Darkstar regained consciousness, but didn't open her eyes yet. Activate them. Whatever. She'd been knocked out on the battlefield. As usual. One of the guys must have carried her back, because she could feel ...
Instinctively, Darkstar sat up and struck out with her arm. There was a metallic crash and whoever was trying to remove her arm-gun was knocked away. She was still outside, and someone was trying to steal bits of her. In fact, there were two thieves, and their size lent Darkstar bravery - neither would have come much higher than her knees if she was standing.
She stood, then grabbed the mostly black one with a fan on his back and shook him. "You little rats! You knew I wasn't dead -"
The tiny black robot twisted in her hands, kicked her in the chest, then became a helicopter and hovered at a safe distance. The other - who looked a bit like a miniature version of Smashup in green, though he had a face - kicked her in the ankle. It hurt more than it should have. "You were down, trinket. Makes you fair game."
He was still tiny and Darkstar was still angry. She kicked at him, but he stepped out of the way. "You couldn't use my parts for anything anyway, you runts."
"Lotta Seekers out there, trinket. Lotta dumb Seekers needing repairs."
"You've got some nerve calling me that. I could turn you into a bracelet charm." Bravado in the face of tiny thieves was still carrying her, but a quiet feeling of wrong started to creep in. Such as, Why doesn't he go tell me to pick on someone my own size? I could step on him! Does he really think he could take me on and win?
And, Oh crap, could he?
"Darkstar! Stop messing around and come on!"
Clunker. Darkstar could have kissed him for giving her an option to retreat. She ran over to him. "What's up?"
She should have realised. Even though Clunker didn't have much of a face, she'd been living with him long enough to see emotions in his body-language and knew it was bad news. "Stopgap's been killed," he said. "We're taking his shell back to the barracks."
They started walking. "You're lucky you're stupid enough to be entertaining," said Clunker. "Bombshock was waiting for the other two to show up, then they were going to tear you apart. He'd have just shot you otherwise."
It seemed like the wrong thing to talk about just after finding out one of their teammates was dead, but maybe it was normal for Decepticons. "But they're so small ..."
Clunker shook his head. "Just assume that anyone shorter than this," he said, holding his hand at about Darkstar's waist height, "is an angry little buzzsaw just looking for an excuse to tear your limbs off. Same goes for Autobots. Sometimes they're normal, but you can't take the chance."
Darkstar glanced back to where they left Bombshock and the helicopter. There were two others there. "Who are they?"
"Micromasters, one of the military patrols. The helicopter's Tracer, the other two are Dropshot and Growl. Tell me you didn't make any short jokes."
The Micromasters didn't seem interested in following them. Darkstar looked back to Clunker. "I, um, called Bombshock a runt. And threatened to make jewellery out of him."
Clunker sighed. "Next time, just paint yourself silver and yell that Megatron is a wimp, why don't you?"
"They won't try to get back at me, will they?"
"I doubt it. Bombshock's used to the abuse and probably figures you won't last long anyway. You're just lucky you didn't try that with Dropshot." Then, after a few minutes, unnecessarily, "Here's the others."
They carried the corpse back to the barracks and laid it on the table. He still had all his colours. Sometimes Transformers went gray when they died, sometimes they didn't. Darkstar couldn't figure out why and decided it didn't matter.
The others regarded their dead teammate silently. Darkstar fidgeted. "Um. Do we bury him now?"
"Waste of material, Darkstar," said Discard. He pulled his toolbox out from the cabinet in his berth, and handed it to Smashup.
Darkstar opened her mouth to protest that this was wrong, that Stopgap was one of them, that they should treat his body with more respect, but shut it. If they didn't dismantle him for parts, someone else would. It was better this way.
Smashup got to pick first, but all he did was use a small laser to remove a chunk of Stopgap's chest that had a large rust-patch on it. She also realised that she was the only one watching; Discard and Clunker had carefully averted their gazes. After that, Smashup left.
Discard went next, opening up the corpse and removing various cables and bits that, come to think of it, he would probably end up using to patch himself sometime. Recycling, thought Darkstar, and giggled nervously. Clunker took a few small parts, as well as the head-circuits Darkstar took from her victims and an odd cylinder from his chest.
Darkstar took Stopgap's gun. It was bigger than the small pistol she had been carrying, so she assumed it was more powerful. And he claimed to be a sharpshooter, so he probably took good care of it. It probably wasn't too great given that the others weren't interested in it, but she felt she should take something to remember him by.
They were done. Discard closed up the corpse and looked over at Clunker. "You want to take him down to the techs, or should I? You know what they're going to say ..."
"I'll do it," said Darkstar. They always teased her when she brought them stuff, anyway. And she knew that Discard took pride in his strange little team and didn't like to hear anything bad about them, useless as they were. Besides, Darkstar wanted to know what they would say. Nobody ever told her anything.
And it was a test. She managed to carry the body of her teammate down to the repair bay without feeling too horrified. That was bad - she was getting too used to being a Decepticon warrior. She was at the point where she could just let it happen, forget about ever having been anyone but Darkstar: No-Hoper. It wasn't like she could ever go back anyway ...
Darkstar shook her head. She had to get back to Earth while she was still human.
She reached the repair bay and managed to hit the button to open the door with the corner of her wing. A couple of the medics looked over and chuckled. Darkstar knew it was directed at her - by now, the repair staff all knew about her arrangement with Steelcast and seemed to find it funny that a warrior was 'working' for a medic. Especially since Steelcast seemed to be the only medic who never went out and fought Autobots. Darkstar ignored the other two and went to find Steelcast.
The medic was easy to find - sort of hidden back in a corner, but making a lot of noise. Darkstar watched as she took a dented sheet of metal out of a frame, put a new one in, and hit it with a sledgehammer. Then Steelcast glared at the dent she made. Darkstar coughed.
Steelcast looked up and managed to make a face despite having no mouth. "Ugh, put the 'crody on the table. I'm going to have to chop out these rust-spots before we can melt down his armour ..."
So the techs were going to complain about his rust. Darkstar couldn't understand why this was nearly as horrible as everyone made it out to be. Rust was a hygiene thing. Stopgap was just a guy who didn't bathe often.
No, that wasn't right, Darkstar thought, remembering how much time he spent polishing himself and how disgusted everyone was by him. Stopgap was more like a guy who cuts himself and shows off the scars.
Darkstar looked up. Steelcast tossed a can at her, which she managed to catch. "Looks like ordinary oxidation on him," said the medic, nodding to the corpse, "but you and whoever else handled him might want to give yourselves a good scrubbing anyway, just in case."
"Um. Thank you."
"One more thing, Jet - I'm leaving in a few days," said Steelcast. "Just so you know you don't have to keep bringing stuff down to me."
"Where are you headed?"
Steelcast shrugged. "East. Krystagon. Some friends of mine got some time off and want to show me around the site of the old capital."
"Oh." So much for the hope that Steelcast was heading west towards Jekka. Darkstar retreated. Out in the hall, she looked at the can. There was a chemical formula written on it above the words, 'To Kill Rust Spores'. Which didn't help. Rust spores? I may have gotten a 'D' in Chemistry, but rust isn't caused by spores. She kept the can anyway, tucking it into her 'pocket'.
On impulse, Darkstar decided to go back out to the last battlefield instead of directly back to the room. She wasn't surprised to find the familiar orange figure out there, arm-panel open, purposefully dripping on the ground. "Are we going to do anything special for Stopgap?" she asked.
"Not really," said Clunker. "If there were catacombs under the city, we could put him there, but the nearest ones are in the capital."
"You've never had to do this before?" asked Darkstar, surprised.
"Not in Porphuras and not for this unit. I joined up here not long before you did." Clunker closed up his arm-panel and looked around. "Maybe we could just pry up one of the ground panels and stuff his remains underneath."
They tried. The ground panels wouldn't budge. "Could we melt the pieces?" she asked.
"Easily. Seems a bit dull, though."
"If we dripped energon on it first ..." Darkstar suggested.
Clunker laughed. "We'd get an explosion. But it should damage the pieces beyond recognition and sounds fun. We'll do that."
Because Darkstar thought it felt right and because Clunker liked rituals, they went back to the spot where Stopgap died. Clunker put the various pieces he had taken on the ground, and Darkstar opened one of her fuel lines over them. Bleeding on purpose made her nervous, but she felt she should contribute, and she didn't know how drained Clunker was already. Then they stepped back to a safe distance.
"Should we say something about him?" Darkstar asked.
"Probably," said Clunker. Then, "Stopgap was a pretty good shot, but he should have remembered that some Autobots can fly." With that, he snapped off a shot at the energon-covered pieces.
After Clunker's stories of the ghost-like Monitors who waited for unwary Internet surfers and then shredded their brains from the inside, it was a while before Darkstar could bring herself to use the computer again. Even if they weren't evil supernatural forces, they still might find the things Darkstar asked suspect. She decided to take the risk - one of them picking her out of the whole Cybertronian Internet was a one in a billion chance. Besides, there were things she needed and people always looked over her shoulder when she used the public computers.
She plugged in. Why can't I fly even though I've got the programming for it? Answer on-screen.
The screen typed: Insufficient data to answer query.
I've got the programming. I want to fly. I've tried. I've thrown myself off buildings and jumped and thought about it and not thought about it and I know this body can fly, so why can't I fly?
The screen typed: Insufficient data to answer query.
What other data do you need? she demanded. Oh well, she would think about that later. Now she would indulge idle curiousity. Computer, are there any female Decepticons?
The screen typed: No.
Why are they all male?
The screen typed: There are no male Decepticons.
The screen typed: Transformers have no gender.
Darkstar frowned. She knew that ... well, sort of. She knew they didn't have reproductive organs anyway, and that they built new people, but it felt too strange. They were people, not machines. She tried: But I've used the word 'female' and Discard understood what I meant.
The screen typed: 'Male' and 'female' are terms used exclusively for organic species.
Suddenly, Darkstar understood Discard much better. She had called herself a girl when they first met, and the word could only mean 'a female organic being'. She had told Discard that she was something that she obviously wasn't - she was obviously a robot. It would be like walking up to someone and trying to convince him she was a penguin. No wonder Discard thought she was crazy.
Well, that made things clearer. Back to business. Tell me about Jekka.
The screen filled with information - the vital statistics of the city. It seemed to be friendly to aliens, but that made sense if there was a spaceport. Darkstar memorised it, then, Tell me about the spaceport. Do ships go to Earth from there?
The screen typed: There are no flights to Earth from the Jekka spaceport.
Darkstar bit her lip. Could I buy a ship there?
The screen typed: There are no spaceships currently listed for sale in Jekka.
Computer, you are a magic eight-ball.
The screen typed: Invalid query.
Well, at least she knew the way to Jekka now and had an idea of what to expect there. Maybe she could find a short-term solution to holding on to her humanity. Is there anyone in Porphuras who studies Earth culture or collects samples from it? she asked.
Oddly, Mindwipe wasn't listed. But then, he wasn't interested in culture, just biology. There was only one name on the screen: Euphony ( Registered Neutral ) - Sound Collector, followed by an address in the Artists' Quarter.
She had two more questions. In answer, a sound collector was someone who bought and sold sounds - random noises, music, speeches, anything. The 'neutral' note after his name meant he was a Cybertronian who wasn't an Autobot or a Decepticon. Someone who refused to participate in the war, tolerated by the Decepticons only if he was useful. Well, of course there would be civilians or pacifists. They couldn't all be in the army.
She memorised the name and address. Even if she couldn't go back to Earth, she might be able to get a small piece of it. Now to find Discard and ask permission to go.
She tried her radio first, trying to dial the mental cell phone, but couldn't get it to work. It was worth a try, anyway. Sometimes she could broadcast, but never when she wanted to. She'd have to go find him, then. She'd try the target range first, he was sometimes there ...
Halfway out the door, Darkstar stopped, stepped back, and touched the intercom panel next to the door. "Computer, where is Discard?"
"Unit Discard is in the primary common room."
Hooray for technology. Darkstar set off.
Once in the largest of the three common rooms, Discard was easy to find. He was sitting at a table off to the side, tinkering with a small box. Across from him, standing on his chair, was the short blue and yellow warrior that had heckled her when she was trying to learn to fly. Darkstar debated whether to wait for him to leave, then squared her shoulders and walked over. Discard already knew about her attempts at flying. Besides, if they were too busy laughing that she couldn't fly, they weren't demanding to know why she couldn't transform.
He waved her off with a vague motion of his screwdriver. "Just a second - there." A panel clicked into place. The work didn't seem to be done, he just didn't need to concentrate now. "What do you want?"
Momentarily distracted, she said, "I didn't know you did repair work outside the team."
Discard tapped the box. "The techs don't want to be bothered with fixing things like Scowl's toys."
"A skirlvox keypad is not a toy," Scowl snapped.
"Convince the techs of that, then," Discard countered, then returned his attention to Darkstar. "You didn't come up here because you miss me. What're you after?"
Darkstar worried that one day Discard was going to get fed up with her questions, but he continued to tolerate them. She was afraid to ask why, in case it broke the spell. He might have just been patient by nature, it might have been because she obeyed him without backtalk, it might have been because he thought she was insane and felt sorry for her. It might have just been because he thought jets were nice to look at. "Um. Do we ever get a day off?" asked Darkstar.
Discard shook his head. "We're Decepticons, Darkstar," he said, like that explained everything.
"We don't do anything but fight?"
Scowl snorted. Discard shook his head. "No, but we don't get days off. You want a vacation, you sneak out while the boss isn't watching and pray he doesn't notice you're gone."
"Do you think we'll be needed today? I just want to go see the city."
"Not much to see in Porphuras," said Discard.
"Shows what you know," said Scowl. "Plenty of painters and dye-artists in this city. And the Autobots suddenly seem to want it, so it must have something going for it."
"It's a small city with lousy defences. They're hoping it'll be easy to knock over so they'll get a foothold in Tyrest," Discard argued.
"So I can just leave for the day?" Darkstar asked.
Discard waved her away. "Yeah, go ahead. Windsweeper won't notice unless you litter."
She had expected the Artists' Quarter to look different. She expected it to be cleaner and more, well, artistic. This part of the city looked like every other part of the city. In fact, if there was a difference, it was that it was dirtier than the area around the base.
There was public transit and it was free, thank God. Darkstar still couldn't fly, no matter how hard she tried. Continuing experiments in jumping off short buildings only left her frustrated and dented.
She really wished that the streets had names and that the buildings had numbers. Darkstar had the map in her head and could picture it easily, but had no idea how to connect that to where she was. If she could fly, she could recognise the aerial view. Darkstar settled for just walking without thinking about it. She tended to have better luck with things when she didn't think.
She didn't know how, but it worked. Within half an hour, Darkstar found herself in front of a small building. She couldn't tell if she was looking at a house or a store. It was ground-level, and while it didn't have a big window like she would expect on a store, a house wasn't likely to have a poster on the front. At least she knew it was the right place - the poster read: Euphony ~ Sound Collector ~ General Contact. The lettering shimmered when she looked at it, and Darkstar was certain it wasn't just fancy paint. She wasn't sure what else it would be, though.
Curious, she reached out and touched the poster. When she touched a letter, it chimed and gave off a little puff of fine, glittering dust that vanished before it touched the ground. Each letter made a different tone. Darkstar played with the sign for several minutes, trying to play a tune, when she remembered where she was and what she was doing. She hoped the poster didn't double as a doorbell. Whoever he was, Euphony couldn't possibly appreciate someone trying to pick out 'Jingle Bells' on his door.
When Darkstar touched the call-button, the door slid open. She stepped into a room that looked like a cross between a music store and a messy studio. There were devices all over, probably all musical instruments, but only a few that Darkstar could recognise as such. There was a cluttered desk with a clearing on it, and a little thing in the middle of it that made Darkstar think of those perpetual-motion desk-toys with the marbles hanging from strings. In this case, there were six balls.
Playing with the desk-toy instrument was a blue and orangey-red Transformer. He let one marble go, and when it hit another there was a sound like tiny bells far off. When the last echoes died away, he looked up.
He was rather thin and far more delicate than any Transformer Darkstar had met, as well as the first one she had seen with purple eyes. He also wasn't wearing any faction markings. So this was what a neutral looked like. His upper arms looked like stereo speakers. That seemed promising. Darkstar approached him. "Are you the sound collector?"
He nodded. "A sound collector, but, yes. I'm Euphony. Are you looking to buy or to sell?"
"I'm Darkstar. I'm hoping to buy. Do you have alien music? From Earth?"
"Oh, quite a bit," Euphony said, and put his hand to his side. There seemed to be a keyboard there, and he played it silently. "At the moment, it's the easiest xenoworld to get pieces from. I can put together a sampler disc, unless you're looking for something specific."
It was as easy as that, then. Finally, Darkstar was having good luck for a change. "Got any Linkin Park?" She struggled to pronounce the band name correctly with her robot mouth.
"Ah? Is that a style?"
"It's the name of a band."
"Oh, the performer," said Euphony. "I haven't got them arranged that way, I'm afraid. But if you would describe the music for me, I can check."
Not so easy, then. Darkstar wasn't sure of the genre - all she knew was that she liked the sound of it. "It's ... I think the term is 'nu metal', but they've got some other things mixed in, like a bit of hip-hop and ... no?"
The sound collector was shaking his head. "No. I need the formulas. Describe it mathematically."
Euphony sighed. "Perhaps you could just sing a few bars and I can compare it to my database."
The English words gave her problems, but Darkstar managed the first verse of 'Numb'. Euphony took a wire from his chest and plugged himself into his computer. He hummed the bit that Darkstar sang, this time playing one of the keyboards on his arm. After a moment, the actual song came from his speakers. Darkstar clapped her hands and laughed. "That's it! You actually have it!"
"I have ..." pause, search, "three of that particular performer, judging by the singer's voice, and another twenty-six of pieces that sound musically similar overall."
"Oh, I'll take all of it!"
Euphony smiled. "You're unusual. Most people can't stand music with lyrics, not even in the context of alien cultures in a language they don't understand." He picked a disc out of a box and slipped it into a drive just below his chest.
Darkstar stopped him. "Have you got any nature sounds? Like chirping crickets or wind in trees or birds singing?"
"Could I get a sampler of that?" she asked. "But only of peaceful sounds."
It took a bit more explaining to decide what she meant exactly by 'peaceful'. Soon, Euphony ejected the disc and handed it to her. "There. A fairly simple order, so I won't ask for much in return. It's not your fault I'm used to dealing with artists who know the formulae."
This was where it was going to get tricky. Darkstar had shoplifted before, but there was a world of difference between shoplifting and walking out while the owner watched. "Um. No. I don't have to. I'm a Decepticon, and you're just a neutral."
A gun appeared in Euphony's hand and he leaned forward, causing the long barrel to click against Darkstar's nose. "'Neutral' just means that I'll shoot anybody," he said. "Find a way to pay me or I will take my fee in the sound of your wings being torn off and the price I get when I sell them."
"Um." Darkstar decided to go for honesty. "I don't think I have any credit. Or anything I can trade. Unless you want bits of dead Autobots. Or a laser pistol. I can give you that."
"I can find my own weapons," said Euphony. "Too bad your voice isn't interesting enough to make a sample of."
"I can speak English fluently," she tried.
"So can I. Whenever I find my lexicon disc, anyway," he admitted. The sound collector brightened slightly. "Do you speak German? I know people would pay well for a German language program."
"I can't. Sorry." The gun was still resting against the angle between her helmet and her nose, but at least Euphony didn't seem eager to pull the trigger. "I could sing something you don't have? I know Earth culture fairly well."
Euphony laughed shortly. "Forgive me, but I've heard you sing. No one would pay for that." He thought for a moment. "But you claim to know the culture. Recite a poem for me and I'll accept it as payment."
"I thought you hated my voice."
"Your voice is merely unremarkable," he said. "But it will be sufficient to convey rhythm and meter."
The gun was removed to rest on Euphony's shoulder, and two thin panels extended from his back. Microphones, Darkstar guessed. Euphony nodded. "Whenever you're ready."
Darkstar's mind went blank. She had never been interested in poetry. She thought it was the most boring part of her English classes. None of the ones she had studied had stuck. Shakespeare, maybe? She could remember bits and pieces, but knew that, "'To be or not to be ...' um, that's all I've got," wouldn't be accepted. It didn't help that the first thing that came to mind was, 'There once was a man from Nantucket,' and was now stuck there. Darkstar might have chanced it if Euphony hadn't said he could speak English. Maybe she could recite a song ... except Euphony might recognise it.
After what felt like an eternity, she remembered something she had read during her goth phase. It was eighteen stanzas long and she could only remember the first two, but it might just be enough. Darkstar squared her shoulders and began: "'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak -'"
Euphony cut her off with a wave of his free hand. "I have that one. Terribly typical example. The species seems enamoured of that one-two-one-two rhythm ..."
Memory supplied a bit of classroom trivia. "It's called iambic pentameter. Humans like it because it mimics the human heartbeat."
To her surprise, the gun vanished, the thin panels retracted, and Euphony smiled. "Actually, your raven poem is in trochaic octameter generally. But the disc is yours."
"But ... I was wrong ..."
"About the rhythm and meter of your selected poem, yes. But while I know the words and the, hm, academic meanings, I didn't know the organic reasoning behind them," said Euphony cheerfully. "It's not worth much to me except as a curiousity, but knowledge is power, power has its price, and I know where to find the buyers. Now shoo."
Darkstar wasn't sure what just happened, but she retreated gratefully, the disc clutched to her chest. She ran all the way back to the subway.
Discard laughed when Darkstar told him what happened. "It didn't occur to you that a neutral living in a Decepticon city would be more dangerous than a Decepticon because he was always fighting people who thought he'd be an easy target because he's neutral?"
It hadn't. Were she still human, Darkstar knew she would be blushing. "Nobody warned me! I thought that 'neutral' meant he wouldn't be a fighter. And anyway, he was just a music dealer!"
Discard laughed even harder. When it was apparent he wasn't going to explain the punch line, Darkstar curled up on her bunk and ignored him.
On to Chapter Five
Back to Worlds Apart, Worlds Away
Back to In Space, No One Can Hear Starscream