a bunch of runts spook you?"
Anger shoved the fear aside. Alkali elbowed the designer away and returned to her scans, though she made sure to keep her distance. She also set one array to focus on Eidolon. If the Monitor noticed the little scene with Steelcast, she gave no indication. She wasn't kidding when she said she'd be too occupied to do anything else ...
"What are you?"
"I will be your weapon. Set me free."
"This is futile," snapped Eidolon, her bravado beginning to crack. "Memory, cut the link."
"Set me -"
Memory turned off the machine and the six Decepticons sagged in their bonds; most from relief, all from mental exhaustion. Steelcast staggered, but held her feet, and even Eidolon relaxed slightly. She turned to Alkali. "Briefly - your observations."
"Steelcast was terrified, as were five of the warriors. One was enjoying it. The others were fighting to various degrees. Memory was unaffected." She left out Eidolon's reaction on purpose - Eidolon certainly knew her own mind and wouldn't appreciate being publicly told she was afraid.
Eidolon nodded. "Compile a detailed report. Memory, escort the technicians back to their bay."
Neither had spoken since they left the laboratory. Steelcast had activated the computer, though she wasn't really concentrating on reading - she kept calling up the notes on combinertech and getting annoyed at herself for doing so. Alkali was at the other end of the table, plugged into a portable recorder, likely compiling the report Eidolon wanted, though it didn't seem like it was going quickly.
Before Steelcast could speak just to break the silence, Alkali said, "Nice trick, getting me to stop panicking."
Alkali wasn't angry. Good. Steelcast chuckled. "Hey, if there's one thing I can do, it's get people mad at me."
"Some special ability." Alkali fiddled with the recorder for a moment, then, "I might be able to make a weapon to get us out of here."
Eidolon might be watching, though more likely she was correlating the data she pulled from the Pretender Monsters' mind-merge. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. If I could get something really nasty together, the next time Eidolon calls us up, I can dose her and maybe we can get out before she rallies."
"That'd work if we could get out of the Sector before she recovers."
Steelcast shook her head. "Got anything strong in your trailer?"
The chemist waved a finger at her. "Hey, not on shift."
"Meant it for you, anyway - you got the worst of the spook-field and you're still dizzy from it. 'Course, if you don't mind sharing ..."
"You mooch like an empty." But she got up and went to her trailer anyway.
Alkali seemed to relax a bit as she put the drinks together, not that Steelcast let her attention drift from the process. Liking a fellow tech and trusting a drink mixed by a chemical emotive sculptor were two entirely different things.
After a few minutes of work, Alkali pushed a small cube at Steelcast and assumed the pose of a bored, late-shift bartender. Steelcast took the cube, but didn't drink it. "If this has never been your primary, I've just lost a bet with myself."
"I ran an oil house on the outskirts of Betacron for a couple centuries, during one of the lulls." Alkali took a sip of her cube. "Bartending was never my primary, just a useful skill and a way to fill time."
As well as a way to gather materials and test new chemicals, Steelcast knew. The cube might still be poisoned with something Alkali was immune to, but paranoia wasn't one of Steelcast's strong points. She risked the drink, jabbing her siphon into it. After a sample of the mixture, Steelcast decided that even if Alkali was trying to kill her, it would be an excellent way to go. It wasn't doped to be calming or enjoyable, it was just a first-class drink. Steelcast tapped the cube lightly. "You're good."
"Thanks." Alkali took another sip from hers, then, "How long you been solo?"
"Most of my life. I've gotten used to it." Steelcast shrugged. "I like that I can find my trinemate if I need him, but generally I don't need him."
"You like being a lone tech?"
Steelcast couldn't tell what emotion was behind the statement, so she took the statement by itself. "I'm usually working with a group, but I haven't had one to call my own since our first died."
Alkali nodded, her expression neutral. She changed the subject: "Think we've got any chance of getting out of this?"
"Ha. Of course. I don't plan on getting killed by some dumb administrator, even if she is covered in spikes."
"Oh, right. Got it all planned out, eh?"
"Yep." Steelcast picked up her now-empty cube and gestured with it. "If I'm going to die, it's going to be because I was drunk out of my mind and picked a fight with an elite warrior three times my size."
Memory returned to find Eidolon perched in a chair, silently regarding the Pretender Monsters, who sullenly regarded her back. Eidolon didn't bother looking over. "We are finished for today. Put them back in stasis."
The Actionmaster walked over to the controls and reactivated the stasis without so much as a glance at the prisoners. The cylinder rose to the ceiling again, and she turned to the Monitor for further orders.
Eidolon waved her over. "You felt nothing?" she asked. "Could you hear the seventh voice? What did you see in the optics of the Pretender Monsters?"
Memory nodded curtly. "I felt nothing. There were only six voices. Their optics seemed unfocused, seeing nothing, but nothing stranger than that."
Eidolon's optics darkened. "Excellent. That means his power touches the soul itself. There can be no defence against it."
"Unless you are as I am."
"Remember his other weapons, Memory. If I can harness the powers of Monstructor, this world will be mine. Compile the data from this experiment. Send a copy to my computers and one to the technicians."
Inwardly, Memory shrugged. Everyone seemed to want to rule the world, but she would bet none of them would have any idea what to do with it if they had it. She left to attend her tasks.
She had to admit it - she had needed that drink. Calmed and recharged, Alkali could focus on her report, recalling her impressions clearly without the leftover fear muddling things up. Steelcast was alternating her attention between the research on the computer and the drafting datapad, but she didn't seem to be using the drafting pad for anything more than rough sketches.
The door opened, admitting Memory. The Actionmaster crossed the room and set a datadisc on the table. "The basic information gathered from today's experiment," she explained. "Are you finished with your report, Alkali?"
"Ach, take off. The Monitor wanted me to put it together my way. You can't rush the artistic process."
Memory accepted the explanation without fuss. "Are there any further supplies you require?"
The watchtower was well-stocked with ordinary materials, but this was an unusual assignment that took unusual materials. "Yeah," said Steelcast. "We want fifty kilos each of ruthenium and cobalt, and two tonnes of iridium - pure iridium. And bring us some dead people. Nice, clean, recent kills, too."
Memory gave her a blank look. "What?"
"We want body-shells," Alkali repeated, leaning back in her chair to poke the Actionmaster in the chest. "Free of rust or corrosion. Ones with heavy armour. Tank-formers would be good."
"I will consult with the Monitor."
Eidolon didn't laugh often. She laughed when Memory gave her the equipment request list.
"Perhaps other technicians should have been found," said Memory. "Solo ones of their skill-level are difficult to find, true, but it might be worth it to find ones with more practical ideas."
Eidolon chuckled. "No, this is good. I wished for creative technicians, and I have them."
They had been given a challenge, no instruction how to solve the problem, and any supplies they asked for. Eidolon was a boss who knew what she wanted, understood tech-talk, and was actively helpful. If they weren't so certain Eidolon would kill them as soon as she was finished with them, it could have been a dream assignment.
Eidolon was very good at getting them the materials or information they requested. Twice she demanded explanations for items, and both times the item in question had been added to the list as a test to see if Eidolon would bring them something that didn't actually have any bearing on the project. Alkali and Steelcast didn't risk testing her again, and stuck with only requesting things they thought they needed. These things included various materials and chemicals, as well as a few esoteric essays on mythology and information on some of the more unusual tenets of the martial art Circuit-Su.
Body-shells were easy enough to come by; there was always fighting going on. Guided by Memory, two large loader drones dropped off three dead warriors - two Autobots and a Decepticon. Steelcast wondered briefly if she was supposed to feel bad about it, and decided it didn't matter. He might have been a Decepticon, but he wasn't using his shell for anything any more. He would be recycled, albeit in an unconventional way. Memory and the loader drones left, leaving Steelcast and Alkali to inspect their new acquisitions.
Steelcast poked the Decepticon shell with her crowbar. "You've got better sensors than me, 'Li. You ever detect anyone in this place other than everyone we've seen?"
Alkali prodded at a laser burn on an Autobot's carapace. "Just a few flickers, but I'm not surprised. The whole place smells like Eidolon. That could be drowning everything else out. Or they've got really good shielding. You'd need it here. Eidolon's radiation permeates everything, and long-term exposure would have nasty effects."
"How long's 'long term'?"
"Ach, years. We don't need to worry about it."
"Unless Eidolon decides to keep us. Ha, maybe she's just lonely - all we've seen aside from Eidolon and Memory are drones. Monitors need subordinates. The watchtowers don't take care of themselves and even a Monitor needs to rest every so often," Steelcast said. "I know Memory said that drones do the basic maintenance, but even then they need to be told what to do. There's no warriors around, either. Every Monitor I've met has at least one bodyguard."
"Pft. Some Decepticons have no self-respect. Hand me the crowbar."
Steelcast passed it to her. "It breaks pattern is all. Memory can't be the entire staff."
Alkali wedged the end of the crowbar in the shell's armour seam, and in a couple minutes levered its chestplate open. "There's something weird about Memory."
"Her fields are wrong," said Alkali. "I touched her to make sure, but I can't detect a spark."
The designer took her crowbar back. "Maybe she's just really damped. Y'know, to keep Eidolon's radiations out."
She had called the pieces of Monstructor in packetspace dead metal in the void. Monitors could tap into computer systems, but not into living minds. However, they could tap into dead minds.
There didn't seem to be a central processing relay in any of the Pretender Monsters, which raised the chances of it being in Monstructor's head. She couldn't draw information from any of the warriors because she needed them alive, but the Monstructor parts were dead.
Eidolon tapped a spot on the corridor wall that looked like every other spot, and a section of the wall withdrew. It opened into a small room, dark as the rest of the watchtower. In the centre was a pedestal a little lower than the height of a table, shaped like a cut-off cone so that the base was wider than the top. Two manipulator arms and a sensor cluster hung from the ceiling by it. On the floor, halfway between the doorway and the pedestal, was a silver panel, large enough to comfortably stand on.
She stepped on the panel. Seven cables dropped from the shadows of the ceiling; three attached to each arm, while the last plugged into the back of her neck. Eidolon turned her attention to the pedestal. At her command, a faint shimmer appeared in the air above it. Eidolon flexed her hands - now the manipulator arms and sensor cluster came to life, following her movements. Eidolon deactivated her optics and reached into the space between space.
The device had been created long ago, when Wardword was still the Monitor. He had wanted a device to see into what he called the 'Underspace', but it hadn't quite worked that way. Eidolon had kept the machine, abandoning its first purpose and attempting to adapt it to be able to steal items out of others' packet pockets, but Eidolon had never quite managed to get that part to work correctly. She could see - once she had caught the bright flash of a teleporter's jump - and knew that it wasn't wise to stay long. She could touch things in the spaces between, even if she couldn't remove them.
And whatever computer Eidolon could touch, she could tap into.
She had found the gestalt parts of Monstructor soon after she had captured the Pretender Monsters, analysing their packet folding energy signatures and tracing them to the point where they all crossed. Not that the manipulator arms could travel - rather, space moved around them. She followed the trail she had travelled a dozen times now, and found the head of the beast. The finger of one manipulator arm unsheathed a datatap needle, and stabbed into a connector cable trailing from Monstructor's neck.
With all the stories the Pretender Monsters had tried to fill her head with, Eidolon was rather expecting to encounter soul-choking horror when she tapped into Monstructor's processor. She was almost disappointed that it didn't happen. It was like touching any other dead mind. It was just a computer.
Delicately, she probed at the inert processor, searching for memories. She found the correct relay and sent a tendril of current along it, trying to access the gestalt's most recent memories. She saw ...
... She saw Cybertron, bright orange metal fading to blue as the war took its toll on the planetary power supplies. She saw a city in ruins, marked with the signs of battle. She saw heavy, gray hands swing loosely at the edge of vision as the body walked. She saw the scene shake suddenly, as if the body was struck in the back. She saw the world tilt as the body fell, and then she saw nothing.
In a type of cold fury, Eidolon probed deeper. There were more up-to-date records, but they were only tracks of the internal relays - the Pretender Monsters shrieking across the wires that bound them together, terrified of what was happening but utterly bewildered as to why it was happening.
But the central processor hadn't been used in nearly eight million years. The most recent memory in the gestalt's mind was the attack before he changed.
Automatically, Alkali looked up when Eidolon's voice came through the speaker. She couldn't figure out just where the speaker was, which annoyed her, so she simply chose a random point to look at and waited.
"I have downloaded new information to the workshop's computer," Eidolon continued. "See if it is of practical use."
On impulse, Alkali said, "Lord Eidolon?"
"I may be able to get more information from the Pretender Monsters. Allow me to speak with Slog."
"He will tell you what he will not tell me?"
The chemist braced herself for punishment, but the radiation levels didn't change. "You know I'm an artist of some merit, Lord Councillor," said Alkali. "He may talk to me."
There was a pause, then: "Very well. Should you think to help him escape, recall that you would need to be out of the Sector before I could not reach you, and recall that hunters are easily bought."
"I plan no trickery, Lord Councillor."
"I will send him to you."
Alkali settled back in her chair to wait. She had known Slog was a Pretender. She had even known he was part of a gestalt, and it occurred to her that while she had seen a couple of his gestaltmates, she had never seen all of them together or known the name of their combined form. Slog never spoke of it, and, well, she wasn't anyone who could question Slog.
Slog arrived, accompanied by two guardian drones. Once the sculptor was inside the workshop, the drones withdrew and the door shut. Slog ambled over - there really wasn't a better word for it - and looked up at her. His height always threw Alkali off - the top of Slog's head barely reached her waist. The greatest sculptor on Cybertron really should have been taller. "Assumption - for me you asked?"
Eidolon would be listening. "I've always admired your work, Master Slog," Alkali gushed. "Back when I was a novice, I used to fantasize about teaming up with you, adding the chemical element to your visuals. Now that I'm more experienced, I know that it would just detract from us both." Alkali leaned down, touched Slog's hand, and hoped the Monitor would only see it as a gesture of hero-worship. She used the field-contact to send: Where are your Shells?
It was practically impossible to lie in field-contact, and Slog understood her intentions instantly. Those she hid; our connection severed. Not destroyed - we would know, Slog replied. If connection be regained, then freedom can be won. Freedom is imperative - misunderstood, she. Agreeing with her was our Other. Her weapon will set him free. He took back his hand, but not before sending a radiation of amusement at the prattling for Eidolon's benefit. "Pleasing, always, to meet a fan. Sole reason, though, this cannot be."
It was play-acting on both sides - Alkali and Slog knew each other, but no need for Eidolon to know. To be honest, Alkali owed the sculptor a favour; Slog had pulled her out of a tight spot once. It didn't look like she could pay him back any time soon. She nodded and returned to business. "How were you caught?"
Slog hopped up onto the table to sit, and nearly doubled his height. "In Betacron were we. Hoped, I, it was deserted - hope dashed, an old friend so nearly killed." He shook his head. "Called us, Eidolon did, and we came. Expected no treachery; captured easily, us."
"What happened to the archive records about your group?"
"Destroyed. By us, mostly - to remain unknown, our hope, to avoid study. For higher clearance, destruction was bought." He chuckled. "Always can find an art-lover or one who desires a commission, I. Worked, though, it did not. Always is one who must pry."
"But maybe we can help you. Eidolon wants us to design a defence against Mons -"
Slog's foot lashed out and kicked Alkali in the thigh. "Say not the name. Perhaps superstitious, yes, but perhaps saying his name may from whatever void draw his attention."
"Eidolon wants us to design a defence against him first," said Steelcast as Alkali bent down to check her leg. Slog had left a dent. "She wants you lot to merge so she can study him properly."
Slog shook his head. "She, then, will die. As well yourselves," he added regretfully.
"Ach, help us out then," said Alkali. "Eidolon's research is sketchy. What can we do to contain him?"
"From merging keep us."
"She's proven she can force it."
"Truth unfortunate," said Slog sadly, reaching out to stroke Alkali's hand. Other way: if dead one of us, manifest he cannot.
I can't kill you, Slog. To destroy an artist of his skill would be like tearing out her own spark.
No, cannot, you. Also, willingly I would not go.
To be continued ...
On to But Fear Itself - Chapter Three
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