Slog had told the technicians nothing that he hadn't told her, which meant either that it was all he knew or that he was well aware that Eidolon would be watching. Still, it had been worth a try.
With the sculptor back in stasis, Eidolon could return her attention to her research. There had been ... something. Some kind of signal had been generated when Eidolon had merged the minds of the Pretender Monsters. A slight ripple in their sparks that reached out and was answered. Was the power in their sparks? But, no, their sparks remained separate throughout the whole experiment. Even then, only the fear manifested. Monstructor's powers were greater than that ...
She became aware of Memory, that bit of rust and brightness, as she usually did. Memory always waited as if she had been waiting for hours, though the scanner logs showed that Eidolon had noticed her within seconds of her arrival. "Well?"
"They want a basic field generator of at least beta-six quality, two hundred units each of anti-corrosives C2 through L17, sigma-band radiation shielding, and a matter compressor. They also want a list of mystic sigils to ward off death and decay, as well as all the information you have on sympathetic magic," said Memory wearily. "Their requests for supplies grow increasingly illogical. You know my limitations, Monitor. I cannot keep pace with Transformers."
"Do not attempt to understand their requests. Accept them and bring them to me." It was the main drawback of her assistant, as well as the reason for her resilience. Memory was not a Transformer, but a Deceptitraan computer who had become self-aware. The living computer had overpowered and replaced its handler and took her place. Eidolon quickly discovered the switch, but chose to keep the rogue. If nothing else, she had proved to be more ruthless and intelligent than the original Memory. However, a Deceptitraan was soulless. Memory was highly intelligent and could learn from experience, but she had no creativity whatsoever. She couldn't easily adapt to an unexpected situation, and people were nothing if not unpredictable. For those reasons, Memory craved a spark. "If I spark you, what hold do I have on you?"
On the other hand, without a spark or a jot of creativity, Memory was practically immune to Eidolon's aura. She couldn't feel deeply and her mind couldn't conjure horrors out of nothing, and so she had lasted for over two thousand years in close contact with the Monitor. Those few Transformers Eidolon kept on staff tended to break down after a few centuries.
"Your weapons would affect me," said Memory, though another might have said 'gratitude'. Memory thought lying was a waste of time, or it was just another example of her lack of creativity. "You would have the same holds on me you have on all of your people."
Eidolon scowled. "You have lasted this long under my command because you are sparkless. The rest are used up so quickly."
"I know this. I still want a spark."
"Where will I find another to replace you once you become a mind-shattered husk?"
Memory's mouth turned up, though the expression lacked both warmth and humour. "Ask your M-series Deceptitraans if any wish to become your assistant."
The speaker came to life again: "Technicians, prepare. I have sent one of the Pretender Monsters to you for repairs."
Alkali hoped it was Slog. She wanted to talk to him again, and if Eidolon had hurt him, it was going to make taking revenge that much more enjoyable. However, Eidolon sent the one that stank of rust instead. As it turned out, it was because he stank of rust.
Steelcast looked down at the warrior and folded her arms, unimpressed. "If you cleaned yourself once in a while, you wouldn't have this problem."
"Eat slag and die, bootleg," Bristleback instructed. "It's a condition, not hygiene."
He had the worst case of rust rash that Alkali had ever seen off an empty. This looked like one of a half-dozen strains. "Which condition?"
"No fragging clue," he growled. "The others ain't got it, so it ain't contagious."
Alkali cut out a tiny bit of the warrior's armour with a laser scalpel, then put the sample in her mouth. After a minute, she spat it out again. "Whoever built you did it cheap," she said. "You're built out of the normal alloys of your time, but completely untreated against any type of rust or corrosives."
Steelcast had produced a scanner from somewhere, and glanced up from it. "Ugh, your internals have the same problem, just that since they're not exposed, they don't develop the same problems."
"You don't need repairs," said Alkali, "you need to stick your processor in a new body."
"Dumb glitch - you think I ain't tried? He won't let me."
"What? Not even an exact duplicate?" asked Alkali.
"Is everyone on Cybertron this stupid?" Bristleback yelled. "Like we've been telling Lord Spiky upstairs, whatever we got can't be duplicated."
There was a loud clang as a crowbar struck the table. "You wanna get patched or do you want your vocaliser melted?" asked Steelcast.
Bristleback snarled at her. "You wanna shut up and do your job?"
"I'm an independent contractor. Means I'm generally my own boss." Steelcast readied the crowbar again. "Means I got a lot of leeway on what my job is."
"Bring it, trinket."
Steelcast swung at him, but Bristleback caught the crowbar and yanked. This had the desired effect of pulling Steelcast off balance, but had the undesired effect of her falling on him. Between her size and the materials she was made from, she probably weighed four times what he did. She drew back a fist to flatten his face, but Bristleback turned out to be stronger than he looked, and threw her off.
The designer regained her feet quickly and the two combatants threw themselves at each other again. They never made it - Eidolon had been watching.
Once the radiation died down and they were again in control of themselves, they got up without a word. Bristleback sullenly settled into a chair and the techs got their cleaning supplies.
Scraping a patch of rust off the warrior's arm, Alkali said, "You don't have an internal repair system, do you?"
"Nah. Like you said - I was built cheap," said Bristleback. "And, no, I can't get one installed. He won't let us."
"Seems to let you use your Shell," said Steelcast.
"We already had the Shells when he showed up. I guess that makes 'em acceptable to him." Bristleback slouched lower in his sulk. "I need my Shell, but the wirepuller upstairs don't want us in 'em. I hate the thing, but it keeps me repaired."
After he had been cleaned and repaired, Bristleback left, escorted by the guardian drones. "Steelcast?" said Alkali.
"You are the worst fighter I've ever seen."
Steelcast chuckled. "You don't get out enough, then."
"Why do you keep challenging people?" Alkali demanded. "How often are you actually right when you call someone out?"
"I've got about an eighty-five percent success rate on telling when people are bluffing," said Steelcast.
"And then you beat them up."
Steelcast looked embarrassed. "Actually, my success rate in winning fights is more like forty percent ..."
Alkali stared at her in disbelief. "How are you not dead?"
"'Cause the kinds of slabs I tend to take on are the 'I will leave you alive so that you may live in your disgrace' kind," the designer explained. "Except I don't hang any personal honour on fighting and just because someone can beat me in a brawl doesn't make me scared of 'em. I like to think they get a little voice in their head saying, 'What if the next one who calls slag on me is actually a good fighter?' afterwards."
"You're an idiot."
"I've got an irrational hatred for braggarts and I have been trying to work on controlling my temper. Besides, Bristleback was practically begging for it." Steelcast looked down at herself. "Rivets. The lousy runt left dents."
Alkali snorted. "Ach, you got them, you beat them out yourself."
Eventually, her clever little techs ran out of ideas, but not before they had come up with some reasonably impressive defences.
This was a much larger room, big enough for an average gestalt warrior to stand comfortably, deep underground. It was likely too large, really - if the size of the Pretender Monsters and the dead combiner connectors in the packets were any indication, Monstructor would be small for a gestalt. In the walls were hundreds of sensors, designed to scan deeply and instantly transmit the information to a safe place even deeper in the Nyxmount. There were the shackles made of an alloy of compressed body-shells of dead Transformers. Their strength was incredible. Eidolon was certain they would hold, if nothing else worked. The technicians weren't so sure about the anti-corrosives they'd sprayed around the place or the shielding that would hopefully stop an energy drain.
Eidolon wasn't in the room, of course - only the Pretender Monsters were. Eidolon, Memory, and the two technicians were in an observatory two levels higher. There were no guardian drones - they would have made the observatory rather crowded - but Eidolon wanted the technicians there. If they tried anything, her own radiations and the security system would suffice.
Eidolon tapped a button. "Prepare to merge."
"Always does our Other hunger," Slog hissed. "You, then, will feed him."
"Disobey and be struck down where you stand."
The warriors glanced at each other, as if seriously considering that prospect. After a moment, Slog slumped and Wildfly grinned up at the nearest camera. Eidolon double-checked the board, then nodded. "Now."
Eidolon watched the merge through every sense and scanner at her disposal, paying extra attention to the gestalt connections, and she found something that had been missing. The parts didn't merely come together, but shifted internally in ways she had never suspected and seemed to serve no practical purpose. There was a pattern to it, something she had seen once but couldn't quite remember now. She would cross-reference it with Wardword's research later. Now her spark was filling with terror, pushing everything else aside. There was no defence against a fear that struck at the soul.
There was a universe of difference between the mind-only merge and the true gestalt. Eidolon had thought she had known the fear of Monstructor before, and had congratulated herself for weathering the assault so well. It hadn't prepared her for the full force of the combiner's aura. Her own aura of dread increased with her own fear, but did nothing to counteract Monstructor's power.
Large work drones slapped the restraints on Monstructor as the merge completed. The technicians hadn't taken any chances that might have added life to the chains.
For a long moment, Monstructor stood still, looking down at a spot on the floor. Energies poured from the mismatched form on too many wavelengths to immediately sort. His pose had the appearance of gathering his power, though from where, Eidolon wasn't sure. There was no life within his range, just the two drones ...
The chains and their moorings held. The technicians had done well. Unfortunately, the metal of the floor and walls grew brittle and tore. The drones moved to restrain the combiner, but were swept away with a swing of a chain.
The watchtower itself - Eidolon cursed herself for overlooking the possibility. It was almost a living thing; time had made it practically an extension of her own body. Monstructor's power could affect it as it could a Transformer.
Monstructor idly tore open one of the work drones and crushed the other. Eidolon was dimly aware that Memory and the technicians had bolted, but they weren't important, not now.
Terror had shut down her mind; Eidolon worked as if in a trance, reverting to her basic programming. She kept the scanners trained on the gestalt, determined to draw all the information she could from him. Even when he lifted off the floor and began to tear into the ceiling, she didn't think to move.
The floor ruptured and she fell, recovering from her numbness in time to land instead of crash. However, she was knocked off her feet when the deck shook with the force of Monstructor's own landing. She was inside the room of sensors, inside the fields and carefully-crafted defences, at the full mercy of Monstructor's power. Nanites died by the millions on her outer armour and she increased power to her internal repair systems to replace them. It might take longer for his life-draining aura to penetrate if it had to cut through nanites first.
She looked up at the gestalt, chains still trailing from his wrists and ankles, and realised she had made a terrible mistake.
"Set me free," he said, and this time the voice wasn't just in her head. It was as hollow and booming as a great bell stuck underwater, cold and dead as the space between stars.
"Unbind!" Eidolon shouted. "As your superior officer, I command you to return to your component parts!"
Monstructor laughed. Eidolon unsheathed datatap spines from her gauntlets. "No gestalt warrior has ever been a match for a Monitor," she reminded him, struggling to her feet. "I will force your unbinding."
The gestalt reached death-gray hands towards her. "Come for me, then."
Now that she was standing, Eidolon realised that Monstructor wasn't actually much larger than she was. Still, despite her form, Eidolon was no warrior. Terror and a desperate urge for survival lent her strength. If she could penetrate his armour, if her datataps could reach his systems, she could disrupt the combinertech and cause the gestalt to fall apart. She flung herself at him with a screech, aiming for his neck. The armour was thinner there and the control systems close to the surface ...
Faster than a gestalt should move, he made to grab her wrist. Her arm hit his palm and she screamed as pain burned through her. Eidolon flung herself from the gestalt before he could close his hand around her. Where her plating had touched his, it was corroded. Not rusted - corroded, as if those parts of her had lain in a sewer for the last two million years. She hadn't anticipated his powers of decay to act so quickly.
She landed in a pile on the deck. The armour of her right arm flaked and crumbled as she moved, and her hand was nearly useless. The internal systems of her arm were undamaged at least. She had moved fast enough for that.
He held out his hand again. "Come, little Monitor. Touch your mind to mine."
"I can't. You destroyed my datataps." Even as she said it, Eidolon cursed herself for sounding so weak.
"You have others. Use them. Set me free."
They stopped running after a minute because the watchtower lurched and shuddered, throwing them off-balance. Steelcast put Memory down, and the computer technician glared. "I am immune to Monstructor's fear. Eidolon will need me."
"We need you more," said Alkali. "Where did she put their Pretender Shells?"
Memory frowned. "What good will they do? The Pretender Monsters are in gestalt-mode now - they can't control their Shells remotely while engaged."
"We'll rig up some kind of control ourselves, then," said Steelcast, transforming. "Get going."
Alkali transformed to her truck-mode as well, while Memory flew in the lead. "Are there any real guards in this place?" asked the chemist.
"Some," said Memory.
"After we find the Shells, go point them at Monstructor ... no, he'll just drain them," Alkali corrected. "Tell them to stay away."
"Think he's draining the building's power?" asked Steelcast. "The way he ripped through the walls, a watchtower might be alive enough for him to use."
"Oh, Spires, probably."
A few levels down, Memory stopped in front of a heavy door and keyed in the code. "They're here, for all the good they'll do."
All six were there, though Alkali only knew Slog's and Scowl's. Bristleback was probably the one with the spines, and certainly Wildfly and Birdbrain would be the winged ones, but which Shell was the bird? Which meant Icepick was the rocky-looking one ...
She'd figure it out later. "We'll wake them up," she told Memory. "Go black out the watchtower."
"The other Monitors will know that the watchtower is unguarded if I do that!" Memory protested.
"If the computer's off, they can't get in," said Steelcast. "Get going."
Memory fled. Alkali and Steelcast set about deactivating the stasis. A few minutes of work, and power returned to the Shells. They were ready to go, except that they were mindless.
"Good, good," burbled a voice, surprising both technicians.
Now that they were under their masters' control, she could tell which Shell belonged to whom. Alkali stared at Slog's rubbery red Shell. "You can control your Shells even while merged?"
"Not part of him, us, and distracted is he," said Slog's Shell. The voice was identifiable as his, but thicker and wet.
Drawn by their masters, the six Shells took off at a run, which was little more than a jog to Alkali and Steelcast. Both transformed to follow anyway. Alkali caught up to the sculptor. "What's the rush? Let him kill Eidolon."
"No interest has he in her death," rumbled the sculptor. "Feel his mind, us. For now he plays. Wishes he to possess her."
"He's not us. He's something separate," Icepick added, his Shell the rocky, blue on bronze claw-creature. "If he downloads himself into Eidolon, he can use her Monitor abilities. He'll be able to permeate the Sector - Cybertron, given time - with his energy field."
"He'll conquer the planet," said Alkali.
Bristleback snorted. "'Conquer', nothing. Dumb ornament - you think he just wants to take over?"
"Cares he not for conquest. Lives he only to destroy. His aura kills - remember, Alkali."
"If he becomes Cybertron, all life on Cybertron dies," Birdbrain finished.
"Pretty neat, eh?" asked Wildfly. "C'mon, let's go help him. He's actually got a good shot at it this time!"
Bristleback bit the gargoyle on the wing. "Stop being so stupid! You'll die too, moron!"
Wildfly danced away. "It's all for a good cause - the death of everything!"
"Time for this we lack!" shouted Slog.
"We'll take him," Alkali offered. "Go!"
The rest of the Pretender Monsters continued on their way. Wildfly obligingly waited, inspecting his talons. "I'm only lettin' this happen 'cause they can't stop him and there ain't no way you techies can beat me."
"Enh, we're techs. We like to test things." Steelcast's engine revved once, then several tonnes of crucible-hauler smashed into the Shell. She scooted backwards, turned, and tore off down a hall.
Alkali raced after her. "You trying to get killed?"
"Can't die now. I'm not drunk and he's too small. C'mon - at least we can lead him away from the others."
"That's all you can do, anyway." Alkali transformed, turning and drawing a vial from her packet pocket as she did. She threw it, and it shattered against the Shell's nose. She returned to truck-mode and took off after Steelcast again.
"What'd you hit him with?"
"Distilled essence of Icepick's fear during the mind-merge. If nothing else, it'll confuse him, if it works on remote-controlled Pretender Shells at all."
"You don't know if it'll work?"
"I've never had a chance to play with Shells before. When I made it, I expected we'd have to fight past ordinary guards!"
Their progress was hampered by the fact that while they knew where they wanted to be, they didn't know the layout of the watchtower. They solved this problem by simply tearing through a few walls, and soon the five Shells were peeking through one of the holes torn by Monstructor.
Eidolon was crouched back against a wall, while Monstructor stood over her. Birdbrain glanced over at Slog. "Why is he just standing there?"
Slog's Shell frowned in concentration, then chuckled. "Corrosion-field ever-present. Cannot take without contact, cannot contact without damage."
"He's just going to put up with a damaged vessel in a minute," Scowl pointed out. "We need to attack now."
"We're gonna hurt in the morning," grumbled Bristleback.
"You never liked your body anyway," said Birdbrain.
"Aim for the joints," said Icepick. "Maybe removing his limbs will force the unbinding."
Birdbrain stared at him. "Are you insane? Remove a component from a gestalt while bound? You'll destroy the component's mind, whether we're in there or not."
"We'll try it with his left arm, just to see," Scowl suggested.
With varying war-cries, the five Shells attacked. Any organised battle plans were forgotten. They didn't often fight as a unit and it showed.
They didn't hold back because they didn't need to. Monstructor wanted to live, so the Pretender Monsters had a deep, subconscious compulsion not to kill each other. They could wound, but not kill. But Monstructor took a lot of power to remain active. With luck, if they wore Monstructor down enough, he would collapse into his component parts.
There was a change in the charge of the air, and an eruption of lightning struck Monstructor in the chest. Birdbrain whirled. "Eidolon! Get out of here! You're what he's after!"
"I will not abandon my watchtower!"
Her own fear was overpowering her radiations. She wasn't thinking rationally. Birdbrain leapt, hitting the much larger Decepticon in the chest and bringing her to the floor. Eidolon grabbed him by the synth-feather ruff of his neck and tossed him away. He bounced once before regaining his feet and realising that killing her would have the same effect as getting her out of Monstructor's range.
He pounced again, talons ready, and got a beakful of lightning. Eidolon attacked without grace or skill, but with her power, she didn't seem to need it.
Without warning, the lights went out. Birdbrain screeched in frustration; he was so heavily visual-oriented that the sudden darkness rendered him all but useless.
When the lights went out, Alkali cursed. The only light came from Steelcast, and that was just her four small running lights. Which wouldn't have been so bad if power still flowed through the walls.
"My night-vision is lousy and with the power off, I can't sense the walls," groaned Alkali. "Tell me you have headlights."
"I don't. I can brighten these things, though." Good as her word, Steelcast did, but it didn't do more than show where she was.
"Red running lights. What good's that in a refinery?"
"Oh, like I designed my own body. I got enough light for me. Just keep close without riding my bumper."
It was easier to follow Steelcast's personal energy field than her lights. It was a bother to try to follow the designer's trail exactly, but it beat the chance of running into walls at high speed.
She still almost smacked into the hauler when Steelcast screeched to a stop. "Oh, rust."
Steelcast radiated frustration. "Hit a dead-end instead of more corridor. We got time to turn around and find another hall?"
Alkali transformed. "Doubt it."
At least there was a bit of light in the area, coming from a set of six fat pipes running along one wall. It wasn't much, but at least Alkali could make out shadows.
Steelcast transformed, drew her crowbar, and looked up at the pipes. "Coolant lines?"
"Worth a try?"
"Might buy us a minute or two." Steelcast wedged her crowbar behind the conduit and pulled. It bent, but didn't rupture. "Little help?"
Wildfly bounded around a corner, laughing. "No time," Alkali hissed.
Alkali grabbed one of the outstretched paws - whose talons shredded her hand in the process - and swung the Shell at the bent conduit. Now it smashed, drenching Wildfly in coolant.
To their surprise, the Shell shuddered and seized up. Steelcast prodded his foot with her crowbar. "Hnh. About time we got a break."
< You're scrap when I get up! > Wildfly shrieked into their radios.
"'S got a point," said Steelcast. "I mean, he's puny, but he's still a Pretender. Think we should kill him while he's down?"
Alkali considered that. "I don't think you can kill someone by destroying his Shell. Let's just chop his limbs off and see what happens."
In the back of Icepick's mind, he knew that they needed to have more training exercises together. As a unit, they were dreadful. Of course, the more time that was spent together just gave Monstructor more chances to manifest ...
The gestalt's left arm suddenly went limp. For an instant, Monstructor looked almost startled, then he collapsed into his six components, the connectors vanishing. The Pretender Shells all stopped where they stood as the sudden unbinding snapped them all back into their minds. Five got to their feet; Wildfly lay on the floor, moaning.
Scowl wiggled out of the now too-large shackle and kicked his gestaltmate in the side. Wildfly just groaned. "Slagging techie glitches fragged my Shell ..."
"Serves you freening right," grumbled Bristleback, then brought his foot down on Wildfly's arm, cracking the armour and damaging the machinery inside. "We should just kill you, you slagger! It'd solve all our problems."
"You try it! He won't let you!" Wildfly hissed.
Bristleback moved to stomp on Wildfly's face, but at the last second crushed his shoulder instead. Wildfly laughed at him. In response, Bristleback merely limped over to his Shell and phased into it.
The others had regained their Shells already. Slog waddled over, then casually stabbed his claw into Wildfly's left wing, pinning him to the floor. "Kill you, no, but punish, oh yes."
"Dump him in a smelter!"
"Drop him down a crevasse!"
"I think, Scowl, allowed that would not be," said Slog regretfully.
Scowl's jagged mouth approximated a smirk. "Let your chemist friend play with him?"
"Oh, hey, you lot took him down."
Icepick looked over to find Steelcast peering around the ruins of the door, or such as she could in truck-mode. "Not us. Destroying Wildfly's Shell caused him so much pain that the bindings snapped."
"We shoulda done that in the first place," Bristleback snorted, then took a bite out of Wildfly's leg.
"We can't hurt each other severely enough," Birdbrain reminded him.
Steelcast rolled in. Icepick was mildly surprised that Alkali was perched on the back of the hauler, behind the crucible, though she didn't look badly damaged enough to need a ride. When Steelcast stopped, Alkali carefully stepped down to allow her to transform. Once she finished, Steelcast reached back to take the chemist's undamaged arm, and Icepick realised Alkali couldn't see in the dark.
Alkali activated her radio. "You can restore power, Memory."
The lights came back on and Steelcast let Alkali go. Alkali gave a long, unreadable look at Slog, who still had Wildfly pinned to the floor, then returned her attention to the room at large. "We kept tellin' you tool-jockeys that he couldn't be contained, but no, you all knew best," grumbled Bristleback.
"Give it a rest," snapped Steelcast.
Eidolon stood, keeping her back to the wall. Murder could be easily read in her optics, but even she realised that she was in no position to mete out her vengeance. Eidolon may have been in her watchtower, but here, now, in this smashed room with seven upset Decepticons - five of them Pretenders - she was sorely outmatched.
Slog finally withdrew his talon from Wildfly and ambled over to the Monitor. "And you, Eidolon. Do what with you, us?"
Memory stepped in - Icepick hadn't noticed her arrival. "If you kill her, it will just cause a turf war in the High Council, and I have no desire to be caught in the middle. Except for this incident, she has been an efficient and accomplished Monitor."
"She has no second?" asked Birdbrain.
"If anyone, that would be me," said Memory. "I am unfit for the position. Whoever the Council sends to replace her may be worse than she was. At least she knows the danger you pose."
Slog nodded, then looked up at Eidolon. "Warn your Monitor-kin. If come we, cast us out."
Eidolon didn't reply, merely stalked to the door. "Lord Councillor?" asked Alkali.
"Oh, just gather your things and leave. Memory will show you out," snarled Eidolon. "I have no more use for any of you."
The call came through the wires, bypassing minor firewalls and tapping directly into the comm system. There were no voices here, but memory supplied the oily whisper: < Eidolon. >
As soon as she had realised the power had been shut off, Eidolon knew the other Monitors would come looking. She had wondered which would contact her first. < Vapourblade. >
< Having problems, Eidolon? >
< Minor difficulties only, and those are past. > With that, she slammed down her defences. She had no interest in the games of her kin, not right now.
She settled back in her throne, inspecting the damages she hadn't bothered having fixed yet. The armour wasn't corroded, not in the usual way. Instead, it was as if it had simply began to fall apart at the molecular level, as if Monstructor's touch was entropy, not decay ...
Eidolon's optics brightened in a frown. Entropy.
She returned her attention to Wardword's archive of mystic sigils, watching as pictures flickered across the screen. The gestalt bindings of the Pretender Monsters had rearranged themselves in Monstructor's body into a pattern she was certain she had seen before ...
... There ...
Eidolon settled back in her throne without taking her gaze from the screen. Her clever little technicians had the creativity to look for warding sigils against death and decay, but it hadn't occurred to any of them to look into other types of symbols.
The pattern was a Devourist binding sigil, but her files told her little more than that. Eidolon hissed quietly to herself and decided the Fifth Sector was about to become very dangerous for cultists again.
By the request of his gestaltmates, Wildfly was left unrepaired. Once his Shell knit itself back together and he merged with it he would be fixed, but not before then. Eidolon locked herself in her control room and refused to come out, so Steelcast and Alkali found they only needed to do repairs on each other.
To Steelcast's amusement, Alkali decided that since Eidolon had interrupted her supply run, she would restock from the Nyxmount's storerooms. Steelcast would have done the same thing if she had the carrying capacity and if Eidolon had anything she really wanted. In the end, Steelcast pocketed a class-two laser drill and a full set of phase detectors, just because she felt she should have something to show for her time.
The pieces of Wildfly's broken Shell were dumped into a small trailer, which they hooked up to Alkali's main trailer. Wildfly made to climb on top, but Slog pushed him off and took the spot himself.
Relaxed and happy, wearing his Shell, he looked like a fat, smug, alien idol. Steelcast reminded herself that this was arguably the greatest artist on Cybertron and bit back a snigger. Instead she double-checked the trailer's latches. "Where are you lot heading after this?"
Slog waved a claw vaguely. "Lives lived separately. Very rarely come together, we, but when we must ... we must." He blinked up at Steelcast, eyelids adding one more aspect of strangeness to his Shell. "Ride, I, with Alkali - between here and Betacron lies her outpost; that far with her go I. Hopefully, too, will a deep hole be found to drop Wildfly's Shell in."
The sculptor bounced maliciously, jostling the Shell inside the trailer and causing Wildfly to whimper. Bristleback snorted at him. "Suck it up, trinket."
Icepick hopped up on the trailer to sit beside Slog, which seemed to be the signal for Alkali to start driving. Steelcast shifted to her vehicle-mode and followed. "I might as well tag along as well. Got no other contracts right now."
"As well, no doubt will Wildfly follow us," said Slog.
"We could kill him for you," offered Alkali.
"If you tried, we'd have to stop you," said Icepick. He tapped his midsection with a rough claw. "Same compulsion that doesn't let us kill each other. No, we have to split up, far enough away that we can't help each other, and hope that one of us is killed."
"Want to die do none of us," Slog added sadly. "Not compulsion, just desire to live. Fight for life though we know he will again rise."
They drove in silence for a few minutes, then Alkali asked, "Am I out of your debt now, Slog?"
Slog chuckled. "Aided us, yes, but work was done by us mostly."
"We got your combined form to unbind!"
"Done it eventually, we would have. Besides, saved your life, I, and here were we in no danger."
"What if I got you a copy of all Eidolon's research on you?"
That caught his attention. "Have you that, you do?"
"I might," said Alkali, "if you'll call us even."
Memory walked into the control room and looked up. Eidolon was still slouched in her throne, brooding. She hadn't yet bothered with repairs and was still covered in corrosion.
"I spoke for you," said Memory.
"You live because of my words."
"Does that not say that you are more valuable to me soulless and sane, able to speak such words?" Eidolon shifted slightly in her seat, looking at her ruined arm. "Prepare the main laboratory. I would like to examine my damages in more detail before I have them repaired."
Memory nodded and left. She had been certain that would be the answer, but it was habit to try.
The trailer with Wildfly's Shell had been duly dumped down a crevasse near the Five-Eight Sector border. Slog and Icepick had parted from them when they reached the edge of the ruined city that Middle watched over. As luck would have it, there was a minor skirmish within the hour of their arrival at the base, and Alkali and Steelcast found themselves spending the rest of the day fixing jets.
Eventually the last warrior had been put back together and shooed out of the repair bay. Steelcast put her tools away, glanced around with some satisfaction, then nodded. "Right. There's got to be a bar around here. C'mon, I'll buy you a drink."
Alkali stayed where she was seated, toying with a spanner. "I'd better not."
"What? Can't hold your high-grade?"
"No, it's ..." The chemist sighed. "We've been through too much and I like you too much. I don't want to risk it."
"Oh, for ... I'm offering to pay for a couple rounds of fuel, not asking you to be my bondmate!" Steelcast shouted.
"I know that!" Alkali shouted back. "I'm not telling you to get lost, just that I need some distance."
"'Distance'?" Steelcast snorted. "Ha. I probably deserve that. I gave the same line to some techs a few months ago." She thought that over. "'Course, if I was with them, I wouldn't have been a target for Eidolon."
Alkali's visor flashed a blink. "You did what?"
The designer shrugged. "Got an offer from a group to join 'em. I said I needed to think it over alone."
"So you're not really attached to your trinemate? You're just separate - not a broken unit?"
"Nah, me and Tackle will never get back together. We just use the old term out of affection."
If there was no group, there was no temptation to try to fill in the missing piece. And since they kept misunderstanding each other and getting mad, they couldn't be that close ... Alkali stayed seated anyway. "I'll take you up on the offer next time you're in the area. I'm just too wound up right now."
To Alkali's relief, Steelcast accepted that. "Fine. I'll catch you later." She chuckled. "Just don't move for the next few decades."
As Steelcast touched the door panel, Alkali said, "Wait."
"Try Aradix. It's not real big, but it's mostly refineries."
The designer looked down her lack of nose. "You, 'Li, are typecasting me."
"Ach, when I first met you, you stank of slag!"
"Never said you weren't right."
Alkali lives in Lunatron's head, but sometimes she goes visiting. The Canthrethan Aishea is Skyblaze's. I finally snuck it in. - Wayward
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