The sequel to Consular. Please read these stories in the correct order - see here for links and info.
Part 1 - Arrival
Of course it wasn't as easy as that. First they had to get Prime's agreement, then Admiral Morshower's, and decide who would deputise for Poppy while she was gone. And Morshower was very unhappy about the whole situation, and not at all inclined to allow it, except that Prime - and Ratchet - overrode him, pointing out that 'Spin was essential for the process, and a neutral and, since they were no longer at war, could not be ordered to do anything nor coerced by military means.
He'd had to give in, but even Poppy understood it came at a price which someone would no doubt have to pay in future.
She just hoped it wouldn't be herself...
Finding someone to replace her for a month or so wasn't particularly easy either. Phil volunteered to stay behind to keep an eye on things (although Poppy got the distinct idea he'd much rather accompany her), which would help, and they drafted in a couple of NEST admin operatives as well as a couple of administrators from an outside agency supposedly specialising in such matters. Poppy vetted them, and thought they'd be more than sufficient. In fact, she'd already decided to ask one of them to stay on as her deputy after she returned, assuming all went well in her absence.
And 'Beat insisted on going too.
For which Poppy was profoundly grateful. He knew the Autobots already and would make a perfect buffer between them and her. Phil and Graham were also pleased, to her relief.
So, a month after first suggesting it, Poppy, 'Spin and 'Beat touched down on the runway on the fabled island.
The first thing Poppy noticed was the heat. The second was the stillness; for a military base it was surprisingly quiet. Then again, as far as she could gather, the main NEST bases were now in more heavily populated areas of the world, America, China, Russia and Europe. Diego Garcia was still a vital resource, but not the primary base any more.
Instead it was being used as a transformer induction and training facility - and somewhere for Ratchet to work in peace, on the odd (but hopefully now more frequent) occasions when he could be spared from his duties with the Prime. It was here that Ironhide was being slowly restored, and here that the medic planned to attempt to reformat Starscream.
Poppy still thought he was insane to even consider it, and, on the quiet, simply didn't believe it could be done.
But the island was beautiful, the sort of place she'd fantasised about visiting when she was younger - who hadn't, after all? Holidaying on a desert island was a meme before memes had been invented - and she had every intention of taking full advantage of it while she could.
They were met by the Prime himself. Poppy stared up as he slowly crouched down to bring his face almost level with hers, not realising she was trembling until later.
How could something so huge move with such grace?
"Greetings, Poppy. Welcome to Diego Garcia."
She managed a smile and a shaky "Thank you". Behind her 'Beat saluted; beside her she heard 'Spin's internal fan hitch as the smaller transformer lowered his head. Prime's gaze flickered to him.
"We thank you, Sparkspinner, for agreeing to help us: we could not attempt this without you. I know you are reluctant, given the subject, but everyone deserves a second chance, and we would not be true to ourselves if we were to deny that to Starscream."
'Spin shuddered at the name, then pulled himself a little straighter.
"It ith my duty, my Prime. And I will do anything you athk of me."
Prime's mouthplates moved into a smile.
"I will never ask more than you are willing to give."
Poppy threw herself onto the bed on her back and sighed happily. It had been a wonderful afternoon...
Prime had ushered 'Spin to the cavernous space, half-underground, that Ratchet had for his own lab-come-medical facility, promising that Poppy could visit it later, to see what the old medic was doing. As the two transformers walked away, Cable had squirmed out of her pocket to perch on her shoulder, gazing after them with awed optics.
Poppy petted him. "Why didn't you say hello?"
Cable squeaked. "To the Prime?"
Poppy laughed. "Too shy? Never mind - maybe later." She watched as a young soldier drove up, introduced herself cheerfully as Private Karen Smith, and loaded Poppy's luggage into her jeep. She'd opened the passenger-side door in invitation: Poppy hesitated, glancing at 'Beat, but the MGC had waved her towards the car.
"Get acquainted with the human, she's going to be your liaison here. I'll find you later: I'm going to say hello to Jolt and the others."
He transformed, and Poppy grinned and patted his roof.
'Beat's engine revved in a chuckle. "Do me best..."
Private Smith had driven to what she called a 'hooch', a kind of raised wooden bungalow with a tin roof, a mile from the main runway near Marianne Point, looking out over the lagoon. Inside it was spartan but reasonably comfortable and fairly well-stocked, although Poppy was more than welcome to join the rest of the island's inhabitants for meals at the base if she preferred. There weren't that many people here any more - the island was now tacitly considered to be Autobot territory and far fewer military vessels used it - but the satellite and communications stations were still operational and fully-staffed. A quick call to the base - Cable beeped as he internalised the numbers the soldier reeled off - and someone would come to pick her up, if she didn't want to walk. Poppy had thanked her.
"But it's more likely 'Beat will drive me."
The soldier's eyes had widened.
Poppy chuckled. "More like I'm his."
"Oooh, you are so lucky..."
The soldier sighed. "Maybe one day... Shall I leave you to get yourself squared away or do you need a hand?"
Poppy looked around the place and shook her head.
"I'll be fine. Won't take long to unpack and then I may take a nap, it was a long flight and I feel a bit jet-lagged."
"Sure. But if you need anything, just call."
Putting everything away took ten minutes: Poppy always travelled light. She took a few minutes to walk down to the shore and enjoy the sunshine, until she found herself yawning widely. Rubbing her eyes she made her way back to the hooch, ready to catch up on some sleep.
The quiet voice sounded in her ear.
"Time to wake up now."
"Huh?" She opened one eye and gazed blearily at Cable, who was sitting on the pillow beside her head. "Wha?"
The little transformer tilted his head to one side. "It's evening. 'Beat's arrived and says he thinks you should go to the base for dinner. Also, it's very pretty outside. The sky looks like it's on fire."
Poppy stretched, yawned and sat upright: the light streaming through the window flooded everything with gold. She hastened outside, 'Beat following in root mode as she made her way to the ocean side of the atoll, and paused on the sand, staring in awe at the western horizon.
Her first tropical sunset. She would never forget it.
'Beat gently touched her shoulder.
"We should get moving if you want any choice of dinner."
She stared down at herself, cursing mentally at falling asleep in the clothes she'd travelled in.
"I should shower and change first. I feel gungy."
"I don't think they'd mind..."
"Maybe not, but I would. I'll only be ten minutes. I'm sure there'll be something left by the time we get there."
Twenty minutes later, Poppy feeling much refreshed and awake and with the breeze through 'Beat's open window drying her hair, they arrived at the chow hall. There were still a few people there, drinking beer or coffee: most of them smiled and waved or saluted lazily as she entered. She smiled back, and moments later Private Smith appeared at her side.
Poppy nodded. "It's great, thanks."
"I hope the accommodation's all right. It's hardly five star, but we're not really geared up for VIPs."
Poppy laughed. "I'm hardly a VIP! And it's fine. I'm hoping to spend most of my time here or exploring the island anyway."
"I hope you won't be bored..."
Boredom wasn't an option - Poppy had brought 'Beat's history with her in case the pleasures of swimming, snorkelling, and simply enjoying the change of scenery paled. She smiled at the soldier.
"I'll be fine, honestly."
"Well, call me if you change your mind or anything. Now, what would you like to eat?"
Sitting near a window with a plate of different sorts of lumpia, Poppy heard the distinct sounds of transformation outside, and gazed out to see Jolt settling himself beside 'Beat. To her delight, after a few seconds of chat between the two the blue transformer looked her way and raised a three-clawed hand in greeting, buzzing her name. She waved back, grinning. Opposite her Private Smith watched enviously, smiling as Poppy turned back to her as the two transformers resumed their conversation outside.
"I'm jealous. They're all friendly enough, in a weird alien sort of way, but we're not supposed to get too close to them, or interrupt what they do."
"That's a shame. They can be great fun..." Poppy paused, then pulled Cable out of her pocket. "Here you go. Please meet Cable. Cable, this is Private Smith."
The soldier frowned at the mobile phone, then glanced at Poppy. "Please, call me Karen... OH!" She stared open-mouthed as Cable transformed and gazed up at her then waved one little limb.
Karen blinked, then grinned delightedly. "Oh, you're so cute! Hello Cable." She beamed at Poppy. "I've heard about the little ones but never seen any. It's mostly the big warrior models we have here."
"The smaller ones tend to be neutrals. I have several back home."
Karen leaned forwards, expression eager. "If it's not confidential, can you tell me more?"
Poppy laughed. "Oh, I don't think it's confidential. Given we've been in half the newspapers back home and there's always someone visiting the consulate. Let's see..."
It was three in the morning, but Poppy wasn't tired after her earlier nap. She'd have to work on adjusting her bodyclock. But for now...
She sat on the sand, gazing up at a moonless, star-blazing sky, and sighed contentedly. 'Beat touched her shoulder, and she turned her head to smile at him.
"I've never been anywhere where there wasn't at least some citylight. I've never seen the sky like this. It's... overwhelming. "
"It's beautiful, even with the atmospheric distortion."
She leaned against his cool frame. "What I wouldn't give to see it from space."
His engine revved quietly. "Maybe one day... But for now, you should try to get some rest. Doc-bot and 'Spin are going to start working on Starscream..."
Poppy interrupted with a giggle. "Does he know you call him that?"
"No, and if he ever found out..."
"I won't tell him."
He gazed down at her. "Thank you. As I was saying, they're going to start work early tomorrow morning, and Ratchet has agreed to let you watch. If you want to."
Poppy was silent for a moment, then jumped to her feet and tugged at his arm. "Like I'd miss that! C'mon - time for bed..."
© JAT 03.03.2012
Lumpia are Fillipino spring rolls.
Yes, Bay killed Ironhide in Dark of the Moon. It's something a lot of people, including me, will never forgive him for. Not that he bloody cares... (The film's old now, and I assume everyone who wants to see it has done so. I don't really think that counts as a spoiler any more.)
However, femme4jack and merfilly have written an excellent and very moving Ironhide fixit story called Patronus over at FFNet. It's long - 13 chapters - and beautifully written. Brought a lump to my throat. Since these two authors have already dealt so well with the subject, I won't be covering Ironhide's 'resurrection'.
Part 2 - Day 1
Poppy woke slowly, sounds of the external world gradually impinging on her consciousness. The faint whirr of the fan that had made it possible for her to sleep in this heat, the ripple-hiss of surf, alien birdsong, the scrabble-click of something on the floor...
Feeling suddenly cold, she inched her way nervously to the edge of the bed and peered down...
'Beat was there in less than a second, unfortunately taking part of the wall with him as he forced his way inside the building.
"Poppy!" He paused as something crunched under his foot. Staring down, he saw the remains of... something colourful. With a large pair of claws... "Poppy?"
The human stared at the mess of spiky exoskeleton and gooey crustacean guts, then up at 'Beat. Then, to the MGC's alarm, she burst into hysterical giggles.
She flapped a hand at him as laughter turned into a coughing fit. Grabbing for the glass of water on the bedside table, she managed to bring the spasms under control, then wiped her eyes and grinned shamefacedly up at the transformer.
"I'm sorry, 'Beat. I remember, now, reading that the island was full of them. I just never expected them to be so bloody huge!"
'Beat lifted his foot to reveal the remains of a very large coconut crab.
"Oh." He inclined his head, swiftly accessing the 'net, then glanced at Poppy. "They're protected by law. Am I in trouble?"
"I think you'll be excused. It was an accident, after all." She eyed the sagging wall: 'Beat had torn off the door and demolished half of the front of the hooch in his haste. "Um... I'd better call Karen. That'll need fixing."
Cable chirped at her, ringing the number he'd saved the previous evening, and Poppy explained what had happened while she dressed. Half an hour later the soldier's jeep arrived, followed by a truck filled with slats of wood and a couple of squaddies pressed into service as carpenters.
'Beat had retreated to the front of the hooch, and was looking distinctly sheepish. Karen smiled at him.
"You did what you're supposed to do, sir, protected Poppy. Don't worry. We can fix this up in no time." She peered in at Poppy, who was gingerly trying to clear up the smelly mess of squashed crab. "Don't worry about that, we'll sort it out."
"Oh, thank you!" Poppy gratefully exited the hooch. "I'm sorry."
Karen waved a hand. "No problem. They can be scary if you're not used to them." She glanced at her watch. "If you'd like to make your way to the base, they'll be serving breakfast in a few minutes."
Fed, watered and mostly recovered from her unfortunate waking, Poppy, following 'Beat, made her way to what the MGC referred to as Ratchet's Lair.
They entered through a high wide door and walked along a short, brightly lit corridor. At the end were double doors: once through them 'Beat gestured to a short flight of human-sized steps that led to a railed walkway that encircled a huge, brilliantly-lit... well, it looked like a cross between a garage and an operating theatre to Poppy, as she rested against the railing and looked down. There were four massive tables (three of them covered with what looked like piles and chunks of scrap metal), a bewildering assortment of equipment - and Ratchet, standing in the middle.
Poppy caught her breath. He wasn't as big as the Prime, but he was still very impressive. And somehow grim, focused. She flinched as he nodded to her, his chin level with the top of the railing.
"Welcome, Ms Moss. I understand I have you to thank for Sparkspinner's assistance."
Poppy glanced down, only now noticing 'Spin standing on one of the tables: he looked so small compared to the medic!
"You're welcome, sir. But all I did was come with him..."
"At some inconvenience to yourself. Your help is appreciated."
"It's no problem. And thank you for letting me watch, sir."
Ratchet hmphed, and Poppy got the distinct impression it hadn't been his idea to allow her to be there. She swallowed and resolved to stay very quiet and just watch what happened.
"They're not going to be speaking English, so I'll translate for you." Poppy jumped as Cable's voice sounded quietly in her ear: he'd transformed and settled himself on her shoulder while she'd been overawed by Ratchet.
To her surprise, Poppy felt somewhat queasy when she found out that the 'scrap metal' was actually what was left of Starscream. He was, after all, the enemy of her transformers, and the Autobots, and humans, and it wasn't as though he was one of her own... then it clicked. She saw them all as people - really saw them as people who she cared for and to whom she had dedicated a large part of her life. Looking down at the wreck of the transformer felt like looking at the results of a horrible traffic accident that had happened to an acquaintance. As for his status - under the faction brand they were all the same, much as humans were all the same under the skin. Ratchet thought - hoped - he could be saved. So did Prime. And there were so few of them. And Starscream had been a scientist, and they needed such skills. She found herself crossing her fingers without realising it...
Ratchet and 'Spin were talking to each other in Cybertronian, exchanging information and instructions at a rate beyond human comprehension. She smiled as she realised that, once 'Spin was over his nervousness as being in the presence of and working with one of the best medics of all time, he was responding to Ratchet as an equal.
As the medic watched, 'Spin quickly but carefully pared off burnt and shattered plating, his hands transforming into tools - laser scalpels, wrenches, other things Poppy didn't recognise. He worked at speed and with great precision, which earned him an approving rumble from Ratchet. Which he ignored as he continued the painstaking process of stripping Starscream back to his protoform.
Despite the speed and efficiency with which they both worked, it was still a long slow procedure. Ratchet set himself to the task of removing the bulk of the external armour, monitoring every move they both made, while 'Spin focused on the smaller, more intricate internal structure. Underneath all the mess she began to see glimpses of a dull grey frame, much simpler in form than the modes she was used to.
"Is that his protoform?"
Cable chirped. "Yes."
"It's... not very impressive. Somehow I expected something a bit more... I don't know... complicated? I mean, your root modes are all different and much more striking..."
"But underneath we're all variations on that. A bit like all the larger earth creatures have the same basic structure - skeleton, muscles, circulatory system. Our protoform is all of that for us, along with our basic sensornet and fuel systems. The external stuff is created from the protoform, which is much, much denser than anything you have on earth. And that could be a bit of a problem." Cable paused for a moment, then continued. "Unless they can get the protoform to reabsorb at least some of the plating, he'll have problems transforming into any kind of aerial mode. He just won't have the mass to create the components."
"Couldn't he take a ground based vehicular mode instead?"
She should have realised that Ratchet - and probably 'Spin - were listening in to Cable's running commentary and her responses, but it still startled her when the medic glanced up and frowned at her.
"He's a Seeker at spark. Leaving him without the power of flight would be crueller than terminating him."
Poppy swallowed nervously and nodded.
"I'm sorry sir. I was just... exploring options. I know how Highdive feels when he's grounded; I'd never suggest doing it deliberately."
Ratchet grunted and gave her an approving nod.
"Good to see you thinking, at any rate..."
"He would have had a Cybertronian flight mode, wouldn't he, sir? Originally, I mean. Couldn't he reassume that?"
"No. It was only a little smaller than his terrestrial alternative mode."
"Oh. Well, we do have small jets on earth. Perhaps he could take one of those?"
"He'll have to. Of course, the good thing is that he'll need all his mass for his flight systems. There won't be much left over for weaponry. Unless I allow him to upgrade, which won't happen in the foreseeable future."
His attention was still on his task, but he'd sounded as though he approved of her suggestions. 'Spin glanced up at Poppy - and gave her a thumbs up!
She grinned back, feeling quite proud of herself.
Poppy lost track of time.
She watched, fascinated, as between them Ratchet and 'Spin slowly picked apart the mess that had been the Air Commander's head, removing what was left of the optics and paring twisted metal away. There was a huge ragged split in the dull grey metal of what Poppy perceived as the skull: Ratchet had filled it with some sort of turquoise gel that looked a little like the medical grade nanites she kept at the consulate in case of emergencies.
"Yes." murmured Cable. "It'll stop any further damage, and aid the self-repair function. It can't rebuild the processor, but it will make a start on repairing the internal structures. Ratchet's going to come back to the processor last, as it's the most difficult part of the whole procedure."
"Are all transformer processors in their heads? Like our brains?"
Cable had to stop and check for a moment, then chirred pensively.
"Apparently, some of the really big forms have extra processors in other parts of their bodies, to assist with motion and memory. And it seems that we can have additional processors fitted if we need the extra processing power. I didn't know that, but it makes sense."
Poppy sighed. "Oh, I wish it was that easy for humans!"
Cable twittered a laugh. "I wouldn't say it's easy, exactly, and certainly not now we're marooned here without access to Cybertronian technology, but it is possible."
"I know I'd love a memory upgrade!"
Cable chuckled again, then glanced towards the steps as Private Smith arrived, carrying a plate of something that smelt wonderfully appetising. Poppy's stomach immediately growled, and Ratchet spared a moment to glower at her.
"Please ensure you refuel at regular intervals, Ms Moss. My medical skills are limited when it comes to humans."
Poppy winced. "Sorry sir. Won't happen again."
Private Smith saluted. "I'm sorry, sir, it's my fault. I hadn't realised Ms Moss hadn't eaten since this morning. I'll be more diligent in future."
"See that you are."
Karen handed Poppy the plate, and watched approvingly as the consul tore into the burger that sat on it. She produced a bottle of water from a capacious pocket, and Poppy drank gratefully.
"Didn't realise how hungry and thirsty I was!"
Karen nodded. "You should be hungry, it's gone three! And you really need to keep a bottle of water with you at all times - although at least down here it's fairly cool. How is everything going?"
"Fine as far as I can tell." She grinned. "It's fascinating stuff too."
Karen glanced down into the lab and grimaced. "If you say so... Do you want to take a break?"
Poppy thought about it, and realised her legs were aching from standing so long. She'd have to remember to bring a stool next time.
"Yes, I think I do."
Ratchet glanced up and nodded. "You are welcome back any time we are working. Otherwise I'd prefer you not to enter the lab."
"Wouldn't dream of it, sir. Thanks again for letting me be here - it's amazing."
His mouthplates quirked in what she would almost be prepared to swear was a smile, had she not believed him incapable of such an expression, then his eyes returned to... whatever fiddly thing it was he and 'Spin were focussed on at the moment.
As Cable transformed and slipped back into her pocket, Poppy followed Karen out of the building into blinding sunlight and tropical heat. The soldier's jeep, and 'Beat, were waiting nearby. 'Beat inclined his head.
"Weird as it sounds, yes. But that's probably enough for today." She paused for a moment, then smiled at Karen. "I'd love to swim for a bit."
"Like some company?"
"Yes, I think I would. If you don't mind." she added, turning to 'Beat, who shook his head.
"I can't swim, Poppy, and I'm not fond of sand and salt in me joints. You go and enjoy yourself. I have plenty to keep me out of trouble - Jolt's off 'til tomorrow morning, and we're going to discuss an idea he's had for upgrades."
Poppy decided she didn't want to know, not right now, and waved as she climbed into the jeep with Karen. It was hot, and still, and the lagoon was beckoning...
Part 3 - Day Two
On the second day Poppy arrived outside Ratchet's Lair with a stool, a cushion, and a large bottle of water.
'Beat nodded his head approvingly and gestured to the control panel beside the door.
"What did doc-bot say about access?"
She giggled, then caught herself and regarded him gravely.
"That I'm welcome when they're in there, but otherwise to stay out."
"Sensible. All right, look at the panel." As Poppy gazed at the metal rectangle 'Beat extended a small jack-tipped cable from the tip of a finger and plugged into the small socket at the base of the panel. There was a momentary whirring, then he retracted the cable and gestured to the lower part of the metal.
Poppy did so, and a disembodied voice announced her name and that she could enter as the door opened. She grinned back at the MGC.
"Hey, great! Now I don't have to bother you every time."
'Beat nodded and ushered her in. "I will see you later. Have fun!"
Poppy made her way to the walkway, then paused - the Prime was sitting on the edge of the least cluttered table, with Ratchet running a monitor over his right arm and shoulder.
"Oh - I'm sorry. I'll come back when you're done."
"It is all right, Poppy. We are nearly finished. Please, make yourself comfortable."
Ratchet and Prime were conversing in Cybertronian, and presumably in their other forms of communication. Poppy settled herself and waited for them to finish.
After a couple of moments Ratchet moved the monitor to Prime's other shoulder: as the device beeped he... did something with what Poppy thought may be a laser extruded from one of his digits. Prime winced, then held himself still as Ratchet rumbled at him.
Whatever Ratchet was doing didn't take long, and at the end he reformed his hand and laid it lightly on the Prime's shoulder. Optimus stood and inclined his head to Poppy.
"Thank you for your patience. I trust you are finding your stay satisfactory?"
"It's fascinating, sir."
"Good. Should you need anything not already provided, have Upbeat let us know."
"I will, sir. Thank you."
With a glance at the medic, Prime made his way out of the lab. Poppy noted absently he used a different exit from the one she was familiar with, in the opposite wall - then smiled as 'Spin made his entrance and waved at her. Ratchet lifted him onto the table and without preamble they began to work...
Little by little more of Starscream's protoform was being revealed as the armoured plating was pared away. By early afternoon the disarticulated leg was exposed, and 'Spin was working to reconnect almost microscopically tiny cables and lines - far too small for Poppy to see from her perch. Ratchet paused in sorting the excised metals and regarded her for a moment.
"Ms Moss, the next few days will be more of the same. Nothing very much, from your point of view, is going to happen until we have the protoform completely stripped. I believe you will find it boring - you might prefer to spend the time elsewhere. I will alert you as soon as we reach a more interesting stage of the reconstruction."
Poppy considered his suggestion, then nodded.
"You're probably right, sir. But please don't let me miss anything important!"
His engine rumbled, which she assumed was a chuckle, and he glanced down at 'Spin.
"Don't worry. I'd never hear the end of it if I allowed any such thing."
Poppy bit back a giggle, remembering how persistently 'Spin could nag when he put his mind to it. "Thank you sir. Is it OK if I leave the stool here? It'll save me carrying it in every time."
He waved a hand dismissively. "Of course you can, it's not in our way."
"OK. I'll see you later then."
But Ratchet's focus was already back with the metal beneath his hands. Poppy made herself a mental note to remember that the medic wasn't much of a one for small-talk - of the human variety anyway - and slipped out of the lab.
'Beat was waiting for her outside, along with Private Smith, who grinned at her.
"How's about a picnic on the beach and an afternoon swim?"
Poppy laughed. "Sounds great!"
"Good. There's a lovely shady spot over at East Point, though we have to scramble through brush to get to it." She glanced at 'Beat. "You should be OK in robot mode, sir."
"Sure you want me along?"
"Oh, I didn't think... sorry sir. If you have something else planned..."
The MGC regarded the two women for a moment, then nodded.
"I think this time I'd rather not get sand in me gears."
Poppy giggled. "I'd rather you didn't either! The jeeps are better suited to the roads here anyway. You'll be OK?"
"Yup. I'll be in Wheeljack's lab if you need me - get Cable to call."
Karen had flinched at the mention of Wheeljack, and after 'Beat had transformed and was heading away from the base, Poppy turned to her, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
Karen sighed. "Wheeljack is a scientist - and a good one."
Poppy nodded, a little irritably. "Yes, I know. Highly respected. Very ancient. Instrumental in saving Cybertron at one point."
Karen smiled apologetically. "Yes. But he's... unpredictable. At least, his inventions are. We've had several rather nasty explosions since he joined us - that's why his lab is now waaaay over there" she pointed along the spit of the atoll to the south "well away from anything human."
"Oh." Poppy frowned. Her transformers had occasionally spoken of the multi-disciplined genius with respect, but she'd heard nothing about explosions. "Will 'Beat be OK?"
"He seems quite confident..."
Poppy nodded reluctantly. He knew what he was doing. She hoped...
'Beat made his way into Wheeljack's compound cautiously: internal comms told him the scientist was at his smelter, a secure area 'Beat did not intend to enter. Ever.
Jolt was in the main lab, testing metal sample densities and resonance with the sensors in his servos, and greeted the MGC as he entered. 'Beat peered at the bar of metal in Jolt's claws, energy sparking and streaming along it.
::How is it going?::
Jolt crackled in frustration and laid down the sample.
::Not good so far. Ratchet and 'Spin are demanding the lightest possible alloy for the plating, something that can be absorbed into the frame once Starscream is online again - assuming that ever actually happens. The metal they're stripping has the correct density but is too heavy. So far we haven't been able to find a terrestrial metal or alloy that will combine correctly. Not for armour. It's fine for making missiles and bullets, but not for the frame::
'Beat glanced towards the triple doors to the smelter: he could feel the heat from here. ::And simply making the plating thinner won't work?::
Jolt waved a clawed servo. ::First thing we tried. It won't stand up to the conditions he'll experience in flight, even in a smaller, slower jet form. And he needs some armouring, even if it's only bulletproof::
::Hm... Anything I can do to help?::
::Not at this stage, I don't think. Unless you have anything in your historical databanks that might apply to the situation::
::Nothing comes to mind, I'm afraid::
::Not to worry. Ratchet's having more metal sent over later; we'll keep working::
::In the meantime, can I get you some energon?::
Jolt's optics brightened appreciatively. ::That would be most acceptable. Will you join me?::
::Of course. I will be right back::
::Bring enough for three - I'll see if I can pry Wheeljack away from the forge...::
'Beat arrived back at the base as Poppy was climbing out of Private Smith's jeep. Both women were laughing, which pleased the MGC. It was good that his human was interacting with others of her own species, and enjoying her time here.
Karen waved at him, then turned back to Poppy. "There's a film on in the rec room later this evening, if you fancy it. Though you've probably seen it already."
Poppy smiled, then swallowed back a yawn. "If it's OK with you, I'm planning an early night. I've had a couple of early starts and late nights, I'm still not quite caught up with the jet lag, and a nice long night's sleep will do me good. I should check in with the consulate too. I'll stay for dinner, but then I'm heading back."
Karen nodded. "OK. Let me park up and we'll go eat..."
"I do believe you've caught the sun!" Phil's smile on Cable's screen was a welcome glimpse of home. She giggled.
"Oh, come on! How can you tell from this little screen?"
He grinned. "You'd be surprised... How's it all going?"
"It's amazing. 'Spin is absolutely in his element, Ratchet is a bit scary but not as bad as I was led to believe, and 'Beat seems to be spending most of his time with Wheeljack and Jolt. I've spent some time watching the operation, and some relaxing - the swimming here is gorgeous!"
"Not missing us then."
She laughed. "Maybe just a tiny bit. How's everything there?"
"Much the same as ever. Though Steamy is wandering around looking as though his puppy just died. He's sure you're being starved or poisoned or something."
"Oh dear. Tell him I'm fine, I'm eating as healthily as I can, and I'll bring him back some new recipes, that should cheer him up."
Phil chuckled. "Well, it'll help at least." He paused, then shook his head. "No, can't think of any news, but it's only been a couple of days."
"OK. I'll contact you at the weekend then, unless anything happens in the meantime."
"Same here. You have fun!"
"I'll do my best!"
He saluted and closed the connection, and Cable transformed into root mode and curled up on her chest. She stroked him for a few minutes, then peered down at him.
"You stayed in my pocket this morning..."
"Any reason? I mean, I know you're shy of the Prime, but you didn't come out even after he'd gone."
Cable wriggled nervously.
"I... didn't want Ratchet to know I was there."
"Why ever not?"
"... because I heard their conversation..."
Poppy raised an eyebrow.
"What, was it embarrassing or something?"
"Well... not really... but..."
"What did they say?" Cable stayed silent, and Poppy sighed. "I'm not going to tell anyone, Cable. And you've piqued my curiosity now."
The little transformer hung his head, still silent. Poppy petted him.
"Please, Cable? I promise I'll never tell anyone."
Cable whirred to himself, then muttered reluctantly.
"Ratchet said he should have seen him sooner. The Prime said he deserved the pain for betraying both us and the humans. Ratchet growled at him and said not to be so fragging stupid, how could we make any kind of amends with a leader not in the best of health? And the Prime went quiet and then said Ratchet was right. And Ratchet said he always was, and to come back for a check up in two days or Ratchet would hunt him down, and that really would hurt. And the Prime made a laugh and Ratchet called him old friend and asked what he was going to do with him, and the Prime said he was doing just fine as it was. Then they both went back to work."
"Awww..." Poppy managed a slightly watery smile. "He really cares, doesn't he?"
"For all of us. He's the Prime."
"Thank you. I promise I won't tell."
"I know. We trust you." He gazed up at her, then prodded her shoulder. "Weren't you supposed to be having an early night?"
"I was, wasn't I?" She shifted and glanced around the room. "Sure there're no crabs in here?"
"I'm sure. And I have my motion sensors set to automatic."
Poppy slid under the sheet and sprawled out under the fan as Cable scuttled up to the pillow and settled down in his usual place.
"Sleep tight, Poppy. Sweet dreams..."
For those who haven't seen Dark of the Moon: in the battle at the end, Sentinel Prime ripped off Optimus' right arm then sank his blade deep into Optimus' left shoulder. Lovely person, Sentinel...
Part 4 - Meanwhile, back in England...
... Phil frowned as Highdive disappeared over the horizon, then turned to Castle.
"Where's he off to?"
"Dunno." The Kangoo was as taciturn as ever, and Phil decided he'd probably get a more useful answer from Ramp, who knew everything that happened on and off the grounds.
It was strange not having Poppy there. It felt like something vital was missing - which it was, of course. The Consulate could continue without her, but as a home for them all... it was missing its heart.
He shook his head self-mockingly. That was just fanciful. He was not a fanciful man.
Still... it would be nice to have her back again.
Ramp, in root mode, waved at him as he entered the lounge - while Poppy was away he'd moved out of her office to the main hub of the house. Seating himself in front of the computer he eyed the part-screen, part-surreal sculpture that made up the transformer's face. Ramp inclined his head.
"You want to know where Highdive is."
Phil raised an eyebrow laconically. "Might be useful."
"He's... bored. He's taking advantage of his primary current priority - to ensure Poppy's safety - and is headed for Diego Garcia."
"He's what!" Phil jumped up from his seat. "Does he know how many international overflight restricted zones he'll be violating?"
"Probably not. But that's why we have you. I'm sure NEST can ease the way. After all, it's just one tiny helicopter."
"And how is he going to refuel?"
"He'll stop at the new plant in Agadem. That should be enough to get him to Diego Garcia."
Phil rubbed his forehead despairingly. "Can you connect me to him?"
Ramp whirred to himself, then shook his head. "I'm sorry. He's refusing contact."
"Great... Put me through to Graham."
Ramp transformed back to alt mode and moments later Graham's face appeared on the screen. He raised a hand as Phil opened his mouth.
"I know. We're already tracking his flight path."
"I'm sorry, sir. He was gone before I knew anything about it."
Graham nodded grimly. "We'll have words when he gets back. Might have to restrict him to his berth for a few days. In the meantime, we'd better tell Poppy he's on his way. You want to do that?"
"OK. Make it soon."
Then there was Aaron.
Phil was keeping an eye on Aaron, though he wasn't quite sure why. The boy was a model student, cheerful and hard-working, respectful and always pleasant. His behaviour hadn't changed with Poppy absent, so his apparent... puppyishness must be his natural temperament.
And yet... Phil didn't trust him. And he'd been in the military long enough to know to trust his gut instincts. He set Ramp to keeping a closer eye on the boy than normal.
Ramp of course alerted the other transformers in the house, and Livewire reported what he had seen that night when Aaron snuck back in very late. It had happened three more times since, but the human had always been very circumspect and never raised any suspicions.
Phil promptly placed a tiny, powerful, combined tracker/audio transmitter under the flap of one of the boy's jacket pockets and ordered Ramp to monitor it at all times.
The computer had regarded him dryly. "You don't like him very much, do you?"
Phil had managed a laugh. "I don't trust anybody."
"Not even Poppy?"
"Well yes, of course I trust Poppy..."
"Nor Wing Commander Graham?"
"What about us neutrals?"
"Of course...." Phil squinted at the transformer. "Now you're being facetious."
Ramp twinkled at him. "I'm working on it, certainly."
Phil rubbed at his forehead, trying to fend off the incipient headache. "Don't try too hard..."
"Mr Phil?" Steamy scampered in from the kitchen, a smell of smoke trailing after him. "The cooker's not working properly. I think it might have blown a fuse."
"Can't one of you fix it?"
"I can't reach, and anyway, we don't know where the fuses are kept."
"I'll be right there..."
Tom the gardener stuck his head around the kitchen door. "Ullo sir. Did you know the cooker's on fire? And there's a pane o' glass broke in the greenhouse - we'll need to requisition a replacement."
As Phil dashed into the kitchen, fire extinguisher grabbed from the wall just inside the door, he wished Poppy was back. These sorts of things never seemed to happen when she was here...
Aitch eyed the three 'troublemakers' sardonically. They'd been kept waiting for nearly an hour now, squirming on too-small, uncomfortable metal seats, and the tension was building nicely. A little longer and they'd be ready to agree to anything just to get out of the stuffy, overly warm office.
The door opened with a grating creak as Zee stepped in, his imposing figure dark against the sun blazing in through the closed window. Aitch noticed with satisfaction the flinches and nervous twitches his appearance caused. Heh. Amateurs the lot of them...
Zee seated himself behind the wide, solid desk, folded his hands together and regarded his 'guests' impassively. The tense silence dragged on. Finally, the somewhat scrawny individual previously referred to as 'two' attempted to bluster, "I demand to know why we're here!"
Zee eyed him sombrely for half a minute, then inclined his head.
"Mr Mason, we are aware of your schemes to cause... problems for our aliens. Not the wisest course of action after current events and considering their value to our country."
Mason spluttered helplessly, gazing imploringly at his two companions. The woman spoke, her voice shaking.
"We... we were just trying to make a point..."
"Burning down a house seems to be a rather dramatic way of making a point, Mrs Stevenson."
She swallowed nervously and bit her lip. "It wasn't meant to go that far..."
"Oh, I believe it was. It was also quite astoundingly stupid. Transformers are quite capable of resisting temperatures up to... well, let's just say very, very high. They would have survived perfectly well. The humans in the house, however..."
The woman's face went completely white as the enormity of what could have happened sunk in. "Oh God. We didn't think..."
"No, you didn't, did you?"
"W... what's going to happen to us, sir?"
Grim-faced and silent, Zee gazed at the three. "You have a choice. We can hand you over to the police, along with our evidence of your guilt, or you can do us a little favour..."
Aaron glanced at the caller display on his mobile and grinned, accepting the call.
The voice on the other end giggled. "'ello yourself. You free tonight?"
"I can be. Usual place?"
"Yeah. I'll be there."
"Look forward to it."
Aaron pocketed the phone, smiling apologetically at Vault; in 'Spin's absence he'd been sitting in on tutorials with the architects currently visiting the consulate. It was proving more interesting than he'd anticipated, and he'd already come up with a couple of ideas he would discuss with the metallurgist once he returned.
"Sorry about that, sir. Forgot I hadn't turned it off."
Vault nodded absently and continued his discussion of a new concept of the ideal office space. Aaron was always forgetting to turn his phone off. It wasn't worth making an issue of.
Aaron found it quite easy to leave the house of an evening. It wasn't as though he was sneaking, not quite, and he didn't think anyone would actually mind, it was just that it wasn't anyone else's business. They'd all been given their own security codes for the side door to the human wing, and the main gate, for just this sort of occasion. Nevertheless he made his way off the grounds as inconspicuously as possible and jogged in the direction of the village a couple of miles away.
The Fox and Hounds was cosy and comforting, and Abigail was waiting in her usual seat by the window. He grinned and kissed her as he shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair.
"What're you drinking?"
"White wine, please."
"Be right back."
A couple of minutes later he placed her glass of wine and his pint of lager on the table and smiled at her.
She shrugged. "Same as ever. S'nice to get out for an evening. How's things at the house?"
"Ticking over. Ms Moss is away at the moment, off at the Autobot base in the Indian Ocean as far as I can gather. Not sure what she's doing there but Sparkspinner went with her, so I guess it's something to do with the transformers themselves."
Aaron shrugged. "He's their resident metals expert. I don't think they'd need him unless it was something to do with one of their own people."
Abigail nodded. "I wonder what they're doing, then?"
"I dunno. And there's no use asking that Phil guy. I don't think he likes me."
She patted his hand. "Poor you."
"Yeah. Dunno what I did to upset him..." He sighed, then smiled. She kissed his cheek.
"That's a shame. But then, he doesn't know you like I do." She sipped her wine. "Can't you find out from one of the others though?"
He frowned, then brightened. "I could always try Steamy. He's chatty enough. And not too bright. If I get down to the kitchen early and just... natter, he'll probably tell me without even realising it."
Abigail grinned. "Yeah, give it a try! Be fun to know what's going on."
"I'll do that." Aaron nodded to himself. "After all, we should be told; if it's something to do with them, it'll affect us too."
"I'd say so!" She nodded decisively. "We ought to be kept in the know, especially after what happened in Chicago. Don't want another near-disaster like that."
He shuddered. "God that was scary. Honestly, their tech frightens me sometimes."
He took her hand. "It's probably nothing like that, though. I don't think they'd send Ms Moss into any sort of danger."
"All the same, it's best to know what's going on..."
"I'll see what I can find out..."
Their conversation turned to other, more intimate matters, and Aaron lost track of time: the last orders bell caught him by surprise. Abigail smothered a yawn.
"Oops. Sorry. Late night last night and an early start this morning. Better get home."
"Want me to walk you?"
She giggled. "Better not, my landlady doesn't like that sort of thing."
"Pity." He leered and slid a hand under her skirt: she giggled again and pushed him away.
He sighed and sat back. "Where, then?"
She smirked. "Naughty boy. I haven't said yes yet."
He rolled his eyes. "Beginning to think you never will..."
"Oh, that's not fair!"
"I know. I'm sorry. I'll behave." He glanced at the bar, from where the barmaid was giving them pointed looks. "We'd better go before they throw us out."
Outside the pub he pulled her into his arms and nuzzled her neck.
"It's a shame you can't come and visit."
"Don't they let you have guests?"
He pulled back to frown at her. "You know, I don't know. I've never asked."
She pushed his shoulders playfully. "Silly boy! Ask them!"
"OK. I'll give you a ring when I've found out."
"That'd be nice." She kissed him then pulled away. "I really must get me beauty sleep."
"You don't need it."
"Flatterer!" She giggled, then sighed. "Early morning again tomorrow though. I've got to go."
With a last kiss, he nodded, buttoned his jacket and watched as she walked the short distance to the house she shared with several others. With a last wave as she disappeared inside, he headed off back to the consulate.
In her room Abigail slid out of her coat then reached for her phone. Fast-dialling, she waited impatiently for the voice at the other end.
"Mrs Stevenson speaking."
Abigail smiled grimly. "Hello mum..."
Part 5 - ... still in England...
In the rec room Ramp finished playing last night's transmission from Aaron's transmitter. Steamy sat up on his hind legs, eyes bright with indignation.
"He called me stupid?"
"Well, not in so many words." Phil somehow hadn't expected the little transformer to be so offended. "He implied that you weren't bright. It doesn't necessarily mean stupid, just... a little bit unaware."
Steamy glared at him as best he was able. "Thank you for trying, Mr Phil, but I do know what the word means. All of its meanings." He was silent for a moment, then buzzed something in Cybertronian that made Ramp chuckle.
"Perhaps not. It wouldn't do Poppy's reputation any good if one of our guests went down with food poisoning..."
Phil stared at the computer in alarm, then agitatedly turned back to Steamy. "Please don't do anything to damage him!"
Steamy grumbled, but nodded. "I wouldn't. Especially if it might hurt Poppy..."
Phil smiled in relief. "However, we can take advantage of his... misconception."
Ramp inclined his head. "I'd call it fledgling bigotry, myself, but go on."
"Well, to start with I need to check up on this girl - should be easy enough. It could all be innocent, but it sounded to me as though she was a little too interested in what was happening here, a little too keen about egging the lad on."
Ramp flickered. "Vocal harmonics suggest there was something other than simple interest being expressed."
Phil nodded acknowledgement. "So, if Aaron thinks he can get intel from Steamy, I suggest we let him do it."
"But with me giving him the wrong information." Steamy tilted his head. Phil smiled.
"Only if you're in agreement."
The little transformer chirred his amusement. "I think I can manage that..."
Phil headed back to the main part of the consulate just in time to answer the door as the bell rang. Outside were two men in overalls, a large truck parked behind them.
"Delivering your new cooker, sir." The taller one smiled and handed over a clipboard: signing it, Phil handed it back and gestured towards the kitchen.
"Through here. Do you need a hand?"
"Oh no, sir. We can manage."
Though Phil was a little concerned for the furniture as the pair were looking around everywhere but where they were going as they wheeled the large box into the house. After they'd banged into the doorjamb for the third time he whistled to get their attention.
"There's one in the kitchen, and I'll introduce you to another if you can get the thing installed without taking any more paint off the walls."
"Sorry sir." The shorter man coughed in embarrassment, and the two if them eased the cooker into the kitchen with a lot more care. Settling it in place took a few more moments then they collapsed the packaging and looked around with interest. Phil gestured to the steamer sitting on the worktop.
"This is Steamy. He's our chef."
Steamy transformed, taking longer and making more of a show than usual. The delivery men watched, awed, then applauded. Phil chuckled as Steamy rose to his hind legs and managed a clumsy bow.
Phil nodded. "He does have assistants, though." He glanced over his shoulder, to where Laura and her colleagues were beginning to gather everything for lunch.
But all attention was fixed on Steamy. The taller man grunted.
"My missus would love one o' they."
The shorter one - Dave Thompson according to his nametag - poked his mate in the ribs.
"Your missus can't cook! Anything'd be an improvement!"
"Last time I invite you round for a meal..."
At that point Vault entered the kitchen, and the friendly bickering was suddenly silenced. Phil extended a hand towards the transformer.
"This is Vault, our celebrated architect."
Gravely, Vault nodded a greeting, and both men stared, eyes wide. Phil chuckled.
"Yes, that is the usual response."
"Hello sir... Mr... Vault."
"Vault will suffice, Mr Thompson."
Thompson grinned. "Call me Dave."
"Dave. The defunct cooker is at the side of the house - I assume it will be recycled responsibly?"
"Oh, absolutely sir... Vault. Don't you worry about that. We take our responsibilities very serious."
"I am glad to hear it. A pleasure meeting you, gentlemen." Vault turned to Phil. "If I might have a word, when you're finished?"
"Give me ten minutes and I'm all yours." The soldier turned back to the beaming delivery men as Vault left the kitchen, and beckoned them towards the side door. "Old cooker's out here..."
"What's up?" Phil had seen the burnt-out cooker safely loaded and the van on its way, and returned to the rec room, where Vault was waiting with Ramp. The architect folded his arms across his torso.
"Lieutenant, while I respect your authority, I question whether providing Aaron with misinformation is truly the best way to approach this situation. He has done nothing to make us suspicious..."
"The keyword there is 'us' - meaning you transformers." Phil sighed. "I... appreciate that you would much prefer openness and honesty - who wouldn't? - but we, as in NEST, don't have that luxury. We have to assume the worst of everybody. All our safety depends on it. There are still hostile groups out there, still Cybertronian weapons in human hands - hell, still Cons in hiding."
"And yet, you think that one small human could be a threat..."
"Vault, one small human killed Megatron the first time 'round. Please don't ever underestimate us - or the harm we can do."
Vault lowered his head and his arms. "I am duly rebuked."
Phil growled and reached up to lay a hand on a metal shoulder. "I didn't mean it like that. Look, I know absolutely nothing about architecture. I wouldn't even try to offer any kind of criticism of your work, only appreciation. You aren't a soldier - and we never want you to be! - and although you do know a lot about us humans, you've really not come into contact with the nastier specimens. I have. It's my job."
Vault nodded. "A somewhat crude analogy, but I understand what you are trying to express. And we do appreciate what you continue to do for us. I will let the matter rest."
"That's all I ask. And if the lad tries to pump you for intel, change the subject or just say you don't know. For all our sakes."
"What's for lunch today, Steamy?" Aaron seated himself at the empty kitchen table and grinned at the little transformer.
"Baked potatoes, omelette, chicken fajitas, and tuna and pasta salad, Mr Aaron."
"Nice!" The human nodded. "Um, I think I'll have the salad today."
"Another five minutes. You're early."
Aaron leaned back and put his hands behind his head.
"I know. I've been doing a little private study, and I missed breakfast. Stomach's grumbling." He sipped the pineapple juice Laura placed before him and hmmed his satisfaction. "So, any news from Ms Moss? Bet she's getting a nice tan!"
"I expect so. I do hope she's using sunscreen."
"She's pretty sensible. And isn't 'Spin with her? Won't he remind her if she forgets?"
"I think he's a bit busy with his own project."
"Oh? What's that, then?"
Twinkling mischievously, Steamy slid the bowl of salad closer for him to help himself. "The island is short of water. Sparkspinner is helping the staff there build water collection and filtering facilities."
Aaron tilted his head. "Seems a bit... ordinary for his talents..."
"Doesn't salty water make metals rust faster?"
"So having a specialist is a good idea, isn't it?"
"True. It just seems a bit of a waste."
Steamy shrugged. "It saves transporting water there."
"Reducing costs, resources and carbon footprints, yes. Always a good thing." He took a forkful of salad. "The island's in the Indian Ocean, isn't it. I suppose not a lot happens there now there are NEST bases around the world. I guess it'd make a good holiday spot for military operatives though."
"There are still human installations there. There's an American satellite tracking station, and an emergency landing place for big aircraft in trouble."
"And a few transformers?"
"It was the original base when the Autobots first came here, but that's closed down now." Steamy looked up as a couple of their guests entered the kitchen, still discussing their latest session with Vault and Sinewave. "Most of them are in other countries."
"Defending us humans - for which we can all be grateful!"
Steamy chittered. "It's the least we can do, Mr Aaron, to say thanks to you for letting us stay here."
Aaron smirked. "Heh, let's face it, it's not like you use up the resources we need, and you do give us an awful lot in return. I'm glad you're here."
"Anything we can do to help..." Steamy turned to greet the rest of the group, who had arrived down for lunch. "Excuse me please, Mr Aaron..."
Aaron smiled indulgently as the little transformer scampered off to attend to the other guests.
Phil was frowning over the latest garden requisitions list when he heard the voice.
"Lt. Collier?" Phil turned his head, to find Aaron behind him. "Sorry to bother you, sir, but are we allowed to have friends visit?"
Phil's first instinct was to say 'no', but he caught himself. The Consulate was supposed to be open to anyone, within certain sensible limits of course, and there was no reason for him to immediately go on the defensive. He forced a smile.
"Of course, Aaron, as long as it's just during the day. Just remember the transformer wing is off limits, and no photographs of anyone without their express permission. Probably best to avoid the greenhouse too - Muncher's in a bad mood. Mice got in a couple of days ago and have eaten all the pea plants he had in there."
Aaron bit back a laugh, turning it into a cough as Phil frowned.
"Sorry sir. Not making fun, it's just weird to think of a robot being angry because a mouse ate his plants... But thanks."
Phil watched as Aaron headed off, a distinctly youthful spring in his step. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps it was all completely innocent and the lad was just a bit of an arse. He was young, he might grow out of it.
In the meantime, Phil would keep him under surveillance. If the friend he wanted to invite was Abigail, they'd be able to vet her while she was here.
"So, how about Saturday? I can take the day off and show you all around the place."
"That would be great!" Abigail glanced quickly at her diary - Saturday was clear. "What do I do, just turn up at the gate?"
"Yes. There'll be a soldier on duty there: tell him you're visiting me and he'll give me a call. Can you get here OK?"
"I can get use of the car this weekend."
"Good. There's plenty of parking space."
"Great! I'll see you Saturday morning then, around 10?"
"10's good. I'll look forward to it. Take care, darlin'."
Abigail rang off, then speed-dialled her mother to tell her the news - and ask if there was anything in particular she should look out for or try to learn, anything the Club wanted to know...
Part 6 - Saturday
Abigail pulled up at the gate just after ten, and smiled at the soldier on duty, who saluted briskly.
"I'm here to see Aaron Aaronson?"
"Yes ma'am. Name?"
He spoke quietly into his mike, waited a second or two, then nodded and opened the gate.
Driving slowly Abigail followed the gently curving drive, eyes widening at the sight of the house. Aaron was at the huge main door, waiting for her, and came forward as she parked up, got out and stood staring.
He chuckled and kissed her cheek. "Yeah, it is quite impressive, isn't it?"
"It's beautiful! Oooh, imagine working here..."
"It's great." He took her hand. "C'mon, let me show you around."
As they entered the foyer Ramp, who was sitting on the desk, immediately scanned her thoroughly. It took just a couple of seconds.
"All clear, Lt. Collier. She is carrying a mobile phone and a music player, but nothing else."
Phil, who was in the rec room, nodded. "Can you access the phone?"
There was what the officer could only call a withering silence on the other end of the comm, then Ramp, his tone condescending, said, "Listed for your perusal. Tracing the last ten calls."
Phil rolled his eyes; Ramp could be such a prat at times. Moments later the computer came back on the line.
"Nothing overtly suspicious. There are regular calls to a Mrs Stevenson - a relative, perhaps?"
"Possibly. Get me details, please."
"I'll be there shortly."
Phil was following the activity on a covert action on the outskirts of Glasgow - three fugitive 'Cons were being tackled by Graham's unit - when Ramp arrived. The transformer glanced at the screen, his lights flickering.
"They are less of a problem now, with Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave and Shockwave out of commission."
Phil nodded pensively. With the main four gone, the remaining 'Cons were rudderless, either causing trouble because it was their nature, trying to stay hidden, or attempting to flee the planet. With no cohesion - and no matter how insane Megatron had been at the end, it couldn't be denied that as leader his grip on his troops was remorseless and rigidly-controlling - they were proving much easier to overcome than before. Some had even defected to the Autobots, although they were being viewed with deep suspicion and kept contained until the Prime could deal with them in person.
"If it makes life less dangerous... So, find anything?"
Ramp settled himself on the chair beside Phil, one multi-jointed hand gesturing to the screen. An image of an undistinguished and very average woman appeared, along with her current address, date of birth, employment record, education, hobbies, political affiliations, close friends, family, membership of clubs and organisations and the numbers of the last fifty calls listed on her phone. Phil gaped, then turned to frown at the transformer.
"You don't have to try and impress me, you know."
If Ramp had been human he'd have preened. "Just trying to be helpful."
Phil grumped, then turned back to the screen. "Hm. Ann Stevenson. Catholic background. Studied political science at university; member of the Communist Party for a year; donated to Amnesty International on and off - when she could afford it, I suppose; graduated... and then had a baby six months later. Married the father - well, presumably the father - four months before the child was born." He regarded Ramp pensively. "Daughter's name Abigail Randall. OK, so that'll be the girl visiting us. Mr Randall left when the child was five. Mother's employment sporadic, low level, low paid, probably because of the child. It's not easy being a single parent. Once Abigail started junior school Ann found work as a clerk in a telecoms company. Remarried when Abigail was sixteen, second husband died a year later - pancreatic cancer." He sighed. "Sad story, but all too common. So - the phone calls."
"Regular calls from Abigail, and to and from two other people - a George Mason and a Paul Mundy. They all work in the same office."
"Not that I can deduce. There has been one call to an accounting firm, which is unusual but not obviously suspicious."
"Check it out anyway, if you would."
"Certainly. Shall I keep Abigail under surveillance?"
"Please. And make sure you keep her phone tapped. We'll speak again after she's gone."
"They're... amazing." Abigail was wide-eyed, watching Vault and Sinewave deep in incomprehensible conversation over several insanely complicated holograms floating in midair above the main workstation. "What are they doing?"
Aaron peered at the designs for a moment and shrugged. "I have no idea."
Abigail nudged him. "But you're supposed to be a student here!"
"Yeah, but this is the weekend. Ms Moss insists we keep to normal working weeks as best we can. Our 'bots get to do their own stuff at weekends, and it's usually so advanced us poor humans wouldn't be able to understand it. Not to mention that the last lot of students went home yesterday, and the new ones don't arrive 'til Monday, so the place is pretty much deserted right now, so they can really get into it and focus."
"But can't you ask them?"
"I could, but I'm not going to. I'm not going to be rude."
Her face fell. "Oh. OK."
He frowned. "You wouldn't understand it either, so there's really no point in disturbing them."
"I s'pose..." She perked up. "Can we go and see the robot wing instead?"
He shook his head. "Sorry, but that's off-limits."
"Well, partly because it's dangerous. In there they don't have to be careful not to accidentally knock into us or step on us or otherwise squish us. Also, when they're together, they can spread their fields without any risk to us."
She gazed at him blankly. "You what?"
He paused, considering. "Heard of electromagnetic fields?" She nodded hesitantly and he smiled indulgently. "Kirlian fields?"
She grinned. "Ah. Auras."
He sighed silently and nodded. "Yeah, like auras. Transformers have the real thing, and they can control them. They use them to communicate emotion, as far as I can gather, but they feel like static electricity to us and they can give us a real shock. So the 'bots keep their fields held tightly into their bodies when they're around humans, but when they're by themselves they can relax and let them expand."
She chuckled. "Kind of letting their hair down?"
"Kinda... There's also energon in there, which really doesn't mix with human nervous systems, and possibly the cleansers they use, which can strip our skin off."
Abigail shuddered. "OK, I get the picture. We don't go in the alien wing."
"It's for our own safety."
"Yes, I get it. So..." she gazed around the workspace then checked her watch. "Is it time for lunch?"
"Mr Aaron, Miss Randall." Steamy inclined his head but continued concentrating on preparing a thin dough. Aaron raised a hand and turned to Abigail.
"This is Steamy, our chef."
"Oooh!" Abigail leaned closer. "Aren't you cute!"
Steamy stopped and gazed up at her, then glanced at Aaron.
"What would you like for lunch?"
Aaron grinned. "What do you have?"
"The usual, and the specials today are nasi goreng, lamb and pork pelmeni, and smoked salmon and scrambled egg filled pancakes."
Abigail blinked. "Wow. That sounds amazing. Can I try the pelmeni?" She grinned at Aaron. "No idea what it is but I'll try anything once!"
A few minutes later Abigail was enjoying the Russian equivalent of ravioli with sour cream while Aaron tucked into his usual baked potato, with prawn topping as a change from cheese. Abigail gazed around the room and sighed.
"Don't suppose they have any openings for kitchen staff, do they?"
"I don't know... Steamy?" The little transformer paused in his measuring and mixing of fresh spices and eyed the human. "Are there any kitchen vacancies coming up?"
"You'd have to check with Poppy or Mr Phil, but as far as I know there are none. All my staff seem very happy and no-one has said anything about leaving."
Aaron nodded his thanks and turned back to Abigail. "Looks like a no."
"That's a shame. It'd be nice to work somewhere like this. Much more interesting than the farm shop."
"I could try putting in a word for you with the lieutenant and Ms Moss, if you like. Can't promise anything though."
"Worth a try - thanks!" She finished the last of her meal and smiled at him, lowering her lashes and her voice. "I'd love to see your room..."
Aaron hesitated for a moment, then sighed. "I'm not sure of the protocol for something like that. I'd have to ask Phil."
Abigail pouted. "You really have to ask him everything?"
"It's safer, yeah. I don't want to tread on anyone's toes. I love it here, and I want to stay."
Phil watched as Aaron and Abigail made their way up the ramp heading for the human wing. He couldn't say he was happy to allow it - it was fairly obvious what they were going to do when they got to Aaron's room - but they were both consenting adults, and the Consulate wasn't some sort of strict boarding school. He debated asking Ramp to switch on the surveillance devices installed in every room (they were there in case of emergencies and usually left off for privacy reasons) but really couldn't justify it to himself. Let the boy enjoy his afternoon. They couldn't really cause any security problems in his room. Well, none that would affect the consulate, anyway.
In the meantime he had a couple of reports to prepare, one for Poppy for when he spoke to her tomorrow, the other for Graham, who was agitating for a status update. He couldn't put them off any longer. Settling himself in Poppy's office with Ramp on the desk in front of him he began to work through his lists.
At least he didn't need to worry about Highdive. The transformer was averaging five hundred miles an hour - how, Phil didn't know and was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to understand if anyone told him: that speed was completely impossible for a small helicopter - and should be arriving at Diego Garcia in about four days. At least he'd be able to give Poppy rides over the atoll, which she'd enjoy. Graham would give the requisite bollocking when the transformer finally got back.
Phil sighed. He was looking forward to speaking with Poppy. What he wasn't looking forward to was hearing how things were going with Ratchet and 'Spin, and the Starscream project...
Part 7 - Sunday
One o'clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon and Phil was sitting before the transformed Ramp, patiently waiting for Poppy's face to appear on the screen.
He didn't have a lot to report, really, at least as far as the Consulate was concerned. While Poppy was away they'd lessened their intake of students and were holding a series of one day mini-symposia a couple of times a week instead of daily classes. Everything was running smoothly. Too smoothly. Phil had the uneasy feeling that everything was just a little too good to be true right now and was waiting for disaster to hit...
"Hi! How's things?" Poppy seated herself in front of the screen on Diego Garcia and grinned. Phil raised a hand in greeting.
"Pretty good. You're looking great."
It was true. Pale British skin had assumed a warm tan, and her fine brown hair had paler, almost dark blonde streaks running through it, probably from being sun dried after swimming. She looked less stressed, the faint shadows that had been under her blue-grey eyes had vanished - and those eyes were wide and filled with excitement right now. He smiled.
"OK - what's happened?"
She threw her hands up, beaming delightedly. "It's been amazing..."
She'd got the call late on Friday evening, and 'Beat had raced to Ratchet's Lair with Poppy safely strapped inside. He'd gone into the lab with her this time, standing in the main space close to her spot on the walkway - close enough to protect Poppy if need be but not so close as to impede her view.
Down in the lab the heaps of metal had been mostly cleared from the tables, except for the one closest to Poppy. On that one lay... well, it had to be Starscream's new protoform.
She gazed down, fascinated. She'd seen pictures of protoforms in 'Beat's history, and had been startled at the immense variations in size. There was less variation in form, although there were differences between the basic frame, the doorwingers, and the flier frames - and the Seekers, as Ratchet had called them.
What lay on the operating table was relatively small - he would be only a little taller than Stronghold when standing, quite a bit shorter than Ratchet - and looked oddly fragile for something made of super-dense metal. The limbs were long and thin, the legs digitigrade, the fingers tipped with long and very dangerous looking talons. The face was triangular, the chin pointed; the eyes, currently offline, looked larger than the other transformers, although that might just have been the effect of the small, delicate face. Spreading out from the back on either side were complex skeletal structures that Poppy supposed would become his wings when he assumed his alt form, although she didn't want to take anything for granted. Perhaps they'd be something else. Although given the images she'd seen of him on earth, it was a sensible guess.
But the figure looked dead. And sounded dead. She hadn't realised it consciously until then but the transformers were noisy beings. Even when recharging there were the little hisses and squeaks and grinding sounds of their internal systems running. The dull grey creature on the table was completely silent.
Ratchet had entered the lab while she'd been examining the figure, 'Spin close behind him. There was nothing physical, but she got the impression they were both tired...
"Ratchet has been working non-stop, and 'Spin has only taken the bare minimum of recharge breaks." Cable murmured in her ear. It sometimes amazed her how he seemed to be able to read her mind. "After this, I think the Prime will insist they all take a proper break."
Ratchet was watching, and nodded.
"This next procedure is the first of the two most vital. Today we will return the spark to the protoform." He paused for a moment. "If this fails, the entire operation will fail. If it succeeds - well, we will be a little closer to success."
He turned as Jolt and Wheeljack entered the lab, the former gingerly carrying a large metal container, a panel on its top surface outlined in rhythmically flickering lights. Jolt placed it carefully on the table next to the protoform and glanced at Ratchet, who nodded.
Poppy leaned forwards as far as she could, barely breathing as Jolt swung open the top of the container. Inside was... Poppy squinted. It looked like a brilliant blue star pulsing gently inside an intricate case of silver-wrapped crystal.
"That's his spark?" Her voice was hushed, but they all heard it. Ratchet glanced up at her.
"His spark core, strictly speaking. In stasis right now. Beautiful, isn't it?"
"Oh yes..." she breathed, watching as the medic carefully opened the double layer of interlocking metal plates on the protoform's chest, then lifted the crystal out of the case. Slender silver filaments trailed from it, attached to sockets inside the case: Jolt gently detached them then stepped back as Ratchet delicately held the crystal over the open space, waiting while 'Spin connected the tiny wires to various others inside the protoform's chest. As he stepped back Jolt leaned in and fastened his claws to either side of the chamber - then finally and very slowly, Ratchet lowered the crystal into its proper place.
They all stared at the spark for a long, tense few minutes while nothing happened. Then Ratchet chirred at Jolt, who lived up to his name, applying a jolt of what might have been electricity to the edges of the spark chamber.
Poppy held her breath.
Then, slowly but picking up speed, little flickers of light began to spread out from the spark, coursing along and through the protoform. And there were noises, little whirrs and sparks as reformatted systems came online. Finally the entire frame shuddered, and everyone in the lab relaxed. Poppy missed the intermingling of fields in congratulation and relief, but she recognised the satisfied clicks and chirrs from the group before her.
Cable tickled her ear. "It worked."
Ratchet gazed at her. "So far, so good, as you would say Ms Moss. We still have a long way to go, however. At the moment the protoform is in what would be a vegetative state in a human. It has autonomic functions, enough to keep it online and functioning, but there is no processor - no brain - to give it sentience."
"That's the next job, then?"
"Yes. I need to rebuild the processor almost completely."
Poppy chewed her lip for a moment. "Sir, how are you going to do that? I assume you can't use earth tech or components."
"No." Ratchet hesitated, then huffed a sigh. "I will be using parts of Que's processor along with what remains of Starscream's logic centres."
Poppy felt queasy. She knew Que had been a colleague of Wheeljack's and had been killed in Chicago - completely killed, with no hope of being restored - but the idea of what was effectively a brain transplant... no, that just felt wrong. And yet, if it allowed another to live... She shook her head and decided not to think about it.
"Have you ever done this before, sir?"
Ratchet eyed her, brow ridges raised. "As far as I'm aware, Ms Moss, no-one has ever done this before."
Wheeljack's finials flashed pale blue as he spoke. "Going to be interesting to see the result - assuming it works, and although we have great faith in Ratchet, that's by no means certain. If it does work, though, we may have the answer to the old question of where our essence is contained - processor or spark."
Ratchet's engine growled. "I deal in life. I'll leave the philosophy to those who can spare the time."
Wheeljack clapped him on the shoulder with a clang. "And now it's time for you to get some recharge. All of us could do with some." He gestured towards the protoform. "He's not going anywhere, and you have to be fully alert for the next stage."
Poppy surprised herself by yawning, then realised it was gone midnight. Where had the time gone? 'Beat reached up and nudged her gently.
"You should get some sleep too."
She nodded, then beamed at the transformers. "Thank you all so much for letting me be here! It's exciting, and fascinating, and.... thank you."
Ratchet nodded. "You are welcome, Ms Moss. Now, we will not be resuming work for twelve hours, and while you may watch if you wish, much of the initial stages will be invisible to your optics. You might prefer to join us again when we are ready to reinstall and initialise the processor. I estimate that will be in three days time, but will alert Cable when we are ready."
"Thank you, sir." She yawned again - it really had been a fraught couple of hours. "I'd better get my own recharge now."
"Oh, but you should have seen it, Phil! It was... I know it's not really a person yet, but seeing the body - the protoform - come to life... it was magical."
The soldier grinned at her enthusiasm. "I'm glad you're finding it so interesting."
"Interesting? It's... enthralling. 'Beat tells me his new designation is to be Star, at least for the time being. It's close enough to his original name that no-one will forget it, and Ratchet hopes he'll find it familiar enough that it will help him stabilise. Oh, and they've shipped in a pretty little jet for him to use as his alt form."
The little commercial jet had been flown in the day before. Its original livery was a rather uninspired blue and white, but it was being repainted in ice-blue and the kind of rich, deep, sparkly black used for very expensive sports cars. Jolt had suggested that a colour scheme completely different from Starscream's old one might help his integration go more smoothly, and Ratchet had agreed.
Poppy thought it was gorgeous. Phil laughed.
"Don't get too attached!"
She grinned. "I won't. Nice idea as it is. Even if this whole thing does work he's going to need so much help. Ratchet thinks he'll online with not much more... intellect than a child. He'll need to learn to make sense of the universe again." Her smile faded. "It sounds awful to me, but 'Beat says it's different for them, and if all goes well he could catch up really quickly... I'm keeping my fingers crossed, anyway."
Phil nodded. "So what's next?"
"Ratchet rebuilds his brain."
"You make it sound so simple..."
She giggled, then sobered. "From what I can gather - and some of the concepts they're talking about don't even have English translations, at least, not ones Cable or 'Beat know - Ratchet believes he can repair most of the processor, except for the personality centre, but everyone thinks that's a good thing, as he will develop a new personality as time goes on. Ratchet is fairly confident that his scientific databases have survived undamaged, and his logic centres, and his actual processing ability - but we can't confirm anything until the processor is installed and onlined. That will be Tuesday at the earliest if they keep working without a break."
"And you'll let us know what happens."
"As soon as I can. Want me to wake you if it's nighttime there?"
"OK." She saluted cheekily, and he chuckled.
"You stay safe, love. Carry on enjoying yourself."
"Will do. You look after everyone there, won't you?"
"My sacred duty. Hate for you to come back to anything out of place!"
She laughed, blew him a kiss, and closed the connection. He gazed at the blank screen for a moment, then sighed as Ramp transformed.
"Better get back to work, I suppose..."
This is the pretty little jet I have in mind for Star's new alt mode... (I'd rather like one of them myself!)
Apparently what I'm trying to do here - restore a spark - is canon in some continuities, though rare and very difficult. Interestingly, there is at least one continuity in which Starscream's spark is actually immortal and can't be destroyed, ever, so I have canon on my side there too. However, the details are all my own extrapolation/imagination (though checked as carefully as I can).
Part 8 - Four Vital Days
Something in Phil's chest clenched as Poppy's face appeared on the screen. Her eyes were brimming and red-rimmed, and her lower lip trembled.
"Love? What is it? What's happened?"
She scrubbed at her eyes as fresh tears trickled down her face.
"Oh Phil - it was so awful..."
The day had started off well. Poppy had woken, showered, driven to the base and breakfasted with Karen, then, with 'Beat behind her, entered Ratchet's Lair. All of the currently-resident transformers were present, which, thinking about it, wasn't surprising. After all, this was Starscream. Well, used to be Starscream. None of them had any idea if this was going to work or what the 'Con's reactions would be...
Ratchet was already connected to the protoform via a sturdy cable extending from his wrist to the grey frame's neck, while the Prime stood at the head of the table, giant hands resting firmly but gently on the protoform's shoulders. The wing-structures had been folded under the frame's back, presumably to protect them should the transformer online flailing or in distress. Jolt and Wheeljack stood at the bottom of the table, hands hovering, ready to grab a leg each. Poppy frowned sideways at Cable, who as usual was perched on her shoulder.
"Wouldn't it be more secure to use restraints?"
Wheeljack glanced up, finials flashing. "It would, Poppy, but it would also be more restrictive. We can feel what needs to be done."
Cable kept his voice very low, to avoid distracting the larger transformers. "He means they can be flexible with their servos. Restraints would be more rigid and could damage the frame, or frighten the protoform. But more importantly, this way they can all extend their fields to soothe or reassure or control him as he onlines."
Ratchet spared a moment to glance up at the human. "This will be traumatic for him. I have no idea how much, if anything, he will remember. At the very least there will be frame dissonance. He is physically about half the size of his original form." His voice deepened as he added something in Cybertronian, and Poppy felt Cable indicate his acknowledgement.
"Ratchet says he wants to focus on the task now, so I will translate for you." Cable settled himself against Poppy's neck. She patted him and seated herself, leaning forwards to watch.
The atmosphere became tense - partly a result of the interlinked energy fields of the beings down in the lab, she knew. Wheeljack and Jolt lowered their hands, and the Prime also readied himself, gaze directed downwards and hands steady.
There was no obvious sign that Ratchet had done anything, but suddenly the protoform flinched, its eyes flickering before settling into a steady blue - blue? - radiance. There was silence for a few seconds, then the figure wrenched itself out of all their hands with a static-filled whimper, shoving itself back against the Prime's powerful frame, curling in on itself and throwing its arms up in a purely defensive gesture. Even speaking Cybertronian its voice was a low, terrified moan.
Cable's voice in her ear, mimicking the protoform's. "You're all too big... why are you so big?... where are my hatchlings?"
A flurry of alarm from the lab as the Prime laid his hands on the cringing form's shoulders, the deep voice soothing, comforting.
"Be calm. You are safe."
"Don't... hurt me..."
"No-one will hurt you..." Prime looked at Ratchet, who was running scans, then back at the trembling frame. "You are safe."
"Never safe, never... hurts... where are my hatchlings?"
"What hatchlings?" Ratchet plugged another cable into the protoform's neck: the shaking eased a little, and the doctor pulled one thin arm away from its head. "Star, what hatchlings?"
"The... hot... somewhere..." He began to shake again, violently. Even in Cybertronian, Poppy could hear the panic building. "They're alone... hungry..."
Prime and Ratchet exchanged alarmed looks, then Prime grabbed for the frame as Star lunged forward unexpectedly, nearly falling off the table. Holding the shaking, struggling figure securely, he frowned at the medic.
Ratchet acquiesced, and a second later the protoform collapsed, falling limp in Prime's arms.
"Can you find out what he means without bringing him out of stasis?"
Ratchet's engine whirred in frustration. "I don't know. It's a complete mess in there."
"Try." Prime laid the frame gently back down on the table - then realised that Poppy, her eyes wide and horrified, was still watching. He moved to the walkway, resting a hand on the railing. "Poppy, I must ask you not to reveal anything you have heard here to anyone."
"O... of course, sir. But what did he mean, hatchlings?"
"That is what we need to determine."
Poppy nodded nervously, and the Prime inclined his head.
"It might be less distressing if you were to leave us for a while."
The Prime had a way of making orders sound like requests, but Poppy was feeling shaky. She may not have the same electromagnetic sensitivity as the aliens, but the last few minutes had been tense and stressed and horrible...
Phil eyed her sadly. "I'm sorry. That must have been scary."
Poppy shook her head. "No, you don't understand. It was the first thing he did that was so awful - cower back with his arms over his head, like... just like a child expecting to be beaten..."
Phil felt helpless as Poppy sniffled and wiped her eyes again, then managed a watery smile.
"I'm sorry. I'm just... I'm not used to anything like that. All our transformers are happy. I mean, they've been through a lot, but they seem pretty content... but that... that was heart-breaking. What must he have suffered to have that sort of reaction? Ratchet said there's hardly anything of his original personality left, but surely there must be something for him to react like that? Some awful memories?"
Phil frowned. "What did they say?"
Poppy blew her nose to give herself a moment to think. Prime had asked her not to relate what she'd heard, and she wouldn't dream of breaking her word. But she didn't like lying... She put away her tissue and sniffed. "They were speaking Cybertronian."
Phil nodded. "Pity, but I can understand why. After all, what they're trying to do there is not exactly ethical, is it?"
"Trying to save a life?"
"Trying to force an enemy over to their side."
Poppy blinked. "You think that's what they're doing?"
"It's one way of looking at it."
"But it's not their way." Poppy was becoming irritated. "The Prime says he deserves a second chance."
"Yes, but it's very useful that he was the second in command of the 'Con forces, isn't it? If there's any memory left - and from the sound of it there is - he may be... persuaded to provide valuable intel."
"About what? The war's over, surely."
Phil rubbed his face. "He was a scientist, wasn't he? He knows - used to know - a lot about their tech. Their space bridges, their weaponry."
"Phil, please tell me this isn't what you personally believe."
"Personally? No, I don't. But you can bet your life that's what the General is thinking."
"It's always about weapons with you lot, isn't it?"
"No, Phil." She scrubbed a hand across her eyes. "I'll speak to you later."
"Poppy..." But she'd closed the connection.
Cable patted her neck gently as she swallowed back her tears. "Are you all right, Poppy?"
She sniffled and tried to smile. "I'll be fine. I just... just need some air."
She'd spent the rest of the day wandering along one of the beaches and sitting gazing out to sea, roiling thoughts an unsettling contrast to the serenity of her surroundings.
What the hell had happened to Starscr... Star to make him so frightened? She understood that coming online in a different body must have been difficult, even if he didn't know who he was - body memory may just be pseudoscience to humans but according to 'Beat's history there had been serious study done on protoforms and sparks, and the evidence strongly suggested that the substance of the protoform 'remembered' its original size and shape, and that sparks retained the strongest memories of the beings they powered...
That was a frightening thought. If his strongest memories were of pain and being hurt... She shuddered. Had that been Megatron's doing? She suddenly felt very glad the Decepticon leader was dead.
Half way through the afternoon she'd calmed down enough to feel embarrassed and a little guilty about her overreaction to Phil. He was an officer in the military: he was trained to think that way. It wasn't personal, she knew that. She knew him. She'd been unfair. And she needed to apologise.
But perhaps not right now. It would be gone eleven back home, and he'd be busy with the daily evening security checks and reports. Breakfast-time would be a better idea.
She sighed, had Cable call for 'Beat, and made her way back to the base for dinner.
Friday morning Karen picked her up in the jeep: 'Beat was, apparently, giving Star a history lesson, according to Cable. Bemused, Poppy hurried breakfast and made her way to the comms room, having Cable contact Ramp on the way. Before she could find 'Beat she had an apology to make.
"Poppy, I'm sorry." Phil didn't even give her a chance to speak. She sighed and smiled.
"Phil, I'm the one who should apologise. I overreacted. I'm sorry."
He closed his eyes for a moment, and she frowned. He looked as though he'd had no sleep. Was that her fault?
"Are you OK? You look tired."
He waved a hand. "I'm fine. We had a 'Con incursion in London last night: I had to monitor comms from here as they took out the London base."
She bit her lip. "Was anyone hurt?"
"Few minor injuries in Graham's unit. None of ours."
She breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness... Any problems there?"
"No, everything's fine, and the 'Cons are either deactivated or in custody. Missed our place by miles. Nothing for you to worry about." He smiled. "What are you up to today?"
"Back to Ratchet's Lair, if I'm allowed in. I... want to see if Star's any better than yesterday."
Phil grinned teasingly. "You playing mum again?"
"God no! He's three times my size! It's bad enough with Highdive."
He laughed. "Yes, I can't actually see that stopping you once you've made your mind up."
She shook her head firmly. "No. He needs his own kind and specialist help. I wouldn't know where to start." She frowned. "Speaking of Highdive, he's not arrived yet."
"He should be there later today or tomorrow."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh goodie. I can't wait..."
"Have fun! And good luck today. Let me know what happens?"
"Of course. Speak to you later."
He grinned and closed the connection, and she hastened to Ratchet's Lair.
Inside Star was on the same table, the head of which had been raised a little so he was half-sitting. His eyes were dimmer than yesterday, and he still felt tense, but he was no longer shaking. 'Beat was beside him, one hand resting on his shoulder - though looking closer Poppy could see that a cable from one of the MGC's fingers was plugged into a port on the protoform's neck, presumably transferring the requisite history files directly into Star's databanks.
Nice easy way to learn a subject, Poppy thought to herself. 'Beat looked up and waved a hand in greeting. Poppy had seated herself before she thought to wonder if she should be there - but then, she'd been allowed in, and there couldn't be too much danger if 'Beat was there by himself...
Cable transformed, settled on her shoulder and whispered, "Ratchet has Star's physical systems running at ten percent operational capacity. He's pretty much helpless right now. It keeps him calm and... sleepy. He can take in information and store it, but only process it slowly. Ratchet thinks it will help him internalise it more easily."
Poppy nodded, twitching slightly as the protoform's head turned slowly towards her. Big eyes brightened slightly as he regarded her for a moment, then said, slurringly, "What are you?"
Poppy glanced at 'Beat, who nodded, then smiled. "I'm a human. A native of this world."
Star's eyes blinked slowly. "Hue mann. Human. Organic short-lived creature."
Poppy nodded. "Yes. Sentient, like you, but not as durable."
"Mm." The head turned jerkily back to 'Beat. "Human files, please?"
'Beat shook his head. "Later, Star. Learn about your own species before we start considering others."
"But..." But he was too drowsy to put up any real argument. Poppy bit her lip, then made the offer before giving herself time to think about it.
"Star, how about I talk to you when you're feeling better? Give you first hand information about us."
His head rolled slowly towards her again. "Yes. Always good, first hand."
She smiled. "It's a date."
He blinked again. "Date?"
"A human term. We'll set up a convenient time later."
"Oh. Yes." A minute shudder went through his frame. "Why is my mind so slow?"
'Beat's voice was gentle. "You were badly hurt in a fight. We're trying to fix you, but it will take time."
"I remember... being high... looking down... flying?" He eyed 'Beat, who murmured assent. "I... it was... I should be flying... shouldn't I?"
Ratchet's voice reached them from the further entrance a moment before he arrived in the lab. "Soon, Star. When we've finished this download you should recharge. Next cycle we'll see about your alt mode."
Star thought about this for a moment, then vented a sigh and relaxed. "I think... I think I want that."
A minute later 'Beat carefully unplugged and retracted his cable, and Ratchet scanned the protoform, laying a large hand on his shoulder.
"You're doing well, Star. I want you to rest now, and when you wake we'll run some memory scans."
"Yes, sir." Star obediently settled back and Poppy watched sadly as his systems cycled down to recharge. She glanced at 'Beat, who had moved to stand close to her.
"Not what I'd have expected, after all I heard about Starscream."
"But he is no longer Starscream." Ratchet stood gazing down at the still form. "He is, essentially, a new being, a new individual. His personality matrix was completely destroyed. He now has the opportunity to become what he always should have been."
Poppy took her breakfast into the lab on Saturday, not wanting to waste any time or miss anything. Star was sitting fully upright now, much more alert, and gazing around him with brighter eyes as Ratchet ran more scans. He inclined his head as Poppy arrived.
"You are the human from yesterday." His voice was low and pleasant, if a little gravelly, when not whimpering in fear or moaning in pain.
She grinned. "Yes. I'm Poppy."
"I am... pleased to meet you?" He glanced briefly at Ratchet, who nodded an affirmative. "They tell me I am Star, although it feels as though my designation should be longer..."
Poppy tensed. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Ratchet laid a hand on Star's shoulder.
"If you feel you wish to add more syllables, there is nothing stopping you. There are many, many designations to choose from. Perhaps when you have your alt mode and have flown once more you will find an appropriate descriptor."
"That would be good." He was silent while Ratchet finished whatever he was doing, then the medic stood back.
"Good. Very good, Star. Everything is integrating well. I want you to refuel now, and then we'll go outside."
Star perked up visibly, his systems revving as his eyes brightened. Ratchet's engine whirred a chuckle as he turned to Poppy.
You will probably want to see what happens next."
"Oh, I wouldn't miss it, sir!" She grinned widely, then pursed her lips. "May I ask you a couple of questions, though, sir?"
"Why are you all speaking English?"
"Because it is a much simpler language than Cybertronian and his speech centres aren't fully repaired yet."
"But you were all speaking Cybertronian when he first onlined..."
"True - but those were all very simple, basic concepts. Baby-talk, you'd call it."
"Oh, OK, that makes sense."
"And the second question?"
"Ummm... why did you give him blue eyes?"
Ratchet eyed her drily, his voice sardonic. "He has blue optics because that's all I carry. I am an Autobot medic, not a Decepticon."
Poppy blushed and ducked her head. "Stupid me. Of course. Sorry sir."
Star's voice interrupted whatever Ratchet might have said next. "I'm ready, sir."
Ratchet slid an arm behind his shoulders and hauled him upright, holding him steady while he found his balance. Still supporting the protoform, beckoning Poppy to follow along the walkway, he ushered them all outside.
'Beat, Jolt and 'Spin were waiting. Poppy noted that the Autobots were obviously taking no chances - there were no other planes in sight, giving Star no choice but to transcan the pretty little jet that waited outside Ratchet's Lair. It was a fast process - moments later a duplicate jet stood beside the medic. Ratchet turned and beckoned, and 'Spin loped forward.
"Hold thtill, pleathe."
The jet obediently remained stationary as 'Spin scanned his entire form, sensor-filled hands checking the tensile strength and durability of the new mode. It was about ten minutes before he stepped back and nodded to Ratchet. The medic patted a wing.
"Good. Now we need to see your new root mode."
Poppy held her breath, watching eagerly as that enthralling noise and dance of metal happened in front of her...
Star's root mode was as pretty as the jet, she thought. Elegant wings extended from his upper back, while the thrusters formed his lower back and hips. But most striking was his head: the cockpit canopy elongated and drew back into a high, broad, solid V-shaped crest, reminding her vaguely of a certain alien species from a series of films. She smiled to herself: his 'blood' may not be acid, but it could still burn her skin if she wasn't careful. Beside her, 'Spin hmmed pensively.
"Interethting. He'th inthtinctively trying to make himthelf look taller and bigger. It lookth like Ratchet ith right - hith protoform doeth remember being bigger."
"Will that cause any problems?"
"Don't know. We'll jutht have to wait and thee and try to be ready in cathe it doeth."
Which was a little worrying... The sound of a helicopter engine distracted her: shading her eyes she looked up, then grinned. Finally. Highdive. And his timing was perfect.
He landed, transforming as he did so, and waved at Poppy. She glanced at Star, who was staring at the new arrival, watching warily as he paced closer and stopped before them.
"Hello Poppy." He eyed the transformers and offered a greeting in Cybertronian. Ratchet answered in the same manner, apparently a reprimand: Highdive flinched and switched back to English. "Greetings, fellow flyer Star. I'm Highdive."
Star inclined his head, almost shyly. "Greetings."
Highdive scrutinised the jet for a moment or two, then turned to Ratchet. "He's flight-worthy?"
"Then we can fly?"
"You can. But not too far, or high, or fast. This is, in effect, his first flight."
"Then let's make it a good one." Highdive beckoned to Star, then transformed back to helicopter. "Come on. The clouds are waiting."
Poppy watched in delight as the two aircraft seemed to play in the sky. It wasn't exactly precision flying, or even particularly skilful, but it was enthusiastic, even joyful, and it gave Ratchet and 'Spin the ideal opportunity to study the new jet's performance. Poppy could tell by the tones of their voices that they were very pleased...
The two stayed up for a couple of hours, chasing each other, skimming the sea, climbing and diving, but eventually Star seemed to be slowing down - tiring, Poppy thought. The pair came in to land, transforming and dropping down to earth close to the lab, happiness emanating from them in waves. Ratchet strode to them, scanner at the ready, two minutes later obviously pleased with the results.
"Star, you need to refuel then rest. Highdive, your systems are running a little hot - I'd like to check you over before you do anything else."
Highdive grumbled, but very quietly, and followed Ratchet and Star into the lab. 'Beat turned to Poppy, expression as lugubrious as ever.
"I think that went well."
Poppy burst into happy laughter. "That's one way of putting it!"
Now that 'Spin's job was almost done, it occurred to Poppy that she'd be returning home soon - so she'd spent the rest of Saturday with Karen, enjoying a swim and exploring a couple of interesting areas of the atoll she hadn't had time to visit yet. It was all most enjoyable and relaxing, and Poppy knew she was going to miss this place once she got back to the UK.
Though that being said, it would be nice to see her own transformers again, and Phil, of course, and check up on what had been happening...
She was woken early on Sunday morning by the sound of a very big plane roaring overhead, and by the time she'd scrambled into some clothes and 'Beat had raced to the base the C-17 had landed.
Ratchet, Highdive and Star were there, and to Poppy it looked rather like the medic was gently restraining the little jet. Moments later she saw why: Optimus and Wheeljack exited the heavy plane, carrying something. Somethings, rather. Five somethings, silvery and squirming and making very strange chittering mewling noises...
Star stepped forwards as they approached, his arms held out pleadingly as the five somethings were carefully and gently handed to him. As Poppy watched the little jet sank down to the ground, closely followed by the rest of the transformers: she crept closer and stood looking over 'Beat's knee.
What the hell were they?
Star looked up at the Prime. Poppy would later swear his expression was worshipful.
The Prime laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Yes Star. I am sorry, only these five survived."
Star lowered his head sadly, then glanced back up. "But you saved these five... Thank you."
"Will they be Seekers?" Jolt leaned a little closer to take a better look. Star nodded.
"They will. They are mine."
Wheeljack looked over at Ratchet, both of them scanning continuously. "We're going to have to do some research. I'm not up on my Seeker biomechanics."
Ratchet vented a sigh. "As if we didn't have enough to do..."
Poppy suddenly realised that she was looking at baby transformers. She stared up at 'Beat, wide-eyed - there'd been nothing about this in his history. He gazed down at her and vented.
"Yes, well, it's a bit of a long story. Why don't we save it for the flight back home?"
And Poppy had to admit she didn't want to miss anything right now. The way Star was holding the hatchlings... it was exactly like a mother protectively holding her babies.
Which, she realised, was exactly what it was.
OK, that was going to take some getting used to. And they weren't her idea of cute and cuddly. But the way the rest of the transformers were staring at them... well, they were obviously something special.
And they were Seekers. She knew bugger all about Seekers, but even she had realised, from the way everyone spoke of them, that Seekers were exceptional.
Right. She had a lot of reading to do, and 'Beat had a lot of explaining to do, and she'd probably need to talk to others as well.
Later though. Right now, just being here was enough.
Re: the hatchlings... These little creatures are most intriguing. They first appeared in the second film, in energon filled pods onboard the derelict 'Con starship, crashed on what looked like a moon of Saturn (the whackin' great ringed planet in the background was a bit of a giveaway). The conversation was strange...
Spawn your new army? Raises all sorts of questions - especially when Starscream seemed to put the hatchlings' survival before his own when Megatron subsequently beat him (again)...
In the third film they'd hatched and were at Megatron's 'base' in Africa (supposedly Namibia, but I could swear that's Mount Kilimanjaro in the background....) being kept alive by what little energon Megatron (at least) could gather. Which did not appear to be much, going by the noise they were making and their agitation. The associated graphic novels, trying desperately and to some extent successfully to give the films some continuity, show Cybertron as producing new individuals in 'hatcheries', though there's no explanation of how the bodies were created (sparks come from the Allspark, of course), and Megatron taking the last generation of hatchlings with him on the Nemesis.
But that doesn't explain Starscream's words... So I'm sort of going with fanon here, extrapolating from the little that's known and devising my own Seeker culture, myth and biomechanics. See later chapters!
Part 9 - Farewell
'Spin woke her early on Monday morning. She yawned and gazed blearily at him.
"'morning. Whass problem?"
"No problem, Poppy. But my work here ith done, now. I want to go home."
Poppy stared at him. "Haven't you enjoyed it here?"
'Spin hesitated. "It... hath been very interethting, and working with Ratchet wath wonderful. I have learned tho much... But I mith home. It'th too hot here, and too thalty."
Salty? "You mean you don't like the sea air?"
He nodded. "It maketh my jointth ache."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"Becauthe there wath work to do."
Poppy nodded sympathetically. "I just have a few more things I'd like to get done, then we'll arrange the flight back. Can you handle another day here?"
The transformer relaxed. "Of courthe. I need to thay a proper farewell to Ratchet, anyway."
Ratchet's Lair felt oddly empty without Star on the table. It was still busy though; Ratchet, Wheeljack and Jolt were sorting through piles of metal - the metal that had come from Starscream, Poppy realised. They looked up as she entered, 'Beat taking his place close to her, and Wheeljack raised a hand. He uttered something in Cybertronian to 'Beat, then switched to English.
"Hello sirs." She gazed down, wondering what they were doing but a little nervous of asking. Perhaps 'Spin could tell her later. "How is Star today?"
"Doing very well." Ratchet straightened and eyed her impassively. "The hatchlings have distracted him from all other concerns."
"That's a good thing, though, isn't it, sir?"
"For the moment. We still have to decide what and how much, if anything, to tell him about his previous life."
Poppy nodded, then ventured to ask, "Sir, what are you going to do about the hatchlings? I mean, they'll become public knowledge sooner or later."
"We know. Optimus is in conference with the General and something he referred to as 'military spin doctors'." Ratchet expressed a frown. "From what I understand, they have nothing to do with either medicine or biomechanics, so why they are called doctors is beyond me."
Poppy bit back a grin. "It's a human thing, sir. They're supposed to make unpleasant facts sound as positive and benign as possible. It's a sort of... social medicine."
Ratchet humphed disdainfully and turned back to sorting through metal, then noticed 'Spin enter the lab...
'Beat touched her shoulder gently as the three big transformers stopped their work, turned their attention to their smaller colleague, and the conversation switched back to Cybertronian.
"We could leave them to it, Poppy. They'll be some time."
She nodded and followed him out into the sunshine.
"Where is Star?"
"He's up on the roof."
"On the roof?" Poppy frowned. "Why?"
'Beat shrugged. "Flyers like being out of doors, Seekers like being up high."
"Oh. Fair enough. Can I still visit?"
"Yes, but you'll need a guard - someone more combat ready than me. There's really only Jolt - will that be OK?"
"Sure!" Poppy was still intrigued by what she thought of as the electrical transformer (alarming dreams aside). "Will you come too?"
"Better not. Star's a little... twitchy, at the moment, prefers not to be around too many people."
Poppy bit her lip. "He's not... violent, is he?"
"No. At least, he hasn't been so far and we don't think he will be. But it's best not to push our luck."
"The choice is yours, Poppy. But I think it'll be fine."
"And I trust you. OK - when can we go?"
A slightly buzzing voice came from behind her. "Now, if you are prepared."
Poppy jumped - she simply hadn't heard Jolt arrive. He was astonishingly quiet for a big metal being. She smiled a little nervously.
"Thank you, Jolt. Are you sure you don't mind?"
"Coming with me."
"No." He eyed her curiously. "Why would I mind?"
"Um..." She shook her head. Her own transformers were pretty much au fait now with the vagaries of human courtesy, and understood the things people said to each other that on the surface meant little but expressed so much underneath...
'Beat took pity on her.
"It's a human thing."
Jolt crackled what was probably his version of amusement and gestured them forwards.
There was a human-sized fire escape leading up to the roof. Poppy climbed it, wondering how Jolt was going to get up to that level. She needn't have worried: the massive hanger's outer casing had been hastily adapted to something that to her eyes vaguely resemble a giant sized climbing wall, and which Jolt scaled with ridiculous ease for something so big and seemingly awkward. He arrived at the top before Poppy and swung himself onto the roof, standing for a moment as Poppy scrambled up the last few steps to join him.
Her mouth dropped open, and she fought to not giggle. At the far end of the very slightly sloping roof a spacious enclosure had been constructed of sturdy struts and cabling, chin-high to Poppy and curving inwards at the top - to stop the hatchlings from climbing over it, she saw as they drew closer. Inside, Star was hunkered down comfortably, sleepily keeping watch over the five babies, who were sprawled together in the sun, drowsing, wriggling every now and then and clicking and chirring quietly.
It looked like... a nest. Star and his hatchlings were in a nest! She sighed and melted, leaning against the edge of the boundary and smiling dreamily.
Now that really was cute!
Jolt whirred quietly, and Star tensed, eyes brightening as he leaned forward, arms held protectively over the hatchlings. Then he recognised his visitors and relaxed, inclining his head to Jolt and eyeing Poppy curiously.
She grinned. "Hi Star. How are you feeling?"
He glanced down at the hatchlings. "Well."
"That's good. Do you feel up to talking? I have to leave soon, and I did say I'd give you a first hand account of my species. Though it'll only be from my point of view."
He moved a little closer and seated himself, one hand resting on the top of the enclosure. "All information is precious. I welcome the opportunity to learn."
Still the scientist. Ratchet - and Prime - must be so pleased!
Jolt settled himself close to the barrier and - to her yelped startlement - lifted Poppy to sit on his leg. It brought her level with Star's face and was, she had to admit, more comfortable than standing straining her neck looking up...
Star listened with gratifying intensity to all she had to say as she meandered from her understanding of the history of the planet and the human species to the importance of art and music to her people. His questions were intelligent and probing, and Poppy surprised herself with how much she actually knew. After an hour, though, the hatchlings started stirring, and the jet became distracted. He reached out a long, viciously taloned digit and touched Poppy's shoulder very carefully.
"I am afraid I must close this dialogue here. Thank you for sharing your time and information. It has been fascinating." He hesitated for a moment. "Might I ask you something?"
His head tilted backwards, eyes directed upwards. "Last dark cycle I watched the sky. I saw a bright band overhead - the plane of this galaxy, a stream of stars. It was very beautiful." His gaze returned to her face. "I... want my designation to be Starstream. Do you think that would be appropriate?"
Poppy felt Jolt tense under her, and for a moment nearly panicked. Was that too close to his original name for comfort? And yet... it fit. Even to the sparkly star-like flecks in his 'skin'.
"May I ask why?"
"It... feels right. It feels... familiar."
She nodded. If it helped him to stabilise... "You should ask the Prime - but I think it's perfect."
"Thank you." He pulled his digit back and stroked one of the waking hatchlings, which mewled and stretched up into the touch. "Excuse me. They need my attention."
"Of course." Poppy slid from Jolt's leg and leaned against the barrier. "It has been wonderful meeting you, Starstream. I will be leaving soon, but perhaps we can meet again in the future."
He inclined his head. "I look forward to it."
Poppy didn't like goodbyes, but fortunately the farewells were amicable and brief. Everyone assembled on the runway to watch the C-17 take off: even Starstream, following their course with his eyes from where he stood on the roof outside his eyrie. As the island fell away behind them Poppy sighed and turned to 'Beat and 'Spin (Highdive was less than happy about being ordered to ride home in the massive plane and was sulking at the far end). The smallest transformer was looking glum, and she asked him what was wrong.
He whirred irritably. "I'll have to come back."
"The Prime thaid I'll be needed when the hatchlingth are bigger, to help conthruct their frameth and plating."
Ah. So that's why they were so carefully salvaging Starscream's metallic remains. That made sense.
"When will that be?"
"They don't know. Ratchet hath never dealt with thith thituation before. He thaid he'll 'keep uth advithed'."
Poppy nodded, secretly quite happy about the prospect. It had been a fascinating visit, and she had really enjoyed watching the big transformers work. And she was most intrigued by the hatchlings... She turned to 'Beat.
"And on that subject... where do hatchlings come from?"
"Ah." 'Beat vented a sigh and leaned back against the side of the plane. "Now that is quite a question. We need to go far back into Cybertron's history, back before the Golden Age, back to what has been believed to be mythology until now."
Poppy raised an eyebrow. "Does that mean you don't know?"
"Not quite, although what I do know is... suspect."
"Tell me anyway!"
He was still hesitant, but knew Poppy wouldn't let it rest.
"We know that the Allspark gives - gave - life. Back when we still had the Allspark, protoforms were built, then given spark. Depending on their function, they could be sparked as infants, or sparked as mature Cybertronians. During the wars all were sparked as adults - in fact, I believe that no one here had even ever seen a sparkling before the Prime found Star's hatchlings."
Poppy nodded. There was an odd note of wonder in 'Beat's voice.
"But the most ancient stories speak of a time before the first Great War, back at the very beginning of the Golden Age, when Cybertronians could generate their own sparks to inhabit protoforms, and did not need the Allspark to create life."
'Spin shuddered. "That'th thacrilege - except it ithn't, becauthe we've jutht theen it."
"But how does that work?" Poppy stretched out her legs. The C-17 wasn't the most comfortable of vehicles, though at least 'Beat (and Highdive) could ride in root form onboard. "I mean, did your distant ancestors have some sort of sex? To make children, I mean."
'Beat considered the question, then inclined his head. "I suppose you could say that, although as I understand it it did not involve the same functions. The Cybertronians involved merged their own sparks, and overloaded, and sometimes - not always, the process wasn't always successful - the two sparks were strong enough to combine to create a third, which after a while could be moved into a protoform to become an independent lifeform."
"A sort of pregnancy?"
"I suppose that's the closest you can come to it. Although as you know we do not have genders like you. Either 'parent' could carry the spark for the time it took to prepare the protoform."
'Beat raised a hand. "As I say, this is what I have heard and read. I have no solid source material."
"Yes you do. Star himself."
"Yes, but there's a problem there."
Poppy rolled her eyes. Of course there was. "And what's that?"
"He's a Seeker. They're secretive at the best of times, and he is still... trying to find himself. I tried to hint at my interest, and he slammed shut, processor and voice alike. It was quite painful."
Poppy patted his shoulder comfortingly. "I see. Well, I suppose we just need to give him time..." She frowned at a sudden thought. "Who were the other parents, though?"
"There wasn't much choice on their ship. It was probably The Fallen, and it was probably not voluntary on Starscream's part. I doubt any of the others would have the strength to make it a success, and Megatron was at the bottom of the ocean by then. Although I have no doubt he would have laid claim to them for his own army, if he'd had the chance."
Poppy shivered. "What a horrible thought."
"Not pleasant, no. But since both Megatron and The Fallen are dead, the hatchlings stand an excellent chance of becoming properly functioning members of our little band." He 'grinned'. "Especially if the Prime stands in as the other parent."
"Optimus as step-dad?" Poppy giggled. "That summons up some weird images!"
"Ratchet would be good too." 'Spin inclined his head. "He'th a lot leth cantankerouth than he let'th on. And he handled the thparklingth ath though they were hith own."
Poppy wished she'd been there to see that! She sighed and rubbed her eyes.
"And now we have to be careful not to speak about them. Well, to anyone outside the immediate family, anyway. Until the powers that be decide how to tackle the situation."
'Beat and 'Spin both nodded, and even Cable signalled his agreement from his perch on her shoulder.
"But Ratchet thaid he would keep me up to date with progreth, tho I can let you know what happenth."
Poppy grinned. "Thank you, 'Spin. I'd appreciate that." She rubbed her eyes and fought back a yawn, the lack of sleep over the last few days inexorably catching up with her. "I think I'm going to need to rest now."
'Beat's engine whirred in a chuckle. "Finally!"
She stuck her tongue out at him. "I know, frail flesh creatures that need to sleep regularly, how inferior..."
He tilted his head as he reached for a thick layer of foam provided to form a makeshift mattress and laid it out on the floor. "Do y'really think so? You should have said sooner!"
"Ha ha very funny." This time the cavernous yawn refused to be fought back. "Urgh. I can't remember the last time I felt so tired." She settled down on the foam and managed to get more or less comfortable as her eyes drifted shut. "Wake me when we get to England..."
Part 10 - Home Again
The jolt as the C-17 touched down at Brize Norton woke Poppy from an uneasy sleep. Jerking half-upright, she blinked at 'Beat, who swiftly placed a hand behind her back to support her.
She glowered. "You were supposed to wake me."
"You needed the sleep."
She stretched and winced as the massive plane rolled to a halt, then grimaced down at herself. "I hate sleeping in clothes."
'Beat patted her shoulder. "Couple of hours or so and you can have a shower. Or a nice long soak in a bath."
Poppy closed her eyes and shivered happily. "Oh, what a lovely thought... Right now, though, I could murder a cup of coffee..."
'Beat chuckled. "We'll see what we can do..."
Phil was waiting for her on the tarmac - and so were Stronghold and Graham, whose right hand was heavily bandaged, the arm in a sling. Phil grinned and hugged her, kissing her cheek.
"Welcome home, love."
"Thanks." She smiled tiredly then extricated herself and frowned at Graham. "What happened?"
Graham glanced down at his hand and scowled. "'Con incursion in London. I'm on medical leave for a month."
"I suggested he spend it at the Consulate - if that's OK with you." Phil inclined his head.
"Of course! You're more than welcome." She smothered a yawn. "Sorry to be a pain, but is there any way I could get a coffee? Brain still asleep."
Phil chuckled and gestured towards the base. "Oh, I think we can rustle one up..."
Half an hour later, with 'Spin in the back of the Defender and Poppy - now refuelled with a mug of excellent coffee - in 'Beat's driving seat with Phil beside her, they all headed off to the Consulate.
"So, what's Starscre - sorry, Starstream - like, then?"
Poppy thought for a moment. "He's... unfinished. I mean, he doesn't really have much personality at the moment, I don't think. He's very protective of the hatchlings, and very curious, and very intelligent. But that's really all that comes across. But then, Ratchet did say his personality matrix was wiped - empty. So I suppose his personality will develop in time, like everyone's does." She smiled. "At least he'll be with people who won't mistreat him this time around."
"Mm." She giggled. "You should see him with the hatchlings though. It's so cute! He's like a mother hen with chicks."
"Yes, about that. Did you find out how the hell that was possible?"
She shrugged. "'Beat told me what he knows, but that's all myth and ancient stories. I think Ratchet knows more, but he wasn't talking." She frowned. "I can sort of see why. Bad enough for some people that 'living machines' exist - if they found out they could breed...?" She shuddered.
"It's not a matter of if, love, it's a matter of when. Pictures and accusations are already showing up on conspiracy theory sites. I don't know how the 'Bots are going to spin this, but they'd better get some kind of press release done soon, or all of them will be in danger."
Poppy nodded sadly. She had learned a lot about people since becoming Consul.
The journey back to the Consulate was relaxed, with Phil listening to the intricacies of Poppy's adventures on the island. He laughed ruefully at the coconut crab story: apparently Graham had experienced something similar while stationed there...
Everyone was at the entrance to the house when they arrived. Poppy giggled as she slid out of the MGC and waved at her transformers - Steamy raced forwards and nearly tripped her, running in happy circles around her legs like an excited puppy. She stopped and picked him up, grinning down into shining little eyes.
"You missed me, then?"
"Silly Poppy... You've lost weight. Too much. I shall have to reorganise my menu and add some more carbohydrates to lunch..."
"Any chance I could get in and unpack and have a bath first?"
Poppy was never quite sure whether Steamy didn't understand sarcasm or was simply ignoring it. "If you really must."
She nuzzled him. "Yes, I really must."
"Oh, all right then." His head swivelled to Phil and Graham, waiting patiently by the transformed 'Beat and Stronghold. "Hello Mr Phil, Wing Commander. You'll be staying?"
Graham nodded gravely. "For a month, Steamy."
"You'll have to tell me your preferred foods so I can incorporate them."
"I'll make you a list..."
After greeting everyone Poppy had disappeared to the human wing to shower and change: in the kitchen Phil took a sip from his mug of tea and smiled at Graham.
"Glad she's back."
"Mm. I can tell." He took a swallow of his own tea then eyed Phil enquiringly. "You haven't said anything yet, have you?"
Phil frowned. "Sir?"
"You haven't said anything to Poppy yet, have you?"
"I... don't know what you mean, sir."
Graham shook his head. Clueless, completely clueless. Or just in denial. Either way, it wasn't really any of his business.
"If you say so." He slumped back in his seat, rubbing the back of his neck with his uninjured hand. "I'm going to need something to do while I'm here."
"I'm sure we can find something... Do you have anyone you want to come stay?"
Phil raised his eyebrows. "No-one?"
Graham grinned mock-lecherously. "I'm between... 'missions' at the moment."
The lieutenant chuckled. "Well, you aren't going to find anyone out here in the sticks!"
Phil's grin froze, then became a scowl as he tensed. "She's off-limits."
Graham laughed. "Is she now..."
"She's the Consul... She needs to stay... detached and professional."
"Ah, I see." Yep - denial. "I was joking. I have too much respect for her to try anything. She deserves something and someone serious - and I'm not, not yet anyway."
Phil relaxed and finished his tea. "Glad to hear it."
Graham stretched, then stood. "So, what's the usual schedule here?"
Phil rose to his feet. "Let's get you unpacked, to start with. Then it'll be lunchtime, and we can discuss it with Poppy. Assuming she's not fallen asleep, anyway!"
Graham nodded - then frowned as he heard the familiar sound of a helicopter engine. "I also need to have words with Highdive..."
Zee frowned at the photographs on his desk, then fixed Mrs Stevenson with a narrow-eyed gaze. The woman flinched.
"So, my dear Helen. You say that the Consul, her car and the metallurgist robot went to Diego Garcia to work on water filtration and collection."
The woman nodded nervously. "That's what Abby reported back, sir."
"And she wasn't able to find out why the Consul and the car were required to go as well as the other robot?"
"No, sir. Aaron thought it might be for a holiday."
"Interesting..." He drummed his fingers on the desk. "Very well. Maintain contact with your daughter, see if she can find out anything more, and report back to me in a week. Dismissed."
Helen Stevenson scuttled out of the office, obviously glad to go. Zee turned to Aitch, scowling. "We must try to recruit someone more effective..."
Aitch nodded. "I could always try to inveigle myself into the Consulate, sir."
Zee shook his head. "No. I need you here." He gestured to the first of the photographs - a detailed satellite image of the island. "I need to know what this is."
Aitch peered at the section Zee indicated - then his eyebrows shot up.
"It... it looks like... a nest, sir."
"Yes, it does, doesn't it? And a nest implies something in it. And there seems to be something in this one... There were flying robots during the... incidents, weren't there?"
"Indeed there were. Decepticons. The villains of the piece."
"I thought they were all destroyed."
"That's what the world was told, sir. It's possible that some weren't. Or this may be a new arrival."
"I want to know. Get our satellite imagery analysts on it right away. I need this picture blown up and sharpened as much as they can. I want to know what that is."
"At once, sir." Aitch was already on his way out of the office. Zee watched him go, expression grim. This was not the sort of complication they needed right now.
"Muncher? Is it OK if we come in for a minute?" Aaron peeked warily around the greenhouse door, Abigail behind him. The lawnmower turned from where he was supervising a young trainee - actually Tom's grandson, who'd expressed an interest in going into horticulture when he'd left school - side-shooting the heritage tomato plants and nodded.
"Just don't hurt anything."
"We'll be careful..."
Moving gingerly, Aaron led Abigail into the heat of the large structure, now bursting with flowering and fruiting vegetation. Abigail stared around the greenhouse, eyes wide.
"I've never seen things growing so well!"
"Our gardeners are very good at their jobs." He gestured upwards. "And this special silicate helps. It focuses and increases the strength of sunlight on the dullest days, so the place gets the fullest benefit at all times."
Aaron nodded, then led her out of the greenhouse, closing the door behind him.
"Let's get a coffee."
They sauntered towards the house, hand in hand.
"So, Ms Moss is back now?"
Aaron nodded. "Yep. Haven't seen her yet - I suppose she's getting back into the swing of things. We're having a sort of staff meeting this evening, so I expect we'll hear all about it then."
"Wish I could be there."
He grinned and kissed her cheek.
"I'll tell you all about it tomorrow!"
::Back to normal tomorrow::
Sinewave nodded to Vault. ::And the next group of visitors look interesting. How's your Japanese?::
Vault inclined his head. ::Probably nowhere near as good as it will need to be. I'll find a source and learn it tonight. In the meantime, I think Sparkspinner could use a servo in the shower..::
Part 11 - Normality
"So, what happened?"
Graham took the mug of coffee Poppy handed him and glanced down at his bandaged hand with a grimace.
"It was an accident. An embarrassing and stupid one. We'd just about beaten back the 'Con incursion when something blew up. Not a big explosion, but enough to knock us all off our feet. Before I could get up, one of the 'Cons, Barricade I think the name is, ran past trying to escape - and trod on my hand."
Poppy winced. "... ow..."
"That's one way of putting it." He grinned mirthlessly. "Could have been a lot worse if he'd been a few feet to the left." One-handedly he fumbled a bottle of strong analgesics out of his pocket, clicked off the cover and tipped two out, washing them down with a swallow of coffee. "Broke most of the bones, tore ligaments... it's going to be a bugger of a job getting it back into shape."
"But it will be OK, eventually, won't it?"
"Oh yes. Ratchet and Wheeljack between them have adapted a Cybertronian molecular fuser for human use." He raised the injured hand. "Most of the bones have mended already. Ligaments and muscles will take longer, and I'm not to use it for at least two weeks, but it'll be back to normal in a month or so. Weak as hell and stiff as the proverbial board, I'm told, but I can sort that out with physio."
"That's a relief."
"It certainly is."
"So you're under strict orders to take it easy?"
He scowled. "Yes. I'll go spare."
Poppy giggled. "I'm sure we can find something for you to do to stave off madness."
"That would be much appreciated..." Graham glanced towards the main door as Stronghold and 'Beat peered through. The Defender waved a hand.
"Hello Matthew. How are you feeling?"
Graham groaned and thumped his forehead gently on the table. "The joys of enforced leave - your transformer decides he doesn't need to call you sir..." He sighed and raised his head. "I'm fine. What do you two have planned for today?"
"We're going to train with Upbeat's new mods."
Before the officer could reply, Poppy leaned forwards. "Hang on - new mods?" She glared at 'Beat. "You didn't tell me..."
"Yes I did." 'Beat inclined his head. "Well, I told you Jolt and I were going to discuss upgrades while we were on Diego Garcia. His ideas were good, and Ratchet and the Prime authorised them."
"Well thanks a lot for telling me!"
'Beat looked confused. "But I'm telling you now... Poppy, you didn't say anything at the time. I took that to mean you were fine with the notion."
She shoved a hand through her hair - it was getting long again, ought to get it cut, she thought absently - and sighed.
"Of course. Sorry. It's not really any of my business anyway. So what have you got?"
He raised both arms and did... something, and suddenly Poppy was looking at the dangerous end of two... "What are they?"
"Small sonic blasters." At her blank look, he elucidated, "They use pulses of sound to blast opponents."
Poppy giggled nervously. "Death by music?"
'Beat's engine whirred a chuckle. "What a way to go. But no, not quite. They're not really powerful enough to kill, just to disable. Though you should make sure never to be on the receiving end."
Recalling what she knew of the use of ultrasonics to disintegrate kidney stones, Poppy decided to never, ever get in front of 'Beat in any sort of risky situation... "So you're off to practise with them. Where are you going?"
"Salisbury Plain. Plenty of space and they're used to us by now."
She nodded. "Well, have fun. We'll see you later." As they headed off she turned back to Graham. "So, Matthew?"
He nodded, and she grinned. "And it's OK to call you that?"
"If you must."
"I like it."
He raised an eyebrow, but any comment he might have made was interrupted by the warbling of his phone. He fished it awkwardly out of a right hand pocket, and as he listened his expression hardened. As he closed the connection and put the phone away he pulled himself to his feet. Poppy frowned.
"Ex-Staff Sergeant Robert Walker has escaped."
"Bob? The bastard who tried to take me hostage?"
"I'm afraid so."
"An investigation has been started already." He drummed his left hand fingers on the kitchen table, then growled quietly. "He had help, that much is obvious. But inside or outside - or both?"
"You're supposed to be resting..."
"And I will. But I need to be kept apprised of what's going on. May I borrow Ramp?"
"If he doesn't mind - and I'm sure he won't."
On cue, the computer ambled through from Poppy's office and perched on the table. "Where do you want to work, Wing Commander?"
Graham glanced at Poppy, frowning thoughtfully, then at Steamy. "While comfortable, the kitchen isn't the ideal place, but I don't want to disturb them up in the workspace..."
"Why don't you just use my office?"
"I don't want to put you out..."
She shrugged. "You won't. If I need him I'll let you know."
"Thanks, Poppy - and you, Ramp. I appreciate it. When Phil comes in, tell him where I am? His insight will be useful as well."
"Of course. Will you be joining us for lunch?"
He chuckled. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
Meanwhile ex-Staff Sergeant Robert Walker was being ushered into Zee's office. He stood at attention and saluted: the man behind the desk smiled grimly and waved a hand.
"At ease, soldier. Have a seat."
Bob seated himself, and stared at the other man, waiting for him to speak. Zee regarded him sombrely.
"I assume my lieutenant told you a little of who we are on your way here?"
"Only that you call yourselves The Club, and believe the best way to move ahead is to take advantage of the aliens."
Zee smiled. "Oh, there's a lot more to us than that. Firstly, rest assured that we do not approve of their being allowed to take refuge here. Earth for humans is our motto. However, we accept that there's no way that we, ourselves, can force them to leave. Even if we were to assimilate all the other anti-alien groups in the world we would still lack the financial and political clout to get our voices acknowledged, our concerns heard."
"There are plenty of people in power who feel the same as we do."
"Not as many as there were. After Chicago, and now that the invaders are sharing their technology and offering benefits to our species, more and more people are turning traitor and welcoming them into our midst."
Bob snarled under his breath, hand clenching into a fist. "Idiots. Short-sighted self-deluding self-righteous fucking idiots, the lot of them."
"Maybe, but you can hardly blame them. The lives of the unwashed masses have already improved. The new solar energy collectors and storage systems are just a year or two away from releasing us from the need for fossil fuels at all, and their innovations in building have made cheap, comfortable housing available to anyone who wants it, regardless of whether they deserve it. There are already signs of breakthroughs in agriculture. It will be very embarrassing if they enable us to feed the entire world."
Bob snorted. "Doesn't make us look good, does it?"
"No, it doesn't - quite the opposite. And it makes them the benefactors, and that makes them popular, and what politician worth his post is going to alienate his voting public by decrying our beneficent and noble metal visitors?"
Bob grimaced, but nodded. "What are we planning, then, sir?"
"At the moment we're keeping things low-key and trying to find out as much as possible. Our hope is that we may learn enough to replicate what they do before they have a chance to go public, so that we may retain full rights and control."
"Of a sort. Our agents aren't aware that they are being used - at least, they aren't yet aware of it. And it must stay that way until we can... subvert them, I believe is the term."
"Appeal to their worser natures, eh?"
"Or apply a little judicious blackmail. There are a number of options. We need to explore them all."
"And you want me onboard for the military angle. My rank isn't - wasn't - that high though. And I can't be seen - there's a warrant out for me."
"Nevertheless, as an ex-NEST operative, you are ideally placed to act as our military consultant."
Bob grinned at the notion. "Well, I did manage to... acquire information above my rank. Always curious, you see. And I still have a contact within the organisation."
"That is excellent news." Zee smiled broadly. "I believe you would be an exceptional agent for us. And we can keep you safe."
Bob eyed him soberly. "And what's the pay like?"
"Double your last salary."
Bob pursed his lips. Zee chuckled. "Triple."
The soldier grinned. "That's more like it."
"Good. We shall expect results, however."
"And you'll get them."
"Excellent. Now, there are a few other people you'll need to meet. I'm afraid three of them are those responsible for the fire that threw such a wrench into your own plans, but we are training them properly now. There will be no further such errors of judgement."
Bob growled. "And I have to work with bloody incompetents?"
"Not directly. But you will come into contact with them. I trust that won't cause any problems."
"No, sir." Though it was said reluctantly. Zee nodded.
"Good. Well, I'll have someone take you through induction and find you a suite. It might be best not to leave the premises until we've changed your appearance a little."
The soldier nodded, resigned. "Whatever you think best, sir."
"It won't be anything that can't be reversed, trust me. But we can't have you immediately recognisable." He looked up as Aitch knocked on the door and entered.
"Kay is here to attend to our latest recruit, sir."
"Good, good." Zee stood and extended his hand to Bob, who took it and shook it firmly. "Welcome to The Club, Military Consultant Walker."
As Bob followed Kay from the office, Aitch turned to his commander and frowned.
"Was that entirely wise, sir? Telling him about Mason, Stevenson and Williams? Won't he be suspicious of them?"
"Yes, he will." Zee smiled and folded his hands beatifically over his belly. "And he'll be too busy watching them closely to have the leisure to entertain any thought of betrayal, and they'll be too afraid of him to put a foot wrong. Sometimes it's good to foster distrust in the ranks. Makes them easier to control."
"I see." Dismissing the subject, Aitch laid a folder containing a thick sheaf of photographs on the table in front of the other man. "Your enlargements, sir."
Zee opened the folder and scrutinised the first couple of images, eyes widening as he glanced briefly up at his second then back to the photographs. "What the hell are they?"
Aitch folded his arms across his chest. "They appear to be baby robots, sir."
Zee stared at him, speechless, and Aitch fanned out the photographs, pointing to illustrate his comments. "The larger robot is a new one. Winged, obviously, so a flyer, but one we haven't seen so far. It may have recently arrived, snuck past our sensors during the Chicago event, or they may just have been keeping it a secret. If those are baby robots, if our metal guests are actually able to reproduce, then I can understand why they'd want to keep that little nugget of information hidden. You'll note from the other photos that the flyer never leaves them unattended: if it has to leave the 'nest', either the small ones go with it or one of the other robots guards them. That's behaviour consistent with protecting infants."
Zee nodded slowly, peering closely at the other photographs. "Why are they letting the secret out now? They aren't stupid, they must know they're under observation."
Aitch shrugged. "Maybe with their war effectively over, and them feeling more at home here, they are less worried about harm coming to the little ones." He grinned mirthlessly. "I don't know. It's not as though we can ask them."
"Of course we can! We'll leak the information to the media and leave them to demand to know what's going on."
Aitch's eyebrows rose, then he chuckled. "Ah, of course. Delegate. Make sure nothing can be traced back to us. Excellent idea, sir. Shall I see to it?"
Zee handed the folder to his lieutenant. "As soon as possible."
I finally got fed up with Wing Commander Graham not having a first name and decided just to go with Matthew - it's the forename of the actor who plays him and a good ol' British moniker...
Part 12 - Complications
Poppy sat by her pool with her morning mug of coffee, staring absently into the water. She was absolutely certain she'd forgotten something she was supposed to do...
'Beat shifted from his position behind her, resting a large hand very gently on her shoulder. "What's wrong?"
She sighed. "I wish I could remember..."
"Does it have to do with the Consulate? With Starstream? With Phil?"
"Ummm... the Consulate. I think."
"Business or personal?"
"I think... business."
"With us, or with the human members?"
She frowned. "Humans... I think. No, I'm certain. It was something I was supposed to do before we went to Diego Garcia..."
"Staff, client or student?"
She rubbed her forehead, then stilled, eyes widening.
"Student... oh damn. Aaron." She twisted to look up at the MGC, whose head was tilted enquiringly. "He asked to stay here, to work, and I was going to check and get back to him. In a week. A month ago."
Poppy giggled, despite her guilt - human mannerisms were so cute coming from transformers - then sobered.
"I'd better call a meeting..."
Although it had to wait until the evening. Vault and Sinewave were deeply engrossed in their classes with the Japanese inductees, Graham was at base having his hand re-examined and treated, Phil was running security exercises with 'Beat, Castle and Highdive, and 'Spin was taking a class on hybrid Cybertronian/human ceramic sintering - just the theory at present, although he'd already asked Poppy about the possibility of having a foundry constructed, at a distance from the main house for safety's sake, for practical demonstrations of hot isostatic pressing. Amongst other things Poppy had never heard of and had to go and look up. Not that Poppy didn't have enough to keep her busy, as even with the briskly efficient Beverley as her secretary and PA the work still kept piling up. She felt frazzled as everyone assembled for dinner, and flopped down between Phil and the glowering Wing Commander as Steamy and his assistants produced the usual fine selection of dishes.
Graham sat back, huffing his irritation. "It looks like it's going to take longer than I thought to get my hand back to normal. The muscle damage was greater than they originally thought."
Phil frowned. "Ah. How much longer?"
"What the bloody hell am I supposed to do in the meantime? Things are quiet right now, I only need to check in once a day." He waved the still heavily-bandaged limb. "Can't even help with the gardening!"
"I don't suppose... Have you thought about joining one of the classes here?"
"Poppy, half the time I don't even know what they're talking about."
She nodded. Neither did she. Then again, their guests were all experts and specialists in their fields. "Well, let's sleep on it. Inspiration may strike overnight..."
An hour later Poppy, Phil, Graham and the transformers assembled in the rec room. As the group quietened Poppy rose to her feet.
"I don't want to take up too much of our time, but something has come up I need to discuss with you all. You all know our student, Aaron Aaronson?"
"Of course we do, Poppy."
Ramp of course. Poppy metaphorically rolled her eyes.
"Well, he has asked to stay here as a sort of student-teacher."
"Yes, we know."
Poppy frowned. "What does everyone think of the idea?"
Graham turned to Phil. "You were keeping a check on him?"
Phil nodded. "The lad himself seems perfectly legit. Nothing suspicious in his past or present, as far as we can tell - and we have gone deep. However, he's involved with one Abigail Randall, whose mother, Helen Ann Stevenson, is a person of interest." He gestured to Ramp. "We've been monitoring their calls. Abigail feeds everything she learns from Aaron - which isn't much - to her mother, who then feeds the information onwards, but to a different number each time. Which is suspicious in itself."
"Hm." Graham frowned. "And Ramp hasn't been able to pinpoint the locations of the receivers?"
"Of course I have - but they are all over the planet. Some of them are public telephones, some of them unregistered mobile phones that are used once then apparently discarded."
"That's highly suspicious!"
"Yes." The transformer sounded irritable. "And I've been unable to find out who receives the calls. I assume they are then forwarded again, possibly several times, to an end point, but without knowing who takes them, I can't locate that end point."
Phil nodded. "So, until we can find a way to do that, I suggest we keep young Aaron close. If we can control one end of the chain it will help."
"Poppy?" Graham eyed the Consul. She sighed.
"This is a military matter, isn't it?"
"A security matter, certainly."
"I don't like the idea, but after what Gould did - I do understand that my own species can be absolute bastards, and our guests need protecting sometimes. I defer to your greater knowledge."
Graham smiled mirthlessly. "I'm sorry, but it would be for the best, until we know what we're dealing with. Will you tell him?"
"Of course. Assuming he's still interested, that is. He hasn't mentioned it since we got back..." her voice trailed off as she stared at Ramp, who had gone perfectly still, eyes flickering. Moments later he plugged a cable into the main screen and turned to the humans.
"We have a problem."
Poppy rubbed her eyes. "Well, we knew it was going to happen. I just hoped we'd have a little longer to prepare."
Phil snorted. "These days? You can't take a crap in a forest without some nosy bugger imaging it from orbit and uploading it to the world."
They all stared at the screen, where images of the front covers of today's special editions of national newspapers from around the globe were displayed. All of them were identical. A startlingly clear picture of Starstream protectively holding two of the hatchlings in his arms while the other three perched at his feet. Even as her heart sank Poppy wondered how they'd managed to get the photograph. It was almost face on, not an aerial view as would be the case with a satellite image. Must have been taken from a boat, or low flying plane, perhaps. Damn good camera...
"What does Prime plan to do about it?"
"That'th already dethided. We are to thay that Thtarthream and hith hatchlingth fled from Thybertron in thtathith on board a thip that broke up and crathed here theveral thenturieth ago, but that we only found rethently." 'Spin inclined his head. "Your thpecieth already knowth that thipth have been landing here for a long time."
"They'll still want to know how you can have babies."
"The Prime hath authorithed Upbeat to publith an edited verthion of hith hithtory - explaining how thparklingth were made on Thybertron."
Poppy nodded slowly. "And the story will run that these hatchlings were in stasis since they left... Which avoids having to even hint about you being able to reproduce without the AllSpark. Sensible thinking."
"Until more are born." Graham sounded weary, and Poppy raised a hand.
"I don't think it's an easy process." She glanced at 'Beat, who shook his head.
"No, it isn't, and it's likely that of the people already here only the Prime, Ratchet and Ironhide would have the strength of spark to make it happen. Not to mention no-one's going to even consider it until the situation here is stable or we have somewhere else to live. And we're in no hurry, we have all the time there is."
That was something Poppy didn't like to think about. She turned to Graham.
"So what's our story? I mean, a lot of people know that 'Spin, 'Beat and I were on Diego Garcia. They're going to draw the obvious conclusion that we were involved."
"Mm." He frowned in thought. Phil leaned forwards.
"We can always say that 'Spin had to go because of his primary function: it wasn't certain the hatchlings would survive without his help. Poppy went along because... I don't know - maybe she'll be getting one of the hatchlings when they're old enough? It would be good for the UK to have a Seeker. As a matter of national pride and a symbol of cooperation if nothing else. And 'Beat went because he's Poppy's guardian."
"Simple as that. Will it wash?"
He shrugged. "Should do. It's damn near the truth anyway, easy enough to sound convincing!"
Graham nodded and turned to the screen. "Ramp, let's confirm it with Prime and the General..."
Morshower had been less than impressed with the whole situation, but reluctantly agreed that Phil's suggestion would fly and as far as he was concerned he'd back up any explanations they came up with. Optimus was also in agreement, although he asked Ramp to keep a complete record of any interactions between the Consulate and the outside world and transmit it to him direct every day, so that he could both monitor the situation and make suggestions as needed, something which left Poppy sighing with relief. The Prime regarded her sombrely as she thanked him.
"Think nothing of it Poppy. However, I would like to ask a favour, if I may."
"Of course, anything."
"Starstream has expressed a wish to speak with you and Upbeat on a regular basis. It seems he enjoyed talking to you both, and would like the association to continue."
Poppy pursed her lips consideringly. "Over this communication link?"
"In the main, yes. It would not be reasonable to ask you to... commute between the UK and Diego Garcia for the purpose of conversation. Although you should understand that you are welcome here - all of you - at any time."
She didn't see why Starstream would want to do such a thing - she was no teacher or even that knowledgeable about her world - but she'd liked him. In a weird way he'd reminded her of a friend she'd lost a long time ago, a young man who'd loved information for its own sake and with whom she'd almost fallen in love. She smiled at the big metal face on the screen.
"That would be fine, sir."
"Thank you, Poppy. I will tell him. When would be a convenient time?"
Poppy glanced at 'Beat, who shrugged. "Um... Sunday morning our time? Around eight?"
There was a moment's silence, then the Prime nodded. "We will see you then. Thank you."
"You're very welcome, sir. We'll look forward to it!"
"That went well."
Poppy giggled at Phil. "I think so!"
"You sure you're OK talking to him?"
"Oh yes. He's kind of intense, but fascinating." She thought for a moment, then grinned brightly. "Got it! He reminds me of an egret. Or a heron."
Phil stared at her blankly, and she chuckled. "Since I first saw him transform I've been trying to think what he reminds me of, and it's an egret, or heron, or... dancing crane, one of those long-legged birds with a crest." She shook her head at his dubious expression. "Oh, I know, he's nothing like it really - but it's what I think when I look at him."
She shrugged. "Sorry. Can't help the way my mind works." She grinned. "I was the first human to see to him, to speak him. It'll be fascinating to see how he's come on since I've been back. And there are the hatchlings, of course..."
"Of course. And in the meantime..." He pointed behind her. She looked over her shoulder to see Aaron advancing waving excitedly, newspaper in hand.
Poppy sighed. "Ah. OK."
"Ms Moss!" Aaron's agitation was almost frightening. "Have you seen this? Did you see them while you were there? Is that why 'Spin went with you?"
She turned to him with a smile. "Hello Aaron. Yes, I have seen them - spoken to the big one as well."
He was all adoring big eyes and puppyish eagerness: she didn't think there'd be any problem in persuading him to stay on as student-teacher. "What was it like? Please? Pretty please with jam on top?"
She chuckled and led him over to an armchair in the lounge, seating herself nearby while Phil headed for the kitchen for coffee.
Gould was the human who sold out the human race to the Decepticons in Dark of the Moon - though, to be fair, it was his father who set the ball rolling and Gould was trying to preserve his own life...
Part 13 - Machinations
"It's lovely here." Abigail stretched and raised her face to the sun, eyes closing. Aaron kissed her cheek.
"It certainly is..."
Muncher had discovered roses six months ago. It had taken him a week to research them - everything from their history to the joys of the attar of roses in Turkish Delight - and then declare that Poppy must have a rose garden.
And now, six months later, the garden was literally blooming. Muncher had set the design out as a spectrum, with the deepest darkest red velvety blooms at the innermost point, where the seats were, then spiralling widely outwards through the reds, pinks, peaches, oranges, golds, yellows, whites, blues and purples, all interspersed with the bicolours. It was very beautiful.
And the fragrances were glorious. It was a perfect place for a date.
Abigail breathed in deeply, then turned to Aaron, smiling.
"So... Now you're Consulate staff!" She kissed his cheek. "Exciting!"
He grinned contentedly. "I'm dead chuffed. It's such an honour."
"And you must know all the ins and outs, now. So - what about the babies then?"
Aaron sighed. Sitting here in the sun surrounded by the flowers of love (and lust) with a bottle of sparkling wine, a large bowl of home-grown strawberries, a small one of caster sugar and a little jug of cream, and she wanted to talk about the hatchlings.
Then again, it seemed that everyone wanted to talk about them. Even after 'Beat's history had been published - in a large handsome book filled with Sinewave's pictures of Cybertron as it was at its height and thousands of small, easily understandable info-bites - and made available at a ridiculously low price (or for free in a non-illustrated greatly abridged internet version) there was still immense speculation. The conspiracy theorists were out in force, the least insane declaring it was all a lie and the infants were the vanguard of the next attempt to take over the planet (Poppy had been bemused by that. It would be a very slow hostile takeover given the six to ten years the five hatchlings would take to mature). Certain earthly governments were demanding that they be given a hatchling, either now so they could 'examine' them, or later when they were grown and combat capable (automatically assuming, since that was all they were familiar with, it seemed, that any giant robot must be a warrior).
There had even been an attack on the island - well, an attempted attack. Between Wheeljack's repulsive field and the base's automatic defence systems the missiles were either harmlessly destroyed out over the ocean or deflected to an energy collector offshore, where they were contained and imploded, and the energy generated stored for later use. Naturally this latter effect had both alarmed and intrigued the watching humans, who were told (in so many words) that it was the prototype of a device that could be made available to the nations of earth when completed - as long as there were no more hostile moves against the transformers.
No-one had yet claimed responsibility for the attack, probably out of fear of reprisals from everyone else who wanted the technology...
Aaron dragged his mind back to the present. There were other things he'd much rather be doing this fine afternoon, but he knew from experience that once Abigail had her teeth into something she wouldn't let go until satisfied. (He just hoped the same was true when he finally got her into bed. Without the teeth part...)
He sighed. "What do you want to know?"
"Are they any bigger? Have they grown?"
He gazed at her bemusedly. "They're robots. They're made of metal. How do you expect them to grow?"
She pouted. "But it's sort of a living metal, isn't it? They can repair themselves, can't they? Like our bodies repair us. If they can do that, who's to say they can't grow, too?"
Aaron frowned. She did have a point. And he'd seen with his own eyes that small injuries to their external plating - the transformer equivalent of grazes and bruises - healed over a few hours: their nanotech was highly advanced. If they could do that, why couldn't they actually physically increase in size? They fed on energon, and he already understood that the material existed in at least the liquid and solid states. Food made humans grow. Why couldn't energon make transformers grow?
"I'll have to ask 'Spin. There may be some genuine physical reason... according to 'Beat's book their sparks were moved from body to body as they matured, but that seems... inefficient, and they are very efficient creatures... Hm..."
"What's going to happen to them?"
"I don't think anyone knows yet. I think once they're considered old enough to be independent they can 'leave the nest', as it were, but after that? No idea." He stretched and laid an arm along the back of the seat, fingers resting on her shoulder. "I suppose it'll depend on what they end up as."
She turned to frown at him. "You what?"
He opened his mouth to explain, then paused. "Have you even opened the history book?"
She blinked in surprise at the irritation in his voice, then grinned. "I looked at the pictures..."
He rolled his eyes and reached for a strawberry, dunking it in the cream and pressing it to her lips. "Try actually reading it. You'll find everything you need to know in it."
She licked the cream off the strawberry and pouted. "But it's much more fun when you tell me."
He chuckled and kissed her. "Maybe later."
He missed her swiftly-quashed moue of aggravation as he turned away to pour two glasses of wine...
Zee frowned thoughtfully at the report Aitch had just handed him.
"Hm. If this Ramp is as canny as Mr Aaronson thinks, we're going to have to be careful."
"We already are, sir."
"I don't suppose any of the Consulate robots could be turned?"
Aitch suppressed a sigh. They'd been over this time and time again. "No sir. It is completely out of the question."
"Pity. Very well, we'll have to make do with what we have. You've read that so-called history?"
"Yes sir. Including what little I can extrapolate reading between the lines. On the face of it it all sounds reasonable, but we have no way of checking whether it's true or a pack of lies. We only have their word for anything they come out with."
"Is our unwitting spy not confirming anything?"
"He's only a very junior staff member, not privy to anything confidential. It will be a while before he's trusted. Abigail reports that he is gradually... loosening up to her, as she puts it, letting little hints slip accidentally in conversation, although not anything of any great importance yet. However, collated and put in context with other intel, they may well be revealing. I'm keeping a close eye on it."
"Good, good... And our other... engagements?"
"Our watch on the island hasn't thrown up anything of further interest. The big flier is called Starstream - whether that's a pure coincidence or whether it's some sort of relative of the Decepticon Starscream we don't know and can't know without further information. They look nothing alike. As for the little ones - all they do is sleep, sunbathe and - we suppose - eat. Starstream watches over them most of the time. When it's not there, one of the others stands guard, most often that blue one with the electric whip. Jolt, that's the name."
"Is it suspicious that they stand guard?"
Aitch frowned. "Perhaps I misspoke. It's not guarding so much as... babysitting. The little ones can get quite fractious if Starstream stays away for too long. Having another robot there, to speak to them, seems to settle them, at least for a few minutes."
"So is the big one their... parent?"
"It appears so. Or at least is standing in as parent. But the way he behaves towards them - it's definitely very protective, very maternal. If the so-called history is correct, he may very well be the one who commissioned their creation." Aitch smirked. "That the robots can have such feelings, such relationships, may be very useful to us. It opens up the possibility of blackmail, hostage-taking, all sorts of other more subtle methods of... persuasion. We are considering ways to discover if any of the others are in any kind of close relationships, but given we're dealing with aliens and have very little understanding of their own culture and mores, such relationships may be difficult to determine." He shrugged. "We've noticed no intimacy between any of the robots currently on earth, but that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't exist. We do know they support and defend each other in combat situations - much as we do. We have to be careful not to assume too much. They may appear to be very human-like in many ways, but that doesn't mean we can take anything for granted."
Zee nodded pensively. "I see. Very well. Carry on, but let me know as soon as anything becomes clear."
"Certainly sir." Aitch nodded and glanced down at the single sheet of paper in his hands. "Our newest agent is shaping up well. He's even managed to track down his erstwhile fiancée, although due to their history he won't be the one to make contact with her. She's currently finishing up her training in Austria."
"Is she worth bothering with?"
"She and the Moss woman got on very well. I'd recommend we keep that option open."
"Very well. It's to remain a low priority though."
"A few minor matters - they're detailed in the reports." He gestured to the folder in front of his superior. Zee nodded.
"So, if there is nothing else, sir...?"
Zee waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing else. Let me know when there's anything to report."
"Evacuation drills?" Poppy frowned at Graham. "We've... never really thought about it."
"That's what I thought."
"But the building is pretty much fireproof and bomb proof... Do you think it's necessary?"
He nodded firmly. "Legal requirement everywhere else. We're independent here, so it's not been an issue to date, but with humans in house..."
Poppy winced. "I see your point. Are you happy to get that organised?"
"It would give me something useful to do."
She grinned. "Then I'll leave it in your more-than-capable hands." Her eyes twinkled. "Well, hand, anyway..."
He snorted as she sidestepped his mock slap to her shoulder and headed back to her office, and turned to Phil.
"Right, let's get started. We need to draw up lists of possible emergencies up to and including Decepticon invasion and nuclear attack - whichever is more dangerous and /or likely - and we'll need the building plans."
Phil, relieved that his superior officer was finally going to be doing something other than getting in everyone's way, saluted and went in search of Vault and Sinewave.
Poppy leaned back in her chair and stretched, smiling at her PA.
"Thanks, Beverley - I think that'll do us for now."
Beverley Jones nodded and signed herself out of the system, neatly placing a sheaf of printouts into the top drawer of her desk and capping her pen.
"You're all set for the beginning of next week, Ms Moss, barring any emergencies over the weekend."
Poppy nodded. "There shouldn't be anything too harrowing." She eyed the other woman. "You have anything nice planned?"
"David's taking me out to dinner for our wedding anniversary - he won't tell me where, so it could be anything from a five star five course banquet to fish 'n' chips in the park!"
Poppy laughed. "You like surprises?"
Beverley shrugged. "They keep life interesting and the marriage fresh. Though I could have done without the weekend cruise around the Isle of Wight. Rough seas and it belted down the entire time. And the boat sprung a leak."
Beverley half-laughed. "Yes. Not exactly my idea of fun. But he made it up to me later. Surprise weekend in Paris. Wonderful!"
"Nice... must try to get there myself, one of these days."
"You've never been? Oh, you must! It's only a couple of hours away."
"I know. Just never quite managed it. But I will!" She glanced at the clock, and rose to her feet. "It's nearly dinner time. Are you staying?"
Beverley shook her head regretfully. "No, not today, I need to make tracks."
"Have a good weekend."
Beverley smiled and patted her shoulder. "You too. I'll see you on Monday."
Poppy grinned to herself as she made her way into the kitchen. Sunday morning wasn't far away - she couldn't wait to speak to Starstream...
14 - Machinations 2
The rain had finally stopped, the clouds had been blown away by the wind, and the moon was nearly full, bright enough to cast shadows. 'Beat stood a few paces into the wood, Stronghold behind him, gazing out of the trees and down the hill towards the soft glow of the Consulate at the bottom.
Stronghold laid a servo on his shoulder. ::Home?::
The MGC made to nod, then hesitated, helm inclined to one side. ::It is all we have...::
There was an odd, dejected undercurrent to his field, and the Defender 'frowned' to himself, sliding his arms comfortingly around the other's torso.
::What is wrong?::
'Beat shivered. ::Too much has happened. I feel... lost...::
Stronghold vented a sigh and released the smaller transformer, moving to take his servo and tugging in the direction of the house. Perhaps he had been a little hard on the MGC these last couple of days, although the training exercise had been Upbeat's idea.
::It's been seventy hours since we rested. We're cold and wet and muddy, and we need to refuel and recharge. Shower first, then we can talk when we're clean and comfortable...::
The human half of the house was silent and sleeping: in the rec room 'Spin was engrossed in an old documentary about terrestrial metalworking and waved distractedly at them as they passed through.
In the washroom Stronghold let the cleanser run a little hotter than normal, holding 'Beat against his frame as he eased the grime out of loosened armour, privately delighted that the MGC allowed this, allowed himself to be vulnerable with his comrade - normally 'Beat was too determined to be strong and self-reliant to permit himself to be helped.
'Beat rested heavily against the Defender, head lowered, optics dimmed. He'd offered to help Stronghold, but the Defender had 'hushed' him, and, in all honesty, the larger transformer was less begrimed. Quite how he managed it 'Beat hadn't yet worked out. He raised his head as the drying fans kicked on, field flaring warmly in thanks.
Back in 'Beat's room Stronghold gestured to the berth.
::Get comfortable. I'll fetch our energon::
'Beat was sitting with his back towards the wall, doorwings supported by large cushions, when the Defender returned with large double rations, and accepted his with a flare of gratitude. They refuelled in silence for a few minutes, then Stronghold leaned forward, laying a servo against the MGC's knee assembly.
'Beat shook his head. ::It's stupid::
::Maybe, but tell me anyway. Why and how do you feel lost?::
The MGC's engine growled irritably. ::Seeing Cybertron... home... it was so close... And meeting Starstream, and knowing what he used to be... But I think it was the hatchlings:: He gripped the Defender's wrist. ::New life, Stronghold! A possible future for our kind, when we thought everything was lost! It changes everything! But what sort of a world is this for them to develop in, to fly in?::
::A good one::
::But it's not ours!:: He rubbed a servo over his optics. ::We're here at the humans' sufferance. They could change their minds tomorrow and demand we leave. They already have, once::
::They were afraid. Sentinel was threatening them::
::And when the next threat appears?::
Stronghold dimmed his optics momentarily. ::Then we will deal with it, as we always do::
::Aren't you tired of fighting?::
::I was coded for it. But I confess, it's pleasant not to be fighting all the time::
'Beat 'frowned'. ::... you don't wear a brand...::
Stronghold answered the unasked question.
::I was created to be a member of a private army. For a very rich neutral senator whose name is no longer important: he is long since deactivated and was... hated when online. His spark was extinguished at the beginning of the last war and we were left rudderless:: He lowered his gaze. ::I was just a number back then::
'Beat's field flared empathically. ::How did you survive?::
::I became a mercenary:: He looked back up at 'Beat, field held tight and close, letting no emotion through. ::I am not proud of the fact::
::But you had to survive::
::It was all I knew. It is still pretty much all I know:: He tilted his helm. ::That's why you - all of you academics - are so important. I know so little, and you know so much. You must be protected:: He 'smiled'. ::And now we have seekers, new life to protect. And we will protect you::
::But.... what if the humans want us gone?::
::Then we will leave:: He gestured upwards. ::There are two worlds out there that we can use, this world's satellite and the next planet out - Mars::
'Beat blinked, then 'frowned' as he considered the idea.
::The moon has no appreciable atmosphere and very few resources::
::Which is no overwhelming problem for us. It is also very close to earth, in case of any threat to the humans:: He vented a sigh. ::Because of course the Prime won't leave them undefended. Mars is much further away, but its gravity is higher than the moon, and its atmosphere and resources useful to us. Or so I am told:: He 'grinned' ::Of course the humans won't like the idea. They seem to think every planet in this system belongs to them::
'Beat growled. ::Humans say that possession is nine tenths of the law, don't they?::
::Pity it's not true... But they don't have the technology to be able to lay claim to or live on either world - unless we give it to them. Ironic, yes?::
'Beat 'chuckled' grimly. ::Indeed. But how would we get there ourselves? The Xantium was destroyed, the Prime's Ark is disabled and out of reach, and the humans can only get as far as the moon at best:: He 'sighed'. ::So far the Prime's call hasn't reached any of our space-rated colleagues, has it?::
::Not as far as I know::
::So unless we build the ships ourselves we're stuck here::
::Starscream was rated for interplanetary travel::
::But Starstream isn't - not without a major upgrade. And he couldn't carry any of us anyway - well, no-one over the size of 'Spin. And we have no idea how the hatchlings will turn out::
Stronghold 'huffed' his exasperation. ::So we have the knowledge, but are reliant on the humans for the materials to construct the ships. Somehow I can't see that happening easily::
::But the very first ships our people used were simple - big open frames with the simplest of navigational abilities, a basic repulsor field to deflect debris, and a fragging great nuclear engine stuck on the rear end. Passengers strapped themselves to struts and jacked into minimal life support - basically an energon line feeding from a central reservoir - and cycled down to a state a little above stasis. Then they just 'slept' until they arrived at their destination. We could build ships like that again! If the humans wanted to get rid of us that badly it wouldn't take long...::
'Beat was waving his servos in emphasis, a habit he appeared to have picked up from Poppy if Stronghold wasn't mistaken. The Defender laid a servo against his chest, trying to calm him down. This depressed-frustrated historian mode was new and a little unnerving.
::Enough. We're tired, and seeing problems where they don't exist:: At least, not yet. he thought to himself. ::We can consider it again when we're rested::
'Beat slumped, huffing a sigh, his field churning. ::It won't change anything. We'll still be out of place tomorrow::
Stronghold didn't know what to say. Upbeat was usually just that - even tempered, optimistic and always ready to see the brighter side of any situation. He'd seemed to be acting normally since their return from Diego Garcia, but this... Maybe it had just taken him longer than usual to work out the ramifications of their circumstances.
Or maybe... 'Beat was a historian. He understood the progression of time, how it was registered and recorded. And he understood the passing down of knowledge and information, from generation to generation, as the humans would put it.
For that to happen there had to be generations in the first place.
... Did 'Beat want sparklings?
Nonono, that was too blunt. Jumping to conclusions without sufficient evidence. And far too fast, even if it could be possible. But the revelation that their race might be able to continue... for a historian... yes, that would be... stressful. Wonderful, that went without saying, but after a multiple-millennia-long lifetime of believing that they were the last... yes. Hard to process, disorientating, enough to make anyone 'throw a wobbly' as Poppy had once, picturesquely, put it...
'Beat was rubbing at his optics. ::But you're right. We need to recharge:: He lifted his head to regard his friend. ::I apologise. I didn't mean to...::
::But they are valid concerns:: Stronghold wrapped a hand around the MGC's neck and rested their forehelms together, field pulsing comfort and understanding. ::And we will consider them later. Rest now...::
'Spin was always amazingly patient, and even more so now that Aaron would be teaching his own classes. Right now the human was sitting with his fourth mug of coffee of the day wrapping his brain around the multiple applications of Cybertronian nanotechnology to terrestrial material.
"There are limitationth, of courthe. Hypothetically thpeaking, if left unchecked, the t-macro athembler could become ecophagic. We tholved that problem theveral million yearth ago, but it'th vital to bear the phenomenon in mind when devithing new biomimeticth."
Aaron nodded slowly. "So - that's how your bodies repair themselves? You stop the growth at a predetermined stage?"
"Yeth. Overgrowth would rethult in, for example, the production of noduleth rethtricting proper function."
Aaron frowned. "It wouldn't just make you grow bigger?"
"Not in mature frameth, no. Our thithe ith predetermined when we are thparked."
"What about immature frames?"
"There have been none thinthe the beginning of the latht war."
"But there were before?"
"I believe tho."
Aaron took another swallow of coffee. "So your frames are literally 'living' metal. You use energon like we use food, to maintain life functions, and your nanites use it for self-repair. Surely, if your size wasn't predetermined, you would grow, like we do...?"
'Spin eyed him for a moment or two.
"You want to know if the hatchlingth are going to grow."
Aaron reddened. "I'm curious. Like the rest of the world. Will you need to create larger frames for them, when they're old enough? Or will their protoforms grow - get bigger - as they age, like our kids do?"
He waited, tense, for the answer. 'Spin was silent for a moment, then sighed.
"We don't know."
"Only Ratchet hath had experienthe in thith field - only he ith old enough to have been alive during the peathe between the third war and the Great War, while it wath thafe to thpark infantth."
"But Optimus wants you to go back to help construct their next frames, I thought..."
"In cathe it'th nethethary."
"... can I come with you?"
'Spin stared at the human's hopeful face for a few seconds, then inclined his head.
"Maybe. We'll thee." He blinked at the monitor they were using, and another page of schema loaded. "Now, regarding the applicationth of quantum dotth..."
Zee frowned at his lieutenant. Aitch shrugged apologetically.
"I know it's late, sir, but I thought you'd want to hear this. According to Mr Aaronson via Abigail, the robots themselves don't know if the baby robots are going to grow or will have their 'sparks' transferred into new machines. The only one who knows anything about it is that Ratchet."
"And this is significant how?"
"It implies that they might actually grow. Like humans."
Zee stared. "Genuinely living metal?"
"Indeed, sir. Think of the implications, to manufacturing, to building, to... everything!" He sighed. "Only problem is, Ratchet is inaccessible, and far too big and powerful for us to even think about... kidnapping, if I may use such a crude term."
Zee was silent for a moment, then a malicious smile slowly spread over his face.
"Yes, he is, isn't he? But the babies aren't..."
AN: The tie-in novels speak of a number of Arks, one of which brought Prime and his immediate crew to our solar system. (I think. It's been a while since I read them.) And while their cometary protoforms are fine for short distance space travel, I don't believe they can be used for anything long distance - certainly not from Cybertron to earth!
Early in my obsession I'd wondered why the transformers would need ships that resembled ours - after all, they have no problems with the vacuum of space, they are insanely tough, most of them, they don't need to breathe, and they can enter stasis to conserve resources. They'd need nothing like the massively complex vehicles humans need to survive in space...
This feeling was supported by the depiction of the Ark in the third film: the defenders inside are firing at the pursuing ships through the openings that correspond to windows, and the missiles are passing straight through. There's nothing to prevent them, just open space.
And think of the savings, on all resources, with a ship that's basically an open plan sleeper. Transformers, after all, are practically immortal - in stasis it wouldn't matter if the trip lasted four years or four million...
[sigh] And then, of course, I found that someone had beaten me to it, the excellent author Dwimordene, whose short piece Final Frontier over on FFNet is stunningly powerful and evocative.
Eh well. I'll console myself with GMTA...
I'm diverging from the Bayverse timeline (such as it is) and going with the one in my latest acquisition, the AllSpark Almanac 2, which dates the beginning of the Great War at about 10 million years ago, which makes this Ratchet around 14 million years old. (Which also more or less tallies in with the G1 timeline.)
Part 15 - Conversation.
Sunday dawned raining, a cool refreshing misty shower that delighted Muncher. Poppy was up early, trying not to let her eagerness and excitement make her look too childish, tucking into honey on toast and tea in the kitchen when Ramp scuttled in, multiple eyes sparkling. Poppy grinned at him.
Ramp's system squealed and buzzed as he perched himself on the kitchen table.
"Mirage was following up a Decepticon sighting in South America and he caught a faint signal, which led him to a remote and undiscovered cave high up in the Andes... he found [unintelligible Cybertronian electronic growl] there!"
Poppy nodded gravely. "A friend of yours, I assume?"
Ramp twinkled. "More than that. We were..." he paused, obviously trying to think of a way to describe the relationship. "We were sparked at the same time, for the same purpose... we knew each other intimately and worked together in unison. We were... like twins. But not twins. He was on the same ship as me. I thought he'd terminated when we crashed."
Poppy grinned. "Very close then. Does he have a name - designation - I can pronounce?"
Ramp considered for a moment, then inclined his head. "The shortest closest English equivalent would be Chatter, I think."
Ramp eyed her dourly. "He likes to talk."
Poppy giggled. "I kind of assumed that. Where is he? Will he be joining us?"
"For the moment the Prime wants him to stay on Diego Garcia - but we will be in constant contact, just as we used to be."
"Are you now? At the moment, I mean?"
"No. Ratchet hasn't quite finished his check up. He wants to make sure Chatter has no damage or infected with anything that could harm us before allowing him out of quarantine. It shouldn't take much longer though."
Ramp actually wriggled with what Poppy thought was happiness. "Then we'll have unbroken communication between here and the island - or anywhere else Chatter goes."
"Um, I thought you had that already?"
"Of a sort. I'm privy to some internal comms - mostly from Jolt. Although, as you know, he's been letting us know things he really wasn't supposed to... The rest I've been... um... hacking into..."
Poppy stared, then laughed.
"Insubordination in the ranks! Hope Prime never finds out."
"I'm not an Autobot: their regulations don't apply to me. And it's quite possible he already knows. The Prime knows most things that happen."
"Well, I suppose if he hasn't objected..."
Ramp nodded. "He is more than capable of restricting the info-flow to those who need to know. Therefore I assume that I am being allowed to access what I have been accessing. Until told different, anyway."
Poppy nodded. "It certainly helps me."
"And now that Chatter is here, we may be able to find out where those phone calls are going. Between us, we should be able to triangulate and access global communications to a much greater extent than I have been able to alone."
Poppy beamed. "That would be terrific!" She glanced up as Phil stuck his head around the door and pointed at his watch. "Oooh, time to talk to Starstream! Want to come along?"
Ramp gave her what she assumed was a pitying look as he slid off the table and preceded her to the rec room.
'Beat and 'Spin were already there, and on the massive screen Poppy could see Ratchet and Jolt talking in the background. As Ramp perched on a seat in front of the console connected to the screen a squeal came through the speakers and a being jumped onto an equivalent seat in the main conference room on Diego Garcia. Poppy's eyes widened: it looked almost exactly like Ramp, except it was pure white. Ramp leaned forwards with an excited electronic squeal of his own, transformed a couple of digits into jacks and plugged himself into the console... and at that point Poppy left them to it. Even if she had been able to understand the language she wouldn't have been able to cope with the speed of the communication...
"How rude." 'Spin had perfected the human 'sniff of disdain' and now uttered one as he folded his arms. Poppy chuckled as the electronic conversation muted.
"How many hundred... thousand... years has it been since they've seen each other? Let them catch up first. We can say hello later."
"Very chivalrous of you, Poppy." Jolt buzzed, electricity flickering over his frame as he ushered a somewhat jumpy-looking Starstream to a seat. Poppy waved.
"Hello Star! How are you? How are the hatchlings?"
The jet nodded, gaze darting about nervously. "We are all well, thank you. How are you?"
"I'm fine... Are you sure you're OK?"
Jolt laid a claw on the flinching jet's shoulder and nodded at Poppy. "He's claustrophobic and doesn't like being indoors."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Do we want to reschedule for when Chatter can let you speak from outside?"
Starstream inclined his head, making him look even more bird-like to Poppy's eyes. "Thank you for the kind thought, but I must accustom myself to being indoors sometimes. This room is large enough that I do not feel as though I'm being crushed."
"Perhaps we'll keep this session short, then."
"I would appreciate that." His eyes brightened a little, with gratitude, Poppy thought. She smiled.
"Was there anything in particular you wanted to talk about?"
"I am... curious. About humans. I am told that you have given us asylum on your world, even though we have caused you damage."
"Well, you are doing a lot to help us. And it wasn't you who caused most of the problems."
"But I understand that we brought our war to your planet."
"But you - the Autobots - tried to avoid doing that in the first place. It wasn't your fault that the AllSpark ended up here with Megatron following it. If the Prime hadn't also arrived, who knows what the Decepticons would have done to the planet. I know we're rich in the resources that you need, and I gather that the 'Cons considered us insects, pests to be squashed. They could have simply taken over." She shrugged. "We're short-lived. You're practically immortal. They could have wiped us out at their leisure. With you helping us, we had a fighting chance. We still do." She grinned. "And it's not like we have to feed and water you as well as our own growing population!"
"You are very forgiving."
"Well, I personally didn't suffer from the events of the last few years. I might have felt differently if someone I know had died, for example. But even then I think I'd be able to assign blame to the right people. I like to think I'm that rational, anyway."
"Forgiving and tolerant."
She nodded. "I try. I'm afraid not everyone is like me."
"So I have seen. It is disheartening that our species has violence in common, even though we fight for different things."
"Some are the same."
"True. But many are different. We do not fight over religion, or race, or gender. Although, of course, we do not have the latter of these." He half-closed his eyes pensively. "There are history files in my memory bank that suggest we did once battle over what you might call race."
Starstream glanced back and up at Jolt, who was hovering warily behind him. A flicker of communication, then Starstream nodded, a little reluctantly.
"It was long, long ago and does not impinge on the current state of affairs... There has also been conflict over class, resources and the acquisition of power - those we have in common."
"Unfortunately, yes... though we are trying to learn to get along."
"And my species is millions of years old and we have not yet found a peaceful way to co-exist. It may be that it is not possible, that entropy is inevitable in all systems."
He inclined his head. "Is it? I suppose it could be seen to be so."
"It makes everything seem so... pointless."
"That is so, in the abstract. So we make our own significance."
Poppy shook herself, wondering if that attitude was typical of the race as a whole and she hadn't realised it because her transformers simply hadn't talked philosophy with her. The idea was plausible given how long they could live. She'd have to ask 'Beat and Sinewave later. For now - a change of subject perhaps, before she started feeling really depressed...
"How are the hatchlings doing?"
"They are well. Two of them have designations now."
"Ooh!" Then, frowning, "Only two?"
"The two oldest have chosen their designations. The others aren't yet developed enough."
"I see. So you choose your own names? That's a nice idea. What are they?"
"Starsong and Starwind."
"Oh, that's so pretty!" She grinned. "Are they all going to begin with Star?"
"I do not know. It may be so."
"It makes you all more like a family."
He paused for a moment, checking the connotations of the word, then tilted his head. "Ah, I understand. Yes, it could connote family bonds... that is a new idea."
Poppy sighed silently. Something else she'd have to check up - did Cybertronians have any sort of family structure at all? Or was Starstream literally one of a kind? She started making a mental list of Things She Didn't Know But Must Find Out...
"Who's with them now?"
"The Prime. He is..." a brief puzzled silence, "... reading them bedtime stories?"
'Beat's engine whirred in amusement, and Poppy burst out laughing, then blushed. The image of Optimus sitting by the nest, reading to the babies with that glorious voice of his.... Ohhhhhh, that was the stuff of dreams... She firmly filed that image and made herself stop laughing.
"I can't think of a better guardian for them."
Starstream nodded. "Indeed. He is a very good influence."
Phil caught Poppy's eye from his place by the door, and tapped his watch. Poppy nodded, then realised that the mention of the hatchlings had made Starstream a little twitchy again. She already knew he didn't like being separated from them - and this was quite long enough for a first conversation.
"This has been fantastic, Starstream. Thank you very much for your time."
The jet looked confused. "But it is your time we have used. I know you are very busy."
"Never too busy to talk to a friend. Can we do this again?"
"I would like that."
"Same time next week?"
"Indeed. Farewell, Poppy. I trust your week will be productive."
"Thanks!" She waved as the image on the screen faded, and turned to Phil. "That was - weird."
"It was certainly not the sort of chat I'd anticipated. I'm not sure what purpose it served."
Poppy shrugged. "Well, we got to know each other a little more, at any rate. Though I still don't see why he'd want to."
"Maybe just to help him integrate better with the species and culture he's going to be coming in contact with all the time?" The officer grinned. "You are very approachable, after all. A rather nice sample of the best humanity has to offer."
She slapped his shoulder, laughing. "Oh thanks a bunch! I'm perfectly ordinary and you know it."
"Yes. Perfectly ordinary. And wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone was as 'ordinary' as you!"
She raised an eyebrow - then shook her head despairingly and pointed in the general direction of the kitchen.
"Coffee, I think." She glanced back at 'Beat and 'Spin. "And I have a few questions, if you don't mind..."
Zee tapped his fingers against the desk.
"So a simple extraction is out of the question."
"I'm afraid so, sir. They are too well guarded. However, they are becoming more active. We're guessing that at some point fairly soon they'll want to get out of the nest and explore their surroundings. They're already showing what is obviously curiosity and trying to climb over the barrier."
"And there are five of them, and not enough of the big robots to guard them individually, even if they suspected anything." He frowned. "What about our sleeper?"
Aitch smiled. "Lieutenant Robbins has been there for a month now - we're getting some of our intel from her, though she does have to be careful, especially now that white computer robot has arrived. It's the same make as the black one at the Consulate, and we know how efficient that is."
"Hm. Can she be trusted to take action if called for?"
"Yes sir. She's a specops veteran. And she really doesn't like the aliens."
He nodded, then straightened decisively. "Bring in Walker. We need a strategy. Or a diversion..."
Part 16 - Plans
Private Smith seated herself beside the Lieutenant with a nod of acknowledgement and took a swallow of her fruit juice.
"How's it going, ma'am?"
Lieutenant Margaret Robbins nodded back, rubbing at her left thigh under the table. She knew it was psychosomatic, that she subconsciously associated the bright young soldier with the robots, and hence the battle in Egypt that had taken her out of direct action and left her desk-bound, but every time Karen spoke to her a spear of remembered pain shot through the leg...
Karen smiled hesitantly. She admired the officer, and did her best to be courteously friendly, but the older woman was distinctly stand-offish. Which was a pity, Karen thought, as there weren't that many women on the island and sometimes you just wanted some female company...
"The babies seem to be coming along well."
Margaret grunted - then paused and nodded. "I don't have much to do with them, but they seem to be curious little things."
Delighted to get a response, Karen smiled. "They're beginning to talk, too. At least, they're learning some English words."
"Mm. The one who looks after them - that jet - seems to be intelligent. Wonder if they will be too?"
"I expect so, with Starstream as their creator. Of course, it's easy for them to learn, they can just download information straight into their processors - but that's not intelligence."
"They learn like kids?"
"I believe so."
"Useful." The lieutenant stretched and rose to her feet. "Back to the grindstone."
Karen stood too, and saluted. "Anything exciting?"
"More decryption. Nothing vital."
"Oh. Well, good luck, ma'am."
Karen watched as the officer limped heavily back to her station, sighing sympathetically. It must be so frustrating, being disabled like that, after the active life the woman had enjoyed before...
Bob Walker frowned as he leaned over a large scale map of Diego Garcia, then glanced up at Aitch. "What resources do we have on the island?"
"In human terms, just Lieutenant Robbins, but she's very good, even disabled as she is. And she hates the aliens, both professionally and personally. She's feeding us regular reports on the robots' activities, and is now well placed to disable at least some of the security cameras on the island. She's mapped out the best, most secluded places for us to land, as well."
The ex-NEST officer nodded. "We'll need one to get the robot off the island. Are there any blind spots?"
"Unfortunately not - they have their security sewn up tight. Not surprisingly. We're going to need a major diversion. And some way of getting well away from the island at speed." Aitch smiled mirthlessly. "It's a pity we don't have a submarine."
Walker frowned at him. "Mm. Not sure if hijacking a sub is really feasible. However, there are certain people who might be willing to... lend us one, in return for information or a share of our... research."
"Or parts of the robot itself?"
"Or that. Once we've had the chance to thoroughly dissect and examine it."
Aitch nodded. "Can you handle that part?"
Walker smirked. "Leave it to me. However, we will still need a diversion. Ideally both on the island itself and on the mainland. Something that will get the warrior robots, at least, off the island."
"That might be tricky. Let me consider the options."
"Do we have any kind of timeline?"
"The sooner the better, of course, but the diversions will take time to set up, once we've decided what we want." Aitch frowned in thought. "They have no fliers except for the jet and the helicopter, and the latter stays in the UK with the Moss woman, so even if we can only draw them away a few miles, it'll take them time to get back to the island, which gives us more leeway... What military or critical civilian installations are nearby? On the Indian mainland, perhaps."
"Nuclear power stations, key transport systems, that sort of thing."
"Ah, I see. We'll need to check." He frowned. "They'll use the C-17s to get to the location... it would be best to have it happen in the middle of nowhere, where the planes can't land - that would give us even more time..." He drummed his fingers on the desk, then smiled. "Somalia."
Aitch eyed him curiously. "Somalia's not in India."
"No. But there's been an increase in piracy incidents just recently. Arranging for someone Very Important to be a victim would be relatively simple."
Aitch stared. "While it's ingenious, would they be called in to handle something like that?"
"If it was someone important to NEST they would."
Walker shrugged. "We could go right to the top. Have Morshower kidnapped."
"By the Somalis?"
Walker thought for a moment, then growled. "You're right, that wouldn't work. Though having Morshower kidnapped might. We're in contact with a number of mercenaries and subversive groups in the US. Throw enough money at the problem, add in an insurgent uprising - or even a major demonstration by anti-alien groups, might as well use them to do something worthwhile... it's feasible."
"It doesn't make much sense..."
"It doesn't need to. It just needs to get the fucking chunks of metal off the island while we get in and take the little robot. Robots, rather. We should grab as many as we can, make the trip worth it."
"The ones that are left will fight back."
Walker's grin was evil. "Remember that Decepticon - Starscream? We've been... adapting the weapons he sold us for a couple of years now. They were designed to incapacitate their own kind - he wouldn't give us the deadly ones, too afraid they'd be turned against him I guess. So we use them. We use their own weapons against them."
"A nice touch. Very well. So, timing?"
"Give me two weeks to pull it all together."
"Excellent. Requisition anything you need - I'll authorise it. In two weeks we'll present it to the old man, get the final OK." He smiled coldly. "Then we'll start the ball rolling."
Starstream was much more relaxed this time, probably because he was in his nest on the roof, with the transformed Chatter acting as the comms console.
Poppy grinned and waved.
"Greetings, Poppy. How are you?"
"Fine. How are things there?"
He looked downwards, and moments later a small figure climbed up his frame and into sight. He lifted it to rest against his upper torso - and to her delight Poppy could see tiny winglets held close to the hatchling's back.
"Star! He's got wings!"
The jet manoeuvred the hatchling around so he was facing forwards - not helped much by the baby squirming. Once settled, though, the hatchling sat still in his creator's hands and gazed at her curiously.
"And his eyes are golden!"
Starstream nodded. "This is Starsong. He wanted to meet you."
Poppy grinned and waved. "Hello Starsong."
For a moment the baby simply stared. Then - "Omee!"
Poppy stared, mouth agape and eyes huge. Starstream brushed a claw over the little head and said quietly and clearly, "Poppy. P. P. Poppy."
"Good. Try again. Poppy."
Starstream chirred at the hatchling, nuzzling his neck.
"Well done, sparkling."
Poppy melted, sniffling and brushing away tears.
"Oh Starstream... He's gorgeous. Thank you."
"Poppee! Poppee!" Starsong bounced against his creator's hands. "Poppee!"
The jet rolled his eyes. "A little quieter, perhaps, little one. Poppy and I want to speak."
Starsong giggled. At least, Poppy thought it was a giggle, albeit an electronic one. She giggled back, and the hatchling waved his hands. "Poppee laff!"
Starstream stroked his frame.
"His vocabulary leaves a little to be desired. But he will learn quickly."
"I think it's just amazing. You all are." Poppy grinned delightedly at 'Beat, who was smiling back, then turned back to the screen. "I wish I was there to see this in person."
Starstream inclined his head, expression sombre. "That may be possible. Ratchet will speak to Sparkspinner shortly, but it appears we may need his services sooner than anticipated."
Poppy frowned. "Not a problem, I hope?"
"The youngest of the hatchlings isn't... growing quite as he should."
Growing? They were actually growing? Though now she looked closer she could see that Starsong had changed. He was a little bigger, his frame... different in subtle ways. The dull silver-grey of his 'skin' was changing too: it looked like it would match Starstream's eventually. There were the wings, of course, she didn't remember seeing those last time, and there were what looked like minute thrusters on his back below the wings...
On cue, the sound of a tiny jet engine sputtered through the speakers and a hatchling appeared over Starstream's shoulder, wings almost fluttering as he tried to maintain both altitude and position. Poppy nearly choked on a giggle as Starstream resignedly reached up and back and tugged on a little foot, swinging the hatchling down into his lap.
"As you can see, Starwind is fine."
Poppy watched, entranced, as the two hatchlings started pushing at each other, chirring excitedly. She had to drag her attention back to the large jet as Starstream continued speaking.
"Ratchet believes that Sparkspinner should be consulted. The youngest may need medical intervention, and Sparkspinner is an expert. His visiting will serve another purpose, also. It is going to become obvious, very soon, to outside observers that the hatchlings are growing, and we wish to keep the fact a secret for as long as possible. We will be able to... explain away the growth if Sparkspinner visits to 'enlarge their protoform frames', as the fiction will say."
Poppy nodded, then grinned. "So 'Beat and I can come too! That'll be great!" She paused, then tilted her head. "Does that mean we'll have to make regular visits to keep 'enlarging the frames'?"
"It is possible, though it will depend on what is wrong with the youngest. If it is something that can be fixed easily, there would be no need. Although it is a useful fiction. The hatchlings will continue to grow, so, unless the Prime decides to reveal the truth, or we relocate there, an explanation for their changing sizes will be required."
"Wonderful! I can't wait! How soon can we come?"
"Ratchet thinks it will take him two weeks to gather and prepare appropriate materials, in case they are needed."
Poppy nodded decisively. "Right. We'll speak to Ratchet, and I'll make arrangements to head out in a fortnight. We'll see you soon!"
Part 17 - Motion
"You're going back to Diego Garcia? Why?"
"I am needed, Aaron." 'Spin was apologetic. They'd recently been given permission to build a small pyroprocessing structure with an electric arc furnace and Aaron had been looking forward to assisting 'Spin with the build. "We will continue when I return. I won't be long."
The human sighed, then grinned. "Don't suppose I could come with you, could I?"
"I am afraid not, Aaron. Not at thith thtage."
"Pity. Ah well. What do you want me to do while you're away?"
"Continue with your teacher training thtudieth."
Aaron grimaced. "Yeah, I suppose I'd better..." He paused, eyeing 'Spin, whose attention was on the screen before him, then asked tentatively, "Why are you needed?"
"The hatchlingth need my attention."
"... nothing wrong, I hope?"
"Ratchet and the Prime want to conthider the conthruction of larger frameth for them. They appear to be developing far fathter than thparklingth on Thybertron." He frowned. "Hm. I wonder why?"
"Well, they must be feeding well. From what I understand from the history, you've got far more energy here than you had on Cybertron for ages. Maybe that's helping?"
'Spin nodded thoughtfully. "It ith the motht obviouth reathon. We will invethtigate while I'm there."
"You sure I can't come?"
"Thorry, not at thith point."
Aaron nodded sadly. "OK. Will you tell me what you can when you get back?"
"That's the best I can hope for. Will Ms Moss be going with you?"
"I believe tho, but we'll confirm that later..."
"Aw, I'm sorry. I know how much you want to go." Abigail kissed Aaron's cheek. "You'll have to nag him for all the details when they get back."
Aaron nodded disconsolately, then rallied. "Yeah. I mean, I'm still very much the junior partner. I can't expect much at this stage. But if the history is right, they may need to upgrade to new frames once every few years or so until they reach maturity, so I could still have the chance to visit."
"How long does that take?"
"On Cybertron - ages. Hundreds of our years. Here - no-one knows yet. 'Spin thinks maybe between five and ten years."
Abigail frowned. "That's not very long. Why is there such a difference?"
Aaron shrugged. "Maybe they've evolved? Their war's been going for millions of years. Maybe they have to grow up faster in order to survive."
Abigail eyed him with alarm. "Grow up?"
He shook his head. "Develop. Mature. So they can move into larger, adult frames faster."
"Oh. For a minute I thought you meant they grow like we do!"
Aaron chuckled. "They're machines. Machines don't grow."
"But I thought that that new science thingy... nano-something? says that some machines can grow."
He stared at her, startled. When had she developed an interest in science? "Well... not quite. Sort of. On a very tiny scale. It's complicated..." He huffed. "It doesn't apply to transformers."
"Oh. That's good." She grinned. "Scary thought, robots that can grow!"
"I suppose so..."
"So when do they leave?"
"End of the week." He sighed. "Ms Moss is really looking forward to it, I can tell..."
"I should come with you."
Poppy chuckled. "I'll be fine, Phil. You've seen how well Star and the kids and I get on, and... I mean... It's Diego Garcia. Ratchet, Wheeljack, Jolt and Optimus will all be there. What possible harm can come to me?"
"I know all that, but still... I am supposed to be your guard."
"But 'Beat is my guardian. No offence."
Phil growled then sighed. "None taken. Well, not much." He huffed. "OK, I'll admit it. It would be great to have a break. And I've never been to the island."
Poppy nodded, frowning, then her eyes widened. "Oh. Oh hell. When was the last time you had a holiday? You haven't since you joined us, have you?"
"No. It's been a year and a half, roughly." He grinned. "Much as this hardly feels like work, it would be nice to get away for a bit."
"Well, I certainly wouldn't mind if you came along, but would you get authorisation?"
"If you ask, there shouldn't be a problem." He shrugged. "Beverley's quite capable of taking over for a week or two, and Matthew's up to speed with my duties here. He can deputise if need be. It would give him something useful to do while he rehabilitates. Gentle exercise is just what he needs to get the hand working properly again."
Poppy grinned and rose to her feet. "Where is he?"
"Outside with Castle and Highdive."
She turned towards the door. "Back in a mo..."
Graham had agreed - Phil was due a vacation and he had no problems with the lieutenant accompanying Poppy. He insisted on Highdive going with them, however - much to the helicopter's delight. Poppy hurried to her office to give Beverley the news, grinning and nodding at Phil on the way. An hour later, the next fortnight's schedule organised with her PA, Poppy returned to the kitchen to find Phil making coffee. He handed her a mug and smiled.
She shook her head. "I should have thought of it before. Sometimes I forget you're actually here as your job. You feel like family."
He blinked, then beamed. "Thank you. Have to admit, I feel a bit like that myself."
Poppy chuckled. "It's kind of nice, isn't it?" She took a swig of coffee. "So, you need to organise anything before we go?"
He shook his head. "Just have to pack."
"It'll be hot. Take light stuff."
He chuckled. "Yes, thanks, will do."
She reddened. "Sorry. Didn't mean to be bossy."
"You weren't. But I have been on duty in hot places before."
"Of course you have..." She sighed, then grinned. "You can swim, of course."
"Yep. And I've heard the lagoon is great for swimming." He watched curiously as her eyes brightened and her gaze slid from his face to his chest. Mm. Interesting...
Poppy mentally shook herself and leaned back in her seat. "The plane leaves from Brize Norton at eight a.m. on Sunday. That leaves us tomorrow to finish organising things here. And placating Steamy."
Phil groaned and closed his eyes. "I'll leave that to you. He ignores me."
Poppy laughed. "Matthew said we could drive there tomorrow and stay overnight if we want. I'd rather not, unless you think it's a good idea?"
He shrugged. "There's no particular need. It would just save us having to get up extra early, that's all."
"I don't mind. And I prefer my own bed."
"Then we'll leave on Sunday morning."
The little convoy - 'Beat carrying Phil and Poppy, Graham in Stronghold with 'Spin in the back, and Highdive hovering above them - arrived at the base in good time, and with the minimum of fuss all except Graham and his Defender boarded the C-17. Highdive, 'Spin and 'Beat remained in root mode, talking quietly together in their native tongue: Poppy and Phil made themselves as comfortable as they could. With a flight of over five thousand miles west to east across five time zones, they had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable jet-lag, if not the relentless heat.
But the sight on their arrival banished any and all fatigue, at least for half an hour or so. As they exited the plane Phil heard Poppy squeak: he moved up behind her and followed the direction of her gaze.
His own eyes widened. Prime, Ratchet and Jolt were waiting at the landward side of the runway - accompanied by Starstream. Who was holding the standing Starsong by the hand, with one of the other hatchlings in the crook of his other arm. With Starwind hovering above him, leashed to a metal loop on his creator's shoulder by a cable attached to his own frame, a little like a human toddler with a wrist-strap keeping him safely within reach of his parent.
"POPPEE!!" Starsong squealed, pulling his hand away from Starstream's and bounding excitedly if a little clumsily towards her - slowing and calming down a bit at the anxious staticky warning shout from his creator. He walked the rest of the distance, then grabbed Poppy around the waist and lifted her into the air, faceplates grinning widely.
Poppy winced as his claws accidentally dug into her skin, and chuckled as she patted his shoulders.
"Gently please, Starsong. I'm not as tough as you."
"Oh. Starsong sorree." The hatchling loosened his grip and carefully lowered her back to her feet, then gazed down at her curiously. "Poppee is smaller than seems on screen."
"And Starsong is bigger!" He'd grown, she saw. He was now a head taller than she was. He giggled and very carefully took her wrist in his digits, tugging gently towards the watching transformers. She walked with him, glancing back with a beaming grin as the others followed.
Starstream chittered disapprovingly to his offspring as the group joined the welcoming committee, then inclined his head, scrutinising Poppy.
"I apologise, Poppy. Has he hurt you?"
She shook her head, ignoring the stinging puncture wounds. "It's nothing, Star." She gazed up at Starwind and waved, laughing as he waved back, then eyed the little hatchling. "Who's this?"
The baby regarded her solemnly, then wriggled closer to his creator, shyly hiding his eyes against the slender frame. Starstream clicked at him, then turned back to Poppy.
"Starcloud. He is less... sociable than his siblings, at present." His gaze moved to Phil. "Greetings, Lieutenant Collier."
"Hello Starstream, Ratchet, Jolt." Phil bowed courteously. "Prime."
"Welcome, Lieutenant. It is good to finally meet you."
"The pleasure, and honour, is mine, sir. Please, call me Phil."
The exchange of greetings amongst them all took a couple of minutes, then the Prime, sensitive to the bitten back yawns of the humans, gestured to Private Smith and an unfamiliar soldier, introduced as Sergeant David Harris.
"Our friends here will tend to your needs while you are here. Poppy, I know you have met Private Smith before." Poppy grinned happily at Karen. "Phil, Sergeant Harris is a fellow countryman." The Sergeant saluted smartly. "May I suggest a recess so that our visitors may make themselves at home. We will meet up again later this afternoon, if that is agreeable."
It was, and a few minutes later they waved to 'Beat, Highdive and Jolt as they moved away with Starstream and the hatchlings, heading for the nest. Ratchet ushered 'Spin to his Lair, while Poppy and Phil found themselves ferried to two neighbouring hoochs a half a mile from the base proper, their respective attendants carrying in their luggage. Once inside Karen regarded Poppy a little anxiously.
"Hope this is OK. We didn't know if you'd want to share a hooch so thought this would be the safer option."
Poppy nodded. "It's fine - we aren't together."
Karen nodded, then smiled. "In that case, I might try my luck. He's a bit of all right, isn't he?"
Poppy blinked, then frowned. She hadn't really thought about it, but... Phil wasn't bad looking. At all. Nice blue eyes, and a lovely grin.
She shook herself. Don't be daft. It's just Phil. He's... like a brother... But Karen was still speaking.
"Did the baby hurt you?" She glanced down at the back of Poppy's t-shirt. "You're bleeding. Should I get a medic?"
Poppy sighed and pulled the t-shirt up, twisting to try to see. "I don't need a doctor, I don't think. Could you have a look? Probably just need a couple of plasters."
Karen examined Poppy's back, pressing gently against the skin, then straightened and reached for the little first aid kit beside the bed. "I think it's OK. I'll put some antiseptic cream on, just in case, but they've already almost stopped bleeding and don't look deep."
"That'll do." Poppy yawned. "I think I need a nap."
Karen chuckled as she applied the cream. "I'll come and wake you later, if you like."
Poppy winced as the cream stung, then smiled over her shoulder. "Please."
Karen recapped and put away the tube, and patted Poppy's shoulder. "Sleep tight!"
She stirred at the tapping on the door, and yawned blearily.
"Phil. Are you decent?"
"Waitaminit..." Half-asleep she struggled into a t-shirt and shorts, and stumbled to the door. Outside a dishevelled and sleepy-looking Phil stood with two large mugs of tea. Poppy managed a grin and waved him in.
"They'll be coming to fetch us in five minutes. I thought you might like something with caffeine first."
Poppy took a swallow and grimaced. Stronger than she usually liked it, but if nothing else it would shock her system awake.
They drank in silence for a minute or two, then Phil sighed and leaned back in his seat. "So. That's the Prime."
"Yup. Amazing, isn't he?"
"Goes without saying."
"I begin to understand why all the fuss... Starsong was a bit of a surprise."
Poppy nodded. "He's grown so much! When I first saw him he would have only reached my waist."
Phil frowned. "Hm. That's a bit worrying. How big is he going to end up?"
"I don't know. They were all originally intended to be 'Con warriors, so I imagine quite big." She chewed her lower lip. "That's... difficult to take in."
"It's all very new. We've only ever seen the adults, and we know practically nothing about 'bot physical development. They've kept all this very quiet up to now."
"I'm pretty certain our transformers just didn't know it was possible..."
She frowned. "He says not. He thought it was all rumour and legend. But... the hatchlings were... spawned?... about five years ago, after the AllSpark was destroyed. So obviously some sort of reproduction not needing the AllSpark is possible - even if we're not completely sure of the process yet."
"... do you think the Prime knew?"
She stared at him. "How the hell am I supposed to know that?!"
"I'm just wondering. Suspicious mind, remember?" He tapped his forehead. "The Matrix is the combined wisdom of all the Primes. It would know. Prime carries the Matrix, so it stands to reason he must know too."
"I get the impression from things 'Beat's said that although he can access it all, he only does so if needed. So if the situation hasn't come up before, he probably only found out it was possible when Starstream asked where the hatchlings were."
"Mm. Hope so. I'd hate to think he's been lying to us."
She thumped her mug down on the table. "You what!? Don't be bloody ridiculous. Why the hell would he do that?"
He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Whoa. I'm just trying to cover all the possibilities."
She opened her mouth to argue, then closed it again, pouting. "I suppose you have a point."
He nodded. "Believe me, I don't think so for a moment, but that's one way it could be seen, and trust me, the anti-alien crowd will spin it for all it's worth. That will cause a lot of problems. It's best to be prepared."
Poppy grumbled her irritation. "I suppose so."
They were silent for a moment, then Phil sighed.
"Will we be able to maintain our current relationships with them? Later, I mean, assuming they eventually do start breeding."
Poppy shrugged. "I think that's up to us. Everything I've seen and learned makes me think they are completely honest in this... reverence they have for sentient life. If we stay friendly, I believe they will too."
"I hope you're right..."
Before Poppy could reply there was another tap at the door.
"Poppy? It's Karen. Are you ready? There's a meeting in the conference room."
"Be right there." She turned back to Phil. "Let's take things as they come for the time being, eh? They've given us no reason not to trust them - unlike some of our own species!"
Prime, Ratchet, Starstream and 'Spin were already in the conference room when they arrived and seated themselves on the upper level: Morshower was looking on from one of the screens, Graham from another, and Chatter was plugged into several separate consoles at the front of the room (Poppy made a mental note to say hello later). Prime welcomed them all, then handed over to Ratchet.
"Our initial examination tells us that the youngest hatchling will need medical intervention. He is not developing as the others are. In addition, it appears he is not a seeker. Whether this is the cause of his lack of development is presently unknown. However, we will make ascertaining the reason our highest priority after the actual treatment."
There was a moment's silence, then Poppy raised a hand. "Sir, what treatment are you going to give him?"
Ratchet glanced at 'Spin and Starstream, then back to the human. "We will need to... expand his protoform."
"Don't you usually make a new one and transfer the spark?"
Ratchet nodded approvingly. "I am glad you have been researching the subject. But no, in this instance it will be best - and less traumatic - to expand. Not to mention our supplies of the correct material are limited, and making more not an option right now."
"... will it hurt?"
Poppy sighed silently in relief, aware of Phil also relaxing minutely beside her. "Oh good!"
"We do not willingly nor needlessly cause pain."
"I know, sir, but it sounds painful!"
"It isn't really, Poppy. He will be in stasis." Starstream was noticeably less twitchy about being indoors than he had been before. "He will not feel a thing."
"We estimate that the procedure will take five or six days, then the hatchling will need a further few days to accustom himself to the larger frame, and I would like Sparkspinner to remain here until we are satisfied that all is well." Ratchet's gaze included them all. "Is this acceptable?"
Poppy nodded solemnly. "Yes sir, absolutely."
"Good. In that case, we shall make a start." He paused, then eyed Poppy. "I would advise you not be present. Even though it is painless, you may find it distressing to watch."
"But," Starstream interjected, "Starsong has asked that he spend time with you while you are here. I trust that will be sufficient distraction?"
Poppy laughed happily and glanced at Phil, who nodded. "We'll be delighted!"
Starsong was waiting with 'Beat outside the conference block, and greeted Poppy with excited chittering. Poppy moved in cautiously to give him a hug, which evidently startled but pleased him: after a couple of seconds he carefully hugged back.
"Hello Poppee." He had a sweet, musical voice, and she wondered if that was why he'd chosen his name... or perhaps she was just being fanciful. "We go for a walk?"
She looked back at Phil, who shrugged and smiled. "Want me to come along?"
Poppy turned back to the hatchling. Starsong nodded enthusiastically and extended a hand: after a moment's hesitation Phil gingerly took hold, making sure to avoid the sharp claws. Starsong chirruped happily and pulled them gently forward. Hand in hand, the hatchling in the middle and 'Beat bringing up the rear, the extraordinary little group headed off towards the beach.
It was only a short walk that first day, as the sun was setting and the two humans were beginning to flag. But it was repeated for the next four days: Poppy and Phil would have breakfast at the base, then head out with Starsong and 'Beat, sometimes accompanied by Karen or David, to explore the island, while Ratchet and 'Spin tended the ailing hatchling and Starstream, Highdive and Jolt kept watch on the others.
There was something endearingly cute about rediscovering the world through Starsong's eyes. It occurred to Poppy that this must be a big part of the joy of having children - not that she was tempted to have any herself, but... this was fun. Watching the hatchling pick up shells from the shallows (she'd been worried at first that the salt water might damage him but 'Beat had reassured her he'd be fine as long as the salt was washed off later) reminded her of the first time she'd been allowed in the water herself as a child...
And the medical treatment was going well, according to 'Spin. They had every confidence that the hatchling would be fine, although it looked as though he would need more intervention as he matured. They could cope with that, although Ratchet was clearly annoyed that he was so far unable to discover why the hatchling wasn't a seeker when the other four were, and why he wasn't growing...
The fifth day started normally enough, and they headed off along the ocean-ward side of the atoll. Then at just after eleven 'Beat stopped and tensed, looking back towards the base. Poppy frowned up at him.
"What is it?"
He gazed down at her. "We've received a transmission - an unexpected one."
"Hostile?" Phil automatically reached for his gun. 'Beat hesitated. "We don't know." After another few seconds he relaxed. "No, not hostile, but we don't know what it is."
Phil frowned at Poppy. "Perhaps we should get back?"
Poppy sighed and gestured to Starsong, who was gazing in fascination at something under the water that human eyes apparently couldn't see. "He's having such fun. I don't want to spoil it. You could go back though, and let us know what it is." She inclined her head to 'Beat. "Want to go back with Phil?"
The MGC hesitated, looking between the two humans, then shook his head. "No. My duty is to guard you."
Phil saluted him then smiled at Poppy. "OK. I'll run back and call you if it's anything exciting."
Back at the base Phil found Prime, Wheeljack and Jolt standing outside Ratchet's Lair, gazing upwards, weapons drawn, as Highdive, also at battle stations, hovered a few dozen feet above them. Sergeant Harris was there too: Phil murmured to him as he arrived.
"Something's coming. Prime has sent the little jet and his kids in with the doc-bot and this lot are out here to stand guard. Just in case, they said."
Phil frowned worriedly. Perhaps he should have stayed with Poppy? Then again, 'Beat could defend her perfectly well - even better than a human in most cases... He drew his gun and joined the others looking upwards.
Then they saw it - a massive shape hurtling towards them from the skies. A strange shudder went through the Autobots - and their weapons suddenly vanished. Phil gazed at them in bewilderment.
Jolt spared him a glance. "It's good news."
Before Phil could say anything else the shape had reached them, its momentum halted effortlessly a couple of feet above the ground. It hovered, huge, all smooth planes and bifurcated spikes and gleaming angles, thoroughly and beautifully alien. A hatch opened in the side and two figures - obviously Cybertronian - leapt lightly to the runway, then the larger craft rose into the air again, twenty feet or so...
Phil's mouth dropped open as the craft transformed, slowly and gracefully, landing on the runaway with a thud that shook the island. Vast brilliant blue eyes gazed at the Prime as the figure lowered itself to one knee and bowed its head, speaking to the group in a voice so deep it made the buildings vibrate. Prime answered it, and after a few seconds of flickering communication it spoke again, in English.
"My Prime. I heard your call."
Prime rested a hand against a face that was nearly as long as he was tall.
"You are most welcome, Skyfire."
Skyfire... Skyfire... Phil knew the name, he'd remember who it was in a moment, but for now... he dialled Cable to get Poppy to get back here as fast as she could. She'd be kicking herself for missing this...
There was no reply. Frowning, he tried again. Still no answer. Beginning to panic, he missed Prime's welcome to the other two arrivals. David frowned at him, alarmed at his agitation.
"I can't raise Poppy."
With an indulgent smile Poppy watched Phil jog away then turned back to Starsong, who had pulled a particularly complex shell from the water to show her.
"That's very pretty."
"Present for you." Starsong held it out to her, and she was about to take it when she realised it was still inhabited. She chuckled and shook her head.
"There's still someone living in it, 'Song. Better put it back."
"Oh. OK." He gently returned it to its place and waded back onto the beach, gazing curiously at the trees lining the shore behind Poppy and 'Beat. "Is new friends?"
Poppy twisted to look behind her...
Something sharp and cold stung her stomach. She looked down to see a large dart sticking out of her flesh, and went to pull it out, but before she could touch it a cold wave of dizziness swept through her. She heard 'Beat's engine rev loudly then stall as he was wrapped in a crackling electrical field: a second later an identical field twined itself around the hatchling, and Poppy's heart clenched as Starsong screamed...
She fell bonelessly onto the sand, dimly hearing a familiar voice.
"Dammit. We can't take them both, only got room for one. Take the jet. And take the woman too. She's important to them, we can use her ..."
She felt herself being lifted before everything went dark.
Part 18 - Captive
She tried to move and froze, hissing, as pain stabbed through her. Afraid to breathe in case it made the pain worse, she very slowly untensed, taking tiny quick gasps of stale smelling air and trying not to panic.
Her eyes were open, she was sure of it, but she couldn't see a thing. She blinked a couple of times - then became aware of a tiny noise coming from nearby. Focusing on it helped her keep hold of herself, keep the panic at bay...
It sounded like... whimpering. If a machine could whimper...
She tried to speak, stopping when all that came out was a croak, then forced herself to swallow and try again.
The whimpering paused for a second, then, "... Poppee?"
"Yes, sweetheart, I'm here..."
She blinked as two brilliant golden lights brightened the immediate darkness, wincing as she tried to smile. The hatchling was lying very close to her, on his side.
"Poppee?" The voice was high and frightened.
Gritting her teeth and ignoring the pain, she rolled onto her side and reached a hand out, making contact with cold metal.
"Are you OK?"
Starsong shivered. "Cold. Dark. Can't move." It came out as a sob.
Dark was right: wherever they were being held there was no lighting whatsoever. Except for his eyes...
"'Song, can you look down? Towards your feet?"
The sound of grating metal as the hatchling complied. Poppy scrutinised his frame as best she could: his hands were bound together in some sort of metal contraption that covered his claws, rendering them unusable. Very dimly she could see a wing. It didn't look right...
She pushed herself to a sitting position, realising with relief that the pain was quickly easing. Must have been a residual effect of whatever they'd used in the tranquiliser. Reaching up, she felt solid metal close above them, a ceiling far too low for standing upright even for her: stretching out to the side her fingers brushed more metal, and she swallowed a quick rush of fear. They were in a box, and by the dull grey colour and odd, slightly soft texture she'd guess it was lined in lead.
Old and primitive, but effective. The lead would hide Starsong's field and make communication nigh-impossible. They were effectively masked from outside detection.
The hatchling was whimpering again, and she turned to him, hands carefully checking his wings - a hard pulse of fury making her clench her teeth as she realised they'd been wrenched back and a massive rivet driven through them both, forcing them together and making it impossible for him to even attempt to fly. She couldn't see them, but she'd be willing to bet his thrusters had been disabled too...
"Hurts, Poppee. Hurts."
She stroked his face. "I know, sweetheart, I know. Try to be brave."
Shit. No doubt he'd be as claustrophobic as his creator... "Try not to move, sweetheart." Her vision was adapting to the light of his eyes, and she peered around their prison. At their feet was a patch of greater darkness: squirming around she examined it with her fingers. A hole about six inches square, with a sort of tunnel or chimney veering off sideways at a right angle... ah. It must be their airhole, constructed so that even here the hatchling's electronic signature was hidden.
She sat back, petting Starsong's face. The terrified hatchling was still whimpering, but Poppy's presence was helping keep him calm, she was sure. At least he wasn't panicking.
Though she couldn't guarantee that would last long, and the idea of a panicking, thrashing infant transformer in a confined space was frightening... she had to find a way out before that happened.
Banging on the side of the box had no effect except to hurt her hand.
She sat and thought for a moment, trying to remember the details of their abduction. That voice... she knew it... Ah. Yes. Bob Walker. She swore silently. It had to be that bastard, of course. They couldn't expect any consideration there.
But surely it was in his interest to make sure she, at least, was kept safe and sound, wasn't it? Then again, maybe not. Alive, yes, but not necessarily whole... She pushed that thought to the back of her mind.
They hadn't restrained her, at least that was something. Well, they hadn't tied her up, anyway. And there must be someone nearby, surely. She began to kick the bottom of the box, steadily, regularly, every minute or so adding a loud "Hey!"
She lost count at two hundred kicks...
"'Beat? Come in, 'Beat." Phil stared at the sergeant as he tried to contact the MGC, fear a tight heavy weight in his stomach. When there was no answer he raced to a jeep, ignoring Jolt's querying buzz, Harris at his heels. As the car roared away from the base they were dimly aware of Starstream barrelling out of Ratchet's Lair, his voice raised in fear.
It took just minutes to get to the spot Phil had last seen Poppy, and he leapt out of the jeep as he caught sight of 'Beat, sprawled on the sand, arcs of the disabling field still flickering over his frame. The MGC was silent, his eyes lightless.
A metallic shudder, then 'Beat's eyes lit up dimly. He tried to move, engine stuttering as the charge dissipated.
"What happened? Where's Poppy and Starsong?"
'Beat hauled himself to his feet and stood, swaying unsteadily, while his systems rebooted.
"They took them..."
"Who, 'Beat? Who took them?"
Phil frowned, puzzled, then his eyes widened.
"You mean Bob Walker?"
"Yeah... others with him, must have been..." He shook his head despairingly. "They used some sort of disrupter. Knocked us both offline."
"Tranquiliser dart, I think. I didn't see much before it all went dark." He looked upwards as the noise of jet thrusters sounded from the direction of the base, and seconds later a frantic Starstream landed, his Cybertronian fast and near-hysterical. 'Beat laid a hand on his arm and answered in the same tongue, faltering when the jet squatted down with an anguished howl, hands over his face.
"We'll find them, Starstream. I promise."
"How?" the jet wailed. "I can't hear him!"
"No contact at all?"
"Gone. All gone..."
'Beat glanced at Phil as Jolt and Optimus arrived and transformed. "They must be shielded somehow." He looked up at Prime and databurst recent events: Prime nodded and crouched down, one massive hand on the jet's shoulder.
"We have started the search, Starstream. We will do all in our power to retrieve your hatchling." He eyed Phil. "And Poppy."
Sergeant Harris had been scouting the area, and beckoned to Phil, pointing to rapidly crumbling tracks in the sand.
"Looks like they came ashore here. Shallow draught cruiser, I'd guess, unless they used some sort of landing craft. Though I think we'd have noticed that."
Phil chewed at his lower lip. "Was this planned, or did they just take advantage of the circumstances?"
"Oh, they'd have to plan this. But Skyfire's arrival provided the perfect distraction."
They both looked up as Highdive landed, transforming as he did so and shaking his head.
"Nothing moving in the vicinity, on sea or in the sky. I did a sweep to fifty miles out, but there's nothing."
"Then how the hell did they get away?"
Harris shrugged helplessly. "Submarine?"
"I wouldn't be able to detect that." Highdive sounded annoyed. Prime looked up from where he was comforting the distraught jet and eyed Phil sombrely.
"Contact NEST. I'll have Chatter trace all maritime movement in the area. For now," he rose to his feet, pulling Starstream up with him, "we will return to base and await developments."
Poppy's legs were aching. She stopped kicking to rest them for a few minutes, forcing herself to smile at the trembling hatchling. Starsong hadn't taken his eyes off the human, gazing at her with such trust it hurt.
"How are you doing, sweetheart?"
"... Starsong frightened."
She stroked his face, determinedly fighting back tears. "They won't keep us in here forever. They'll need to feed me, at any rate." She refused to consider the alternative. Walker had said she would be of use to them. She wouldn't be if she was dead... "Then we'll have a chance to escape." She hoped. Fiercely.
The hatchling whimpered, pressing his face into her hand. "Want the sky. Want Star."
Helplessly, Poppy hugged him as best she could. She'd lost track of time, and a quick check of her pockets revealed that Cable was gone - presumably removed by her captors. Not that she could have used him to call anyone, but at least he could have told her what the time was.
In all the furore of the abduction and setting the search and rescue in motion, the new arrivals had been somewhat sidelined, but now, with nothing more to do until they got news, Phil climbed up to Starstream's nest and gazed at the massive form of Skyfire. The transformer had seated himself against the hanger and was quietly watching the activity below him: he turned his head as the human arrived.
"I understand you are designated Phil, a warrior with our allies at NEST." The voice that had rocked the base earlier had reduced itself to a whisper, still loud by human standards but no longer threatening to burst fragile eardrums. Phil nodded, trying not to feel too overwhelmed. He'd thought Optimus was big, but Skyfire...
"Skyfire... What do you do?"
Huge blue optics flickered: Phil interpreted it as amusement.
"I... explore. We are space-rated - we travel among the stars. 'Seeking out new life and new civilisations', as you would say."
Phil chuckled, surprising himself that he still could. "Boldly going where no-one has gone before, eh?"
"Indeed. It is an interesting existence."
Skyfire paused to consider, then his optics flickered again. "No. I am primarily a cosmologist and xenogeologist, but I also serve as a transport. Colleagues always accompany me." His head turned fractionally to eye the empty nest: Starstream and the hatchlings were safely under Jolt and Ratchet's guard in the medic's Lair. "Before the last war, Starscream and I were partners, working out of the Academy of Science and Technology. He was always my favourite companion."
Fascinated despite his worry, Phil nodded. "We only know him as a violent, murderous psychopath."
Skyfire shook his head ponderously, slowly, his voice, even at a whisper, deep and gentle. "He was not like that, at the beginning. He was brilliant, dedicated, intensely curious. He wanted - needed - to know, to learn, to discover."
"... what happened?"
"We were caught in a... you would call it a geomagnetic storm. A huge and violent one. We were separated - flung widely apart, our internal systems overloaded, our communication lost. I was downed on the world we had discovered, ended up frozen in ice for the tens of millennia it took for the world's glaciation to retreat. Starscream was sent spinning to the next orbit out, and although I later found he came searching for me, by then I was in deep stasis - almost offline. He had no choice but to try to return to Cybertron. But he is rated only for interplanetary travel. It took him three million years to limp back home between the stars, and by the time he reached Cybertron he was near-offline and only marginally sane."
The starcraft vented a long low sigh. "And by then the war was well underway, the Science Academy turned from the purity of science to the artifice of war, and all those we had known had joined one faction or another." His head lowered in regret. "We were valuable, you see, us scientists. Starscream was blamed for my disappearance, the loss of a precious resource. There was no one to help him, no one to give him the care he needed to recover from his ordeal."
"So he joined the Decepticons?"
"In his fragile state he was easy prey. And his skills - in physics, in space bridge technology, in weaponry - made him valuable. In those days Megatron was very persuasive, his promises what the oppressed wanted, needed, to hear. Starscream rose quickly through the ranks, his instability making him dangerous to their enemies. It wasn't until much later that the abuse began. By then Megatron was... you'd say drunk with power, and unstable himself."
Phil nodded. "And by then it was too late for Starscream to extricate himself."
Skyfire vented quietly, hopelessly. "Because he had nowhere to go, no one who would tolerate him. Megatron owned him, frame, processor and spark. And by then he believed he deserved everything that was done to him." He shuttered his optics. "My poor Star..."
"But he has a second chance."
Skyfire nodded. "Thanks to the Prime."
"... and what about you?"
Skyfire's faceplates moved into a sad smile. "I never returned to Cybertron. I came close - close enough to tap into the Iacon Hall of Records, and to learn what had befallen my home and my colleagues - but I will never let myself be used for war. I have roamed the stars ever since, until I heard the Prime's call." He gazed around him. "It is very good to be with kin again. And your world is very pleasant..."
"So you'll be staying?"
"Yes. For the time being."
"You'll be a great help..." Phil paused as Skyfire directed his attention groundwards, and seconds later held out one massive hand. Phil climbed on, and a moment later was on the ground. Harris beckoned him and the two raced to the conference room.
Morshower's expression was grim. Phil saluted then waited, fearing the worst. "Sir?"
"Lieutenant Collier. We have been contacted by the kidnappers - their agents, rather. They have guaranteed Ms Moss will be returned to us alive if we call off the search."
"And a verbal guarantee isn't worth the paper it's written on." Harris, standing at Phil's shoulder, muttered under his breath. Phil swallowed.
"Sir, we can't do that."
"I know, and we aren't. But we're handing this mission over to the Autobots at their request." Phil glanced at Optimus, who inclined his head. "We'll be available as backup, but in this instance we'll take our orders from them."
Morshower smiled mirthlessly. "It also means we can tell them we have, as ordered, called off the search."
Phil nodded. "I understand sir."
"Stay in touch." The screen blanked, and Phil rubbed a hand despairingly over his eyes before regarding Prime.
"OK, sir. What do you need me to do?"
"For the moment, I would like you to sit with Chatter. He and Ramp are searching global communications for anything suspicious. It would also be useful if you were to double check our information - we are, we believe, dealing with humans here and you obviously have more familiarity with your own species than we do. We need to be alerted to oddities of behaviour or movement. Tell me, if you were to organise this atrocity, how would you go about it?"
Phil blinked, then frowned. "I would keep the package moving. Changing carriers at irregular intervals. What have we found so far?"
"Poppy and Starsong must have been taken from the island onboard a small surface vessel, then transferred to one larger and faster. There are, fortunately, few ships in the area at present and we have found no anomalies with any of them, although we are keeping them under surveillance. However, before the satellite moved out of range we believe we saw the shadow of a submarine ascending ten miles to the west. We have so far found no records of any registered submarine activity in the area, so for now are assuming that Poppy and the hatchling are aboard."
Phil nodded. "And we're tracking it?"
"We are. Chatter will keep you advised. In the meantime, we have two C-17s ready for immediate takeoff as and when they are required."
"Thank you, sir. Can I come with you?"
Prime hesitated, then nodded, but before he could speak Skyfire's face appeared on the screen.
"Prime, please avail yourself of my services. I can fly faster than the human aircraft."
"I know, my friend, but you are rather large and conspicuous. However, your offer is much appreciated, and if it is apposite, we will indeed call upon you."
Tense but reassured that action was being taken, Phil strode to Chatter's post and settled himself to listen.
Poppy was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and despite the fear felt overwhelming relief when the side of the box at their heads slid open. The light outside was muted, but she could hardly miss the man - large and wielding the biggest gun she'd ever seen on a human - peering in. He aimed the gun at her.
"Get out. You're being fed."
Poppy turned to Starsong, who had begun to whimper again, and laid her hand on his cheek.
"Be brave, sweetheart. I'm not leaving you. I'll be back in just a little while. I'll keep talking to you all the time, OK?"
"... OK Poppee..."
She pulled herself stiffly out of the box, grabbing the guard's brawny wrist as he went to close it again.
She winced as she pulled herself upright, and glared at him.
"Because he's equipped with a self-destruct and if he panics he will blow both himself and this... whatever we're in... to pieces. At the moment I'm the only person keeping him under control. He needs to see me and hear my voice."
The guard glowered at her, obviously hesitating, then grunted and pulled his hand away. Poppy nodded.
"Sensible decision. Now, bathroom. Urgent."
He gestured to a door in one wall of the stark bare room they were in, and she darted for it, leaving the door half open so she could talk to the hatchling, snippets of poetry, little reassurances, anything that came to mind. Minutes later, much more comfortable, she returned to the box, the outside of which, she saw, was composed of layers of different high-tech materials. Apparently they were taking no chances of Starsong being found.
She seated herself outside and reached in a hand to pet the hatchling's head, staring up at the guard.
"You said something about food?"
He lifted a plastic tray from a chair beside the box and thrust it at her. She eyed it suspiciously - a burger and a bottle of water? How original. However, she was, she realised, stomach-grumblingly hungry, and wolfed it down in no time.
"Not exactly what I'm used to but it filled the hole." She slid the tray carelessly over towards the chair and glared up at the guard. "I want to speak to that bastard Walker."
"I know he's involved. Get him in here."
"He's not gonna like it."
"I really don't care."
The guard reached for his walkie-talkie and muttered some sort of code into it. A few minutes later a door opened and Walker entered the room.
Poppy frowned. He looked different, somehow... she shook her head. It wasn't important.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Walker raised an eyebrow. "I'd have thought it was fairly obvious. We're taking the robot for examination. Dissection. Recycling and reusing."
"He's just a baby!"
"It is a machine."
"He's more human than you'll ever be!"
Walker came closer, his face twisting in fury. Poppy fought her instinct to cross her arms defensively over her chest and planted her hands on her hips instead. "Oh, look at the big man, threatening a helpless woman and a child."
She rocked back as he slapped her face, hard, her hand coming up to press against her cheek, tasting blood where she'd bitten her tongue. He leaned in closer, crowding her.
"I said I'd give you back alive. I didn't say you'd be in one piece. If you want to go home with all your limbs, shut your fucking mouth."
He'd do it too, she knew. She swallowed blood and backed down, speaking awkwardly through swollen lips.
"Can he at least come out and stretch? They get stressed, you know, just like we do. He won't be much use to you if he arrives half-dead."
Walker stared at her threateningly, then appeared to reconsider. He jerked his head at the guard, then left the room: Poppy leaned down and beckoned to Starsong.
"You can come out, sweetheart. It's not the sky, but there's a bit more room than in there..."
Hesitantly, whimpering, the hatchling eased himself out of the box and sat beside Poppy, blinking around the room and flinching when he caught sight of the guard. Poppy wrapped an arm around his waist.
"It's OK. He won't hurt us."
Starsong turned to her, eyes flickering as he caught sight of her face. "Poppy leaking?"
She wiped at the trickle of blood. "It's OK, 'Song, nothing to worry about." She knelt up to take a proper look at his wings, heart sinking at the sight. Energon was still sluggishly trickling from underneath the metal plates holding the rivet in place, and his shoulders were pulled back at an awkward angle. She stroked his face.
"I'm so sorry, sweetheart. I can't do anything to make them better."
He chirred mournfully, then managed a tiny half-smile. "Ratchet fix when we go home."
She bit back a sob, the reality of the situation hitting her hard. "Yes, 'Song. When we get home doc-bot will make everything better."
They'd better bloody well find us soon, she thought, angrily brushing away her tears.
Part 19 - Disclosure
The room in which they were kept captive was small - not much more than eight feet high, Poppy estimated, and probably no more than fifteen foot to a side, and their box took up about half of it. But it was better than being shut in the darkness. She was able to pace, and even managed to persuade the hatchling to walk with her a little, although his balance was off without the use of his wings. A guard stayed in the room at all times, most often the one who'd given her that first excuse for a meal, but didn't harass or threaten them. Poppy was fed at what felt like irregular intervals, and the portions were hardly extravagant or particularly nutritious: she thought, with grim humour, that Steamy would have kittens if he knew.
Which of course led to her anguished imagining what her transformers were all going through, knowing she was missing and not knowing if she was even still alive...
She managed to sleep, intermittently, though not for very long snatches of time between the cold hard floor and her fear about their situation. And she was worried about Starsong. His colour was fading, and to her alarm he seemed to be weakening.
"I don't suppose anyone thought to bring along any energon?"
The guard stared at her as if she had turned into some interesting form of insect life, and she shook her head, muttering under her breath, "no, of course they didn't..."
She turned back to the hatchling, who was slumped against the wall, shivering, his head lowered. "Sweetheart?" He dragged his gaze up to her, and she saw his eyes were dimmer. "Can you... will you be OK?"
His voice was faint and filled with static, and she turned back to the guard.
"Tell Walker if he wants a live transformer he'd better organise some fuel for him. Right now."
She fought back tears of frustration and the urge to hit him as the guard shrugged. "He don't care. As long as it's not damaged, alive or dead don't matter."
Growling under her breath she settled herself beside Starsong, wrapping her arms around his waist and singing softly under her breath.
Where the hell were they? She could sense no movement, no rolling such as would happen if they were on a ship or a plane, no change in air-pressure to affect her inner ear... "How long are we going to be kept here?"
The guard ignored her.
Five meals later the guard gestured to the box with his gun.
Swallowing - the last thing she wanted was for them to be shut back in what had begun to resemble a coffin in her mind - she coaxed the hatchling into the box, soothing his distressed chirring as best she could as the top wall slid shut with a hollow thud. She nestled close to Starsong, stroking his face, then froze as she felt movement. First a jerking from side to side, then the entire box swayed. As if it was being lifted, she thought, heart lightening a little. And she could smell sea air pouring in through their breathing hole...
A very short time later there was a jarring, bruising clang as the box was lowered carelessly to a solid surface. She faintly heard the sound of something banging, then the box was opened again - and flooded with light.
"You can come out now."
Wincing against the brightness, she crawled out, then beckoned to Starsong. As the hatchling weakly pushed himself out to join her, she peered around as best she could.
It looked like a ship's cargo hold. At least, it looked like the pictures she'd seen of a ship's cargo hold. There were other containers in the hold, all of them at some distance: they were obviously not going to risk Poppy trying to sneak her way out by using them as shelter. Walker was standing beside one of the large, floor-mounted flood-lights that were ranged around their box. His smile was one of the nastiest things she'd ever seen.
"Enjoying the trip?"
She sniffed disdainfully. "The accommodation leaves a lot to be desired. And the present company is simply foul."
He barked a laugh as he strode away. "Enjoy it while you can. It's going to get worse."
The lights were relentless. After just a short while Poppy's eyes were watering, her head was thumping, and the only way to get any relief was to climb back into the box. She almost began to wish there was such a place as Hell, so Walker could burn there forever...
She closed her eyes as Starsong manoeuvred his way back into the box and lay beside her. She could see the guards' legs outside the box, but at least they weren't looking in... She sighed as the hatchling wriggled, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart..."
He chittered, squirming. "Tickles."
She opened her eyes, frowning. "What tickles?"
"Back..." But before either of them could do anything more a little silver shape eased its way out from between Starsong's pinned wings and scuttled swiftly and silently to Poppy, hiding in the shadow beneath her chin.
"Poppy, don't move or say anything..."
She gasped involuntarily. "Cable?"
"Yes. Please don't react."
She kept her whisper barely audible. "But... but... I thought... I thought they had you!"
"I saw 'Beat and Starsong get hit, and while the attackers' attention was on you I ... sort of... blended in on Starsong's back, between his wings. Made myself look like I was part of him." She felt him touch her chin very gently. "I'm sorry I couldn't help you. And I'm sorry I couldn't tell you 'til now. They had all sorts of sensors operating in that submarine thing. They'd have known I was here if I'd moved or spoke."
Poppy was weak and near tears with relief. "And you can help us now?"
"Yes. Though you may have to make a distraction so I can... sneak off and find out where we are, where we're going, and get a message off to Ramp."
"You can do that?"
"Yes. Though I may have to study the systems here first. I need to 'get lost in the noise' as you put it."
"Cable..." She didn't have the words. "Thank you."
He nuzzled her neck. "We aren't home yet, Poppy. It's still very dangerous."
"I know. But at least now we have a chance. When do you want to make a move?"
"Let them get under way and settle for a bit first. Give the guards no reason to mistrust you. Bored guards are careless ones."
"OK." She hesitated a moment. "How long...?"
"You were taken eight days ago."
Karen eyed the lieutenant and bit her lip. He looked dreadful...
"Sir? Perhaps you should get some sleep...?"
'Beat laid a hand carefully on Phil's shoulder. "She's right. You won't be any good to Poppy if you don't get some rest."
He scrubbed a hand across his face, feeling hollow with exhaustion. Nine days. It had been nine days, and all Ramp and Chatter's expertise had availed them nothing. Walker had obviously used his NEST skills and knowledge to their fullest.
Poppy... the not knowing was agony.
"I know, 'Beat! I just... I can't..."
'Beat's gaze flickered to the base doctor behind the lieutenant - and the MGC reached to catch him as the medic injected a strong sedative before Phil could object.
"I don't like doing that sort of thing." The doctor scowled at 'Beat. "But you're right. He has to rest. Even if it's chemically induced rest. He'll sleep for a minimum of twenty four hours now. He won't be particularly sweet-natured when he wakes up, but a decent meal should fix that."
'Beat nodded. "Thanks. I wouldn't have asked if it wasn't so important."
"Yes, well, try not to let it happen again..."
Seventeen hours later Chatter exploded into furious and very noisy activity.
Morshower was on one screen, Graham on the other. Both of them looked exhausted but relieved.
"OK. So we know that all three of them are alive and unharmed. We know where they're headed, and we know they should arrive there in at most two days. How do you want to do this, Prime?"
Optimus regarded the screen sombrely. "Speed and stealth are the primary requisites, Admiral. And this is our mission."
"I am requesting officially that a NEST presence be allowed."
"Of course. Although I ask that it be a minimal presence. We do not wish to endanger any more humans than we need to."
"Lieutenant Collier, of course. Sergeant David Harris?"
"Acceptable." Prime glanced at Graham. "I understand you are not yet sufficiently recovered, otherwise your assistance would be most welcome."
Graham grimaced and raised his still bandaged hand. "At the moment I'd be a liability."
"Unfortunate. We are the poorer for it." He turned back to Morshower. "We will assemble three or four others from the troops already here. I believe only a small human force will be required."
"Very well." Morshower rubbed a hand over his face. "You'll keep us apprised."
"Thank you." He glanced away from the screen for a few seconds, then looked back, shoulders slumping. "The anti-alien league are causing problems again."
"Then you had best attend to your own troops. We will speak again, later."
Morshower and Graham both disappeared from the screens, and Prime turned to Sergeant Harris.
"Please wake Lieutenant Collier. He needs to be here for the next phase. And he will want to hear the news."
"... Phil.... c'mon, wake up..."
Blearily, Phil forced his eyes open, to be greeted by Harris's grinning face. For a moment he stared blankly - then grabbed the sergeant's wrist, coming fully awake in an instant. "We've found them."
"Yes. And they're OK. Well, they're still in danger, but they haven't been hurt. Prime's planning the rescue."
Phil literally leapt off the bed, dragged on clothing haphazardly and raced Harris to the conference room. Inside, Prime was speaking to Jolt and... the two newcomers. Optimus inclined his head in greeting as a manically-grinning Phil hauled himself to the 'human' seating area and leaned forwards eagerly.
"Yes, my friend. She is unharmed."
...oh thank all the gods and powers that be... Phil slumped over the railing, took several deep breaths, then pulled himself upright and saluted.
"What's the plan, sir? Where are they?"
"The plan is a simple one. And they will be on the Kamchatka Peninsula in less than a day."
The Kamchatka Peninsula is, of course, an homage to the Transformers: Prime season 1 episode Operation Breakdown. Have I mentioned how much I love TfP? I'm sure I have, somewhere...
Part 20 - Liberate
Optimus looked from Phil to Ratchet and back, then glanced at Starstream, who was pacing tightly, wings quivering.
"I understand your feelings, but we can't all go. There are the other hatchlings to care for, and we cannot leave the island undefended."
"We volunteer to stay behind." Phil swivelled, not recognising the voice. The two newcomer transformers came forward, nodding respectfully at the Prime. "We can do that."
Phil hadn't had a chance to meet them yet, although he'd heard them referred to as Hound and Trailbreaker: he understood they were both scouts, which would explain why they had travelled with Skyfire, he supposed. Perhaps when this was all over he could find out more about the planets they'd visited...
Harris spoke quietly into his ear. "Sound types, according to Jolt. Trusty. Not exactly warriors, but as defensive forces, damn good. Trailbreaker has his own force field."
Phil stared at him. "I don't see what use that could be..."
Harris frowned. "You still half-asleep? Force field. He can protect the hatchlings. Frees up Jolt and Ratchet to come with us. Not to mention eases stress for Star there. He won't have to worry about his other sprogs while we're rescuing Starsong."
Phil's gaze was drawn involuntarily to the distraught jet. Having had the misfortune, just once and from a distance, to see Starscream in action, he really couldn't make sense of what he was seeing. How could Starscream possibly become this... anguished little mother? The idea was insane.
Although it helped that Starstream looked nothing like Starscream.
He supposed he'd get used to it eventually. In the meantime...
"We'll need a human doctor too. In case Poppy needs one."
The Prime nodded. "Indeed. Myself, Ratchet, Jolt, Upbeat, Starstream, you, Sergeant Harris and... Dr Philips?" He glanced at Phil, who nodded. The junior doctor was a woman, which he thought Poppy would prefer. "Very well. We leave in an hour."
That would leave Wheeljack, Hound, Trailbreaker and 'Spin to guard the other hatchlings. It wasn't ideal, but Ratchet's Lair could be sealed up from the inside and was strong enough to handle anything less than a nuclear strike. They'd manage...
"My Prime?" Phil jumped as the image of Skyfire's huge face appeared on the screen. Optimus inclined his head. "I would be honoured to offer my services as transport."
"We appreciate the offer, my friend, but you are too conspicuous..."
Skyfire was shaking his head. "We have been busy, Wheeljack and I, and Mirage from a distance, this last week." Massive digits touched a new-looking panel on his throat - and his form wavered into almost-invisibility. "I can now cloak. Will this not be useful? And unlike the human aeroplanes, I can land anywhere."
Phil and Harris stared at him, mouths agape. The Prime nodded slowly. "Indeed it will. Very well, Skyfire. We shall avail ourselves of your offer."
If he hadn't been so worried about Poppy, Phil would have found the flight thrilling. Skyfire's alternative mode was wholly alien but very beautiful, and Phil was sufficiently au fait with the notion of being inside a transformer not to lose his composure at the thought of travelling within him. Though he did notice that Ratchet had to remind the starcraft to provide an airtight cabin and oxygen for his human passengers. He ascended to the edge of space for the journey, and for long minutes Phil stared out of the expansive forward viewport, entranced by the sight. But not for long. Thinking how much Poppy would love this reminded him of their mission, and he turned to Prime.
"Sir, what's the plan?"
Before Optimus could reply, Skyfire spoke up, his voice oddly echoing.
"Might it be better for me to apprehend the human vessel while they are still on water?"
Prime considered the idea for a moment, then demurred.
"While the notion has merit, we are at a disadvantage over water. We will contest them on land." He eyed the humans. "We are tracking them. They are due to arrive in an hour, and once we are certain of their destination we will... take them by surprise."
Phil chuckled grimly. 'Surprise' was putting it mildly. "Do we have any idea of how many we'll be facing, and what weaponry they have?"
"They are few. Their weaponry appears to be basic. Nothing that we cannot deal with."
"And us, sir?"
"You are to stay out of danger. You are here to ensure that Poppy is safe and unharmed, and because she will need you."
Phil and Harris nodded: the doctor was still entranced by the view from the port. Neither of them wanted to come between an angry Ratchet, a distraught Starstream and Prime and the people who had kidnapped the hatchling and the Consul...
The hour crawled. Unable to rest, Phil paced back and forth across what he could only think of as a cockpit, half-listening to the murmured conversation behind him. Not that he could understand much, as most of it took place in Cybertronian. But finally they began to descend, dropping swiftly through the atmosphere, through high clouds and down to breathable air, Skyfire remaining cloaked as the Kamchatka Peninsula became defined below them and heading for the Sredinny Range, coming in to hover fifty feet or so above the scrub at the foot of the Ichinsky volcano. Phil and Harris readied their guns, the doctor between and slightly behind them, while the transformers took point: Skyfire dropped another two dozen feet and opened a lower hatch for them to exit before lifting again to hover in readiness for their departure.
Prime leapt first, reaching back to lift the humans to the ground.
"Stay behind us. You are not to expose yourselves to any danger." He gestured to the MGC. "Upbeat, guard them."
As 'Beat leapt down and moved to shield the humans, sonic blasters engaging, Starstream dived out, thrusters loud in the wind-swept silence. Prime held up a hand to stop him from advancing any further.
::We need to be stealthy, little one. We must not alert them to our presence::
::They probably already know::
::Not yet: Skyfire is cloaking us until we enter their installation::
Starstream lowered to the ground, disengaging his thrusters, nodding. ::Then we must not give them any warning of our presence::
::Indeed. Are you able to contain yourself until we find our quarry?::
Starstream shuddered, almost visibly reining in his fury.
::I can, my Prime::
::Very well:: He gestured to the others, who had now all assembled nearby, and pointed to the cliff before them. "The base is inside this holocene extrusive dome."
Phil and Harris blinked and stared up at him blankly. He vented quietly. "Their base is inside this hill. The entrance is camouflaged. Once we are inside Skyfire can no longer hide our presence, so we must be ready to move with all due despatch."
They entered the installation with the minimum of noise, weapons at the ready. Just inside was a foyer, with what appeared to be a reception desk. There were two men behind it, both in black uniforms.
"Who is in charge here?" The taller human waveringly raised his hand. Prime lowered himself to the human's level. "You are holding an infant transformer and a human woman. What is their location?"
The man may have been in uniform but he was certainly no soldier. "Th... they're... in the main... lab, sir..."
Prime gestured to the screen behind the desk, which displayed a schematic of the whole base. "Show us."
As the male obliged, 'Beat reached over the desk and ripped out the communication lines, leaving the base effectively cut off from the outside world. Then he tied up the two males with the cables, securing them to a sturdy floor to ceiling pillar at the edge of the foyer.
Prime led them onwards...
The staff, mostly research scientist of a variety of disciplines, surrendered without putting up any fight, and the handful of soldiers were swiftly rounded up and shackled together, their weapons twisted into unrecognisable shapes by a growling Ratchet. Optimus gestured to Jolt, who raced off deeper into the base on his own mission, and turned to the humans.
"Is Walker here?"
"With the prisoners."
Ratchet and 'Beat both snarled, making the humans flinch. Prime hushed them.
"Call him here."
As the lieutenant complied, Phil and Harris holstered their guns and pressed against the wall to either side of the doorway...
"What do you..." Walker halted, jaw dropping as he saw Optimus. "What the fuck?" He grabbed for his gun - only to have Phil and Harris leap on him from behind.
It was short and bloody, and Walker was no challenge for the enraged NEST officers, and minutes later he was on the floor on his front with Phil sitting on him.
"Get off, you bastard."
Phil slapped his head, hard. "Unlike you, I knew my father. I suggest you shut your mouth, unless you want me to hand you over to Ratchet. He's not very fond of people who hurt kids."
Walker struggled, but his broken leg crippled his attempt to break free, and Phil slapped him again, harder.
"And I'm not very fond of people who hurt those I... am sworn to protect."
"Or we could just hand you over to Starstream...."
Walker spat in the jet's direction. Phil went to slap him again, but 'Beat intervened.
"We need to get Poppy and Starsong without any more delay. Let me handle that piece of shit."
Eyebrows rising at the human idiom, Phil climbed off the ex-NEST officer and bowed to the MGC. 'Beat grabbed him by the collar of his uniform and lifted him easily - just far enough that his feet would drag on the ground, jarring his broken leg with every step the transformer took. Together, Ratchet growling quietly, Starstream twitching anxiously, they headed for the main lab. It was perhaps fortunate that no-one was privy to the small exchange between medic and jet.
::It would be interesting to take him apart, advance my knowledge of human physiology...::
Starstream eyed him warily. ::While I appreciate your perspective, it is my right to extract recompense for harm done to my hatchlings, not yours. I must ask you not to intervene::
Ratchet regarded him with anger that swiftly faded into resignation. ::Very well. Just remember we don't kill humans, no matter how much they may deserve it::
Starstream nodded, neglecting to point out that the standing order was not to harm humans, rather than just not to kill them.
They arrived at the main lab and halted, staring.
Surrounded by a blaze of floodlights, Poppy was standing in front of the crumpled, trembling form of Starsong, her arms wide in a brave but hopeless attempt to protect him. "No! You won't hurt him! I won't let you!"
"Poppy - it's us. Phil. 'Beat. Prime."
The woman faltered, shaking arms lowering as she tried to squint past the blinding lights.
Glancing quickly around to check there was no-one near to hurt her, Phil dived forwards, pulling her into his arms as she collapsed forwards.
"Are you OK? Are you hurt?"
"N... no..." But she was shaking in reaction, her voice quavering. He picked her up and held her close.
She sniffled and managed a very tremulous smile. "No deities involved. Just you and 'Beat and Chatter and Prime and Cable."
He buried his face in her hair, murmuring. "So literal, my Poppy..."
The fact that she didn't argue the endearment meant that either she didn't mind or she was too overwrought to take it in. He'd worry about which later, when they were all very far away from here.
She struggled a little: he loosened his hold, and she peered up at him, wrinkling her nose. "I smell horrible."
He laughed and kissed her cheek.
"I don't care."
She sighed and relaxed a bit, the trembling easing a little, but her lips quivering as she fought not to cry in public. She looked around, as much to distract herself as anything, and watched Starstream move with astonishing swiftness and fluidity to crouch before his hatchling, one hand reaching behind Starsong's neck to hold him still while the claws of the other very delicately sliced through the heavy steel of the gauntlets on the hatchling's hands. As they fell apart Starsong reached for the jet, struggling weakly to pull himself closer: snuggling the little one against his frame, Starstream sliced through the rivet holding the small wings together. Starsong yelped as the metal bars were quickly but carefully pulled out of his wings, then collapsed against Starstream, shivering and chittering.
The jet held him tightly, one hand soothing over the ragged, energon-bleeding holes in his wings, then moved to support his back while... Poppy frowned, intrigued despite her own distress. The claw on Starstream's other 'thumb' retracted and was replaced by a small nozzle which Starsong swiftly took into his mouth, while the other digits wrapped tenderly around the little one's face and head. Then the jets rocked gently together, Starstream crooning almost silently what sounded like a tune, for all the world as if he were nursing his hatchling.
Which was exactly what was happening, Poppy realised, as Starsong slowly relaxed, curling into his creator's frame, optics shuttering as Starstream fed his starving hatchling energon from his own system.
::Rest, my little one, my sparkling::
::... creator... mummy..::
::S'what Poppy's people - their hatchlings - call their creators. Their... carriers::
Starstream paused in his gentle soothing lullaby, swiftly checking the term online. He nuzzled his hatchling.
::Between us, then. Not aloud::
::She has cared for you?::
::Poppy... kind... sweet... tried to help so hard. Nice human. Not like the others::
Starstream vented a sigh. ::Most of them are decent, little one. There are not many like him::
::... mm... mummy?::
::Can we keep her?::
Starstream chuckled and hugged the hatchling closer, his gaze - fixed on Walker where he hung, bruised and beaten in 'Beat's large hands - gradually hardening as Starsong slipped into recharge.
Poppy watched as they sat for several minutes, until the hatchling fell sleep, then Ratchet very gently took the infant from his creator with a quiet mutter. Starstream nodded as the medic began to run scans and start work on repairing the battered, bleeding little wings, and turned to Walker. 'Beat held him very still as Starstream slid two claws slowly and with clinical precision into his skin at the bottom of his breastbone then up inside his chest, scraping across his ribs but not penetrating his lungs. Walker blanched - the pain must have been horrendous - but refused to cry out. As the claws reappeared, puncturing tissue and skin above his collarbones, Starstream lifted the man bodily to hang several feet from the floor, his weight supported purely by his ribs and the jet's claws.
Starstream's voice was cold and expressionless.
"Tell me why I should let you live."
"Autobot... you don't... kill humans..."
"I am no Autobot. And you forfeited your right to be called human when you abducted and abused a baby."
Walker barked an unconvincing laugh. "A baby? Don't flatter yourself. You're machines. Nothing more than machines with pretensions to intelligence."
Starstream inclined his head, studying the human clinically, then glanced at the Prime.
"It's barely sentient. Worthless. Why do you defend it?"
"We do not hurt humans. Even if some of them are nothing more than ignorant parasites."
Starstream's gaze returned to the bleeding human hanging from his claws. "Tell me again why I should let you live."
Walker's grin looked more like a grimace. "You shouldn't. If I was you, I'd kill me."
Everyone tensed as, with a whirring grinding sound, a small but deadly looking missile launcher cycled out of the jet's free arm, pointing at Walker's chest.
Optimus glanced at Ratchet in alarm. ::Where did that come from?::
The medic looked equally shocked. ::I don't know! We didn't construct it!::
Walker tried to sneer. "Yeah, just get it over with, you fucking soulless machine."
Starscream eyed him a moment longer, then the launcher folded itself back into his frame.
"No. You are a waste of ammunition. However, since you patently have no respect for children, for the future of the species, I will ensure you can never have any of your own."
Before anyone could react, the jet's claws jabbed into the skin of Walker's pelvis and dragged downwards, deepening the wound as they went, shredding everything in their path. Wide-eyed with horror and fear, Walker screamed as his genitals were torn from him, beyond any possibility of repair. As he fainted Starstream allowed him to drop, retracting his claws and daintily shaking blood from his hands. He turned to the others, who were staring at him in various states of shock or disbelief.
"I am satisfied." The jet eyed the base's medic. "You had better staunch his wounds before he bleeds to death."
Shaking, the doctor inched his way over to the unconscious soldier while Starstream paced to Ratchet, reaching for his hatchling and settling the little one comfortably against his frame. He looked up at Prime.
"Are we finished here?"
Optimus nodded slowly. "I think so." He glanced at Jolt, who had just arrived back. "Are the charges set?"
"Yes Prime. The installation is timed to blow in fifteen minutes."
Optimus eyed the base staff. "You had best leave, if you want to live."
Leaving the humans to scramble away as best they could, the staff hauling the still-shackled and unwieldy soldiers into trucks and driving away as fast as the cumbersome vehicles could take them, the transformers and their four human colleagues climbed into Skyfire (whose appearance overhead had terrified the scientists), Starstream still carrying the hatchling as Phil supported Poppy, who was now fighting back tears of relief even as she insisted she could walk. Her first sight of the starcraft took her breath away, and she only half-listened as Phil briefly explained who he was. Prime lifted them both up through the hatch and Phil led Poppy to the cockpit, settling her into a seat by the viewport. As Skyfire ascended they dimly saw the explosions as the research base collapsed inwards.
Poppy stared, the past week and a half all but forgotten.
Phil rested a hand on her shoulder. Outside the starcraft the view was... glorious, below them the gentle gem-bright curve of blue and green and white of the human homeworld: above them a heaven scintillant with stars. Poppy absently brushed tears away from her eyes as she tried her hardest to memorise this, the sheer beauty, the wonder of even this tiny backwater bit of the cosmos, something so few people would ever see. She bit her lip and glanced quickly at Prime.
"Thank you. All of you."
There was a deep affirmative murmur all around them as Skyfire flew a little higher, so that they could see the moon hiding in the earth's shadow, and Prime inclined his head.
"Do not mention it Poppy. We are grateful that you are unharmed. And we thank you for caring for Starsong."
She turned her head to where Starstream was sitting cuddling Starsong, with the hatchling nursing in his sleep. "What else could I do? He's... a baby. I am ashamed that one of my own species could be so bloody evil..."
"Nevertheless, you acted far above what could be expected. We are in your debt."
She shook her head - then decided she was too tired to argue. She leaned back, resting her head against Phil's chest.
"I could stay here forever. But I want a bath. One that lasts at least a year..."
Ratchet revved a chuckle. "Doctor Philips and I agree it would do you good. That and at least twelve hours recharge on a decent berth."
"Ooooh, that sounds good..." Poppy groaned and closed her eyes. "I think I could sleep for a year too..."
"So..." Jolt sounded hesitant. "You will be out of contact for two years? Do you have a deputy?"
There was silence for a couple of seconds, then the humans - and 'Beat - burst out laughing.
"No, Jolt." Poppy giggled. "It's just a figure of human speech. To express how tired and grubby I feel."
"Oh." Jolt glanced at Ratchet and shrugged in an 'I'll never understand humans' sort of way. The medic patted his shoulder in a 'never mind, just agree with them' sort of way - which made Poppy giggle harder. Wiping her eyes she grinned at them.
"Thanks. I needed that."
Leaning against Phil again, she reluctantly dropped into a light doze as Skyfire gently descended towards the Indian Ocean and the island that was rapidly becoming home.
Phil rubbed a towel over his wet hair and nodded to the sergeant. "Like the proverbial babe. Doubt if an earthquake would wake her."
"Good. She needs it." Harris scowled. "So do you."
Phil sighed. "I can wait a bit longer." He stared out into the sunshine, where Skyfire was sitting against the hangar with Starstream's nest on the top. The hatchlings were back together and happy now that they were outside and up high with their creator, and Skyfire had offered to guard the family, since he was too big to serve any other purpose on the base. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
Harris chuckled. "Dunno. Tell me what you're thinking!"
"That we now have space-going capacity. Well, we do as long as the Autobots agree."
Harris was silent for a moment, then his eyes widened. "You're right. It hadn't occurred to me, but you're right." He grinned. "We can explore the solar system!"
Phil raised a hand. "Let's not get too carried away. The moon, Mars and the asteroids would be good to start with. And we can't do anything without their agreement."
"Bring it up next meeting?"
Phil thought for a moment. "Let me speak with 'Beat first. Test the waters."
"Sure. Let me know what happens?"
Zee was fuming, pacing the office in his anger.
"So the bloody fool let himself be caught."
"Well, with respect sir, he did everything to ensure the project went without a hitch. We still don't know how the others found out where the cargo was."
"And now we've lost the base and our whole enterprise is compromised." Zee slammed his fists on the desk. "Damned incompetents!"
Aitch sighed. "I've already set damage control in motion, sir. It should not cause us any lasting harm."
"Except that now they'll be even more protective of the little robots."
"Then let me see what else we can devise. We have the resources. I'm sure we can come up with something..."
Here ends Renewal. The story will continue in New World...