New World.

The sequel to Renewal. Please read these stories in the correct order - see here for links and info.

Pt 1 - Settling In
Pt 2 - Checking Up
Pt 3 - "And now over to..."
Pt 4 - Regret
Pt 5 - Plans
Pt 6 - Fragments
Pt 7 - Old Enemies, New Friends
Pt 8 - Meetings and Greetings
Pt 9 - Repercussions
Pt 10 - Structures
Pt 11 - Scraps and Splinters
Part 12 - Scraps and Splinters pt 2
Part 13 - Scraps and Splinters pt 3 Part 14 - Repairs
Part 15 - Hurt Part 16 - Healing
Part 17 - Onwards and Upwards Part 18 - Alarms and Excursions
Part 19 - Home Comforts 1 Part 20 - Home Comforts 2
Part 21 - Home Comforts 3 Part 22 - Home Comforts 4
Part 23 - Birthday Part 24 - In which Many Things Happen, not all of them bad...
Part 25 - Obsessions Part 26 - Captive Audience
Part 27 - Time Out Part 28 - Erratic
Part 29 - Unresolved Part 30 - Saved

Part 1 - Settling in

Harris stuck his head around Phil's door as the lieutenant was getting ready for a swim. "Hi... uh, sir. Got a minute?"
     Phil beckoned him in as he rolled up his towel. "Got five. Poppy'll shout when she's ready."
     Harris sat himself on the edge of the bed and frowned. "It's Walker."
     Phil paused then turned to face him, expression grim. "I know. We shouldn't have left him there."
     "Damn right. If he survived - and I know they got him out, I saw him and that medic in the last truck to pull away - he's going to be even more of an enemy than before. Now it'll be personal."
     Phil shoved his fingers through his hair and sighed. "I know. But we were a bit busy at the time, trying to get our own lot away safely."
     Harris growled under his breath. "It was sloppy. We should have taken more soldiers and nabbed him while we could. Philips could have kept him stable until we got back here, then we could have kept him in secure custody." He grinned mirthlessly. "Or given him to Star's kids to play with."
     "Oh, so tempting..." Phil shook his head. "Well, no use weeping over dribbling lactose, as they say. We'll just have to see what happens, and factor him in if he resurfaces..."
     "Phil? You ready?" Poppy's voice sounded from outside, and he grinned at Harris.
     "Got to go. See you later!"
     Harris chuckled dryly and saluted. "Have fun - sir..."

Poppy - in a sensible plain black swimming costume and flip-flops, with a filmy sarong tied around her waist and towel tucked under her arm - smiled as Phil joined her. The lieutenant grinned back.
     "Not a bikini girl then?"
     She raised an eyebrow. "Not a girl at all. And I don't like bikinis - always falling off." She gestured inland. "Lagoon? The water is warmer. And there's less wildlife to worry about."
     Phil raised an eyebrow, the comment effectively distracting him from thoughts of skimpy bikinis falling off nicely tanned bodies. "Wildlife?"
     She lowered her eyes, cheeks reddening. "Um, sharks. Big fish. Things with teeth..."
     Phil fought not to laugh. "Attacks by things like that are very rare, you know."
     "Yes, I know. I just watched Jaws a few too many times when I was young and impressionable. And as for rare - well..." She waved back towards the base: Skyfire was standing, towering over the buildings, his profile clear against the blueness of the sky. "I tend to expect the unlikely to happen to me, these days."
     She had a point. Phil nodded. "Lagoon it is, then."
     They found a pleasant spot, lightly shaded by palms, unrolled their towels and laid them on the sand, then waded into soft warm water. Phil watched as Poppy swam a few strokes out into deeper water then turned on her back to float, eyes closed, smiling into the sunlight. She'd quickly recovered from her ordeal - at least, he thought she'd recovered, and Philips (and Ratchet) agreed, although Philips had warned about the possibility of nightmares or flashbacks. Although in the four days since their return she'd been sleeping fine, according to 'Beat, who was keeping a closer eye than ever on his human. She had not been physically injured, and she'd been more worried for Starsong than for herself, which would help fend off at least some of the worry, he thought.
     He sighed quietly and swam out to join her. It was nice to relax, even if it was something of an unfamiliar state of affairs...

::Jolt will accompany you::
     ::Awww... but, mu... creator... 'Beat will look after Starsong::
     Starsong glanced at the MGC pleadingly. 'Beat inclined his head and hefted the picnic basket.
     ::No, sparkling, Starstream is right. We need to make sure nothing nasty happens again::
     The hatchling's wings drooped, but he 'nodded'.
     ::Oh, awright then...::
     Starstream stroked his head gently.
     ::Be good, and don't hurt the humans::
     ::'course not!::
     ::By accident, I mean::
     The hatchling looked at his claws, then nodded.
     ::Starsong be careful::
     The larger jet nodded distractedly, his attention caught by the noise of squabbling hatchlings that emanated from the nest. 'Beat patted his shoulder.
     ::You go sort them out. We'll take good care of 'Song::
     ::If there are any problems, comm me:: with one last stroke to his hatchling's face, Starstream engaged his thrusters and ascended to the roof. Jolt watched him go, amusement in every line of his frame, then turned to 'Beat.
     ::I really never thought I'd see the day...::
     'Beat 'chuckled'. ::It does feel strange, doesn't it?::
     Starsong caught the hand that wasn't holding the picnic basket, and tugged.
     ::Poppy and Phil want fuel! We go find them?::
     Whirring a laugh, the MGC and the Chevy headed off along the atoll.

"How is he doing?"
     The doctor eyed Aitch dryly.
     "How do you think he's doing? Castration is a major trauma even under ideal clinical conditions. Here..." He gestured at the sedated man on the bed. "Well, we've managed to stave off infection, at least. But there's no way to repair the damage. As for the rest, at the moment we believe there's no permanent injury to the ribs or lungs, but there may be residual weakness. We'll need to keep an eye on it." He grunted. "As soon as he's stable and can be woken, we'll set up a series of counselling sessions for him. He'll need them."
     Aitch nodded. "Very well. Please keep me advised of any changes."
     The doctor saluted him - mockingly, Aitch thought - and turned back to his patient as The Club's second in command left the room.
     Heading back to his office, Aitch frowned pensively. As far as he could see, this whole incident could have two results. Either Walker would surrender to his new condition and be a useless invalid for the rest of his life, or it would strengthen his resolve and make him a far more deadly soldier. Aitch suspected the latter. Walker was fuelled by anger: he was unlikely to give in and allow the robots to beat him. But until he was released from the medical bay they wouldn't know for sure.
     Settling at his desk, Aitch began to plan out different scenarios.

::They are very beautiful::
     Starstream looked up into Skyfire's large, brilliant optics. The starcraft seated himself ponderously beside the hangar and rested a hand on the roof, watching the family as the three Seeker hatchlings finally settled down to recharge. The jet 'nodded', a little hesitantly.
     ::I think so::
     Skyfire 'smiled' gently.
     ::Forgive me. We have not been properly introduced...::
     ::You are the scientist Skyfire::
     ::Yes:: he paused for a moment. ::We knew each other, long ago::
     Starstream 'frowned'. ::I do not remember::
     Ignoring the sudden, spark-deep pain the comment caused him, the starcraft nodded.
     ::I am not surprised. But we worked together well. Might it be possible for us to... start our friendship anew? Or, if that is asking too much, might we make the time to discuss mutually-appealing matters?::
     Starstream eyed the massive face for a moment, then 'smiled'.
     ::I think that would be interesting. What do you know of space bridges?::
     Spark lifting, Skyfire softly, delicately, began to share his knowledge with the jet.

Ratchet scanned the non-Seeker hatchling, who gazed up at him with curious optics.
     ::Interesting. I believe this one had had a different co-creator::
     'Spin petted the little grounder, chirring quietly as the hatchling pressed into his hand.
     ::Makes sense. But who would have been powerful enough? I mean, the Seekers are Megatron and Starscream's, I assume, but this little one...::
     ::The Fallen himself?:: Ratchet paused, 'frowning'.
     'Spin shuddered. ::What a horrible thought. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, not even Starscream::
     ::It seems most likely though, doesn't it? No other 'Con here would be powerful enough - at least, as far as we know:: He thought for a moment, then shook his head. ::I can't think of any, and it's unlikely that the Fallen and Megatron would allow anyone else near Starscream::
     'Spin gazed down at the hatchling, 'smiling'; the hatchling 'smiled' back up.
     ::He's such a cheerful little thing, though::
     ::Certainly is. Luckily. Although that might change when he realises he can't fly and all his siblings can...::
     ::That's definite?::
     ::Unfortunately, yes::
     ::Hm. Well, he has enough fine grounders around as role models::
     ::Any idea how big he'll grow?::
     ::Not yet. Though Starscream was big, and the Fallen bigger. He'll be bigger than me, at any rate::
     ::A lot of frame moderations then::
     ::And in a short time frame. It may be best if you remain here for the next few years::
     ::I can't leave Poppy. And I'm the only medic they have, even if I'm not exactly properly qualified. Now Skyfire is here I can travel over in a matter of minutes:: He paused. ::Slight exaggeration. Less than an hour, anyway::
     Ratchet 'nodded'. ::I understand:: He picked up the hatchling, who squealed his excitement and nuzzled the medic's torso. ::You should choose a name, little one. We can't keep calling you the grounder::
     Ratchet and 'Spin both stared, startled. ::What did you say?::
     ::Nova. Me am Nova::
     'Spin 'chuckled'. ::Not Star-something?::
     The hatchling inclined his head. ::Me not got wings. Want diff'went name::
     Ratchet's optics widened, and he eyed 'Spin sombrely. ::Comm Starstream to let him know. And we need to set up some cognitive testing. I think this one is going to be extremely bright...::

"Oh, that was good." Poppy waded out of the lagoon, squeezing water from her hair. "I never seem to get the time to swim, at home."
     "Perhaps we should get a Consulate pool built."
     She grinned at the lieutenant. "Seems a bit extravagant."
     "You're worth it. And the other human visitors might enjoy it too."
     "Mm. Good point." She dropped down onto the towel and stretched out her legs. "I'll discuss it with Beverley when we get back."
     "You do that." He smiled as she lay down on her front. "Want some sunscreen on your back?"
     "No thanks. It's shady enough here, and the stuff always feels so greasy."
     "If you're sure." He forced down his disappointment and lay on his back, closing his eyes. "I could get used to this..."
     She giggled. "I'd get bored after a month."
     "There is that..." He turned his head as the sound of voices drifted to them, gradually getting louder. Speaking Cybertronian. He sighed and sat up again. "Looks like we have company."
     "It'll be 'Beat and 'Song with lunch."
     "Already?" Poppy giggled as his stomach growled quietly, and he grinned. "Yes, OK, point taken."
     The MGC and the infant Seeker appeared through the undergrowth from the direction of the path, Jolt a little behind them, and Poppy waved in welcome. Starsong immediately waded into the water, while 'Beat handed Phil the picnic basket and hunkered down close to Poppy, eyeing her closely if discreetly.
     "Good swim?"
     "Yes, ta, it was lovely." She eyed the basket. "What treats do we have today?"
     "Dunno - Private Smith packed it. She said she hopes you enjoy it."
     "I'm sure we will."
     They did. And Karen had even packed three canisters of enriched energon for the transformers...

© JAT 01/06/12

Part 2 - Checking Up

Graham looked decidedly frazzled, Poppy thought, eyeing his face on the screen.
     "Hello Matthew. Are you OK? You look tired..."
      He managed a smile.
     "I'm fine. Though I don't understand how you can run the place and still manage to find time to sleep... How are you?"
     She smiled reassuringly, aware of her transformers behind the Wing Commander trying not to be too obvious. They'd all been assured, by Chatter, Prime and 'Beat, that all was well, but there was nothing quite like seeing the evidence with their own optics, and Philips, and Prime, had finally given her permission to contact home - although Prime had asked her to be chary of how much information she volunteered.
     "I'm OK. It was a bit scary at the time, but I wasn't hurt, and Starsong is recovering nicely. Ratchet's fixed his wings and he's catching up with his feeding." She grinned at Steamy, who was peeking over the edge of the desk. "Speaking of which, I shall be very glad to get back to some decent food!"
     "When are you coming home?"
     She chuckled: the question had been spoken by at least five different voices.
     "Soon. Ratchet and 'Spin are finishing up with the hatchlings over the next couple of days, then we can arrange our flight."
     "Is Skyfire bringing you back?"
     Poppy blinked at Steamy, who had now climbed onto the desk and was sitting between Graham's hands. The right was still bandaged, she noticed, but the wrapping looked smaller than before. "You heard about Skyf... ah, of course. Chatter and Ramp."
     "No-one told me I wasn't supposed to say anything..." came Ramp's smug voice from the speaker. Poppy sighed.
     "So you went ahead anyway."
     "Of course. But it's not something we can keep a secret for long. He's not exactly someone you can keep in your pocket."
     Poppy shook her head, then regarded Graham. "I don't know. I doubt it. He is rather big and even with his new cloaking thingy he's hardly inconspicuous."
     "You'll have to tell us what he's like. This lot have led me to believe he's something of a legend."
     "I can believe that." She smiled. "Anything happen that I should know about?"
     "It's been surprisingly normal here. Quiet but busy. There's some correspondence waiting for you, but Beverley has handled anything urgent."
     "Is Phil handy?"
     "Um, should be. Hang on..." The Lieutenant was talking with Jolt on the other side of the massive room; she beckoned him over. He saluted Graham then glanced at her: guessing it was official NEST business she took the hint and headed out into the sunshine. If she was lucky she might be able to grab a few words with Skyfire...

::Nova. After Nova Prime?:: Optimus stroked the hatchling's face with a finger: Nova purred at him. Ratchet 'chuckled', nestling the little grounder against his frame.
     ::I think it's more Nova, as in 'new'. Though he could be thinking of a stellar nova, I suppose:: The medic 'frowned'. ::Though how he knows of either is beyond me, at the moment. He's far too young to have such specific knowledge::
     ::But then again, you have said he is an exceptional sparkling::
     Ratchet nuzzled Nova, earning himself a delighted squeal. ::He is that. By far the most advanced of the five, both mentally and intellectually - though don't tell Star that!::
     Prime 'laughed'. ::Far be it from me to offend a Seeker creator...:: He inclined his head. ::Have you been able to establish why, yet?::
     ::Not yet. I will be integrating more tests in with the academic programme I'm instigating with Upbeat's assistance::
     ::Is that not a little early?::
     The medic shrugged. ::I cannot remember the last time I came across a mind as curious, as aware and greedy for knowledge, as this little one. It must be encouraged - indulged::
     ::You know best...::
     ::In this instance, I believe I do:: He 'sighed'. ::However, that is not why I asked to speak with you::
     Prime 'nodded'. ::Starstream's weapons::
     ::Yes. We made no provision for them when we were reformatting his protoform. He should not have them. He should not have either the knowledge or the capacity to create them::
     ::And we now cannot be certain of what else he can do::
     ::Exactly. I would say that that encounter with Walker reveals that there's more of Starscream than we believed left in his memory - except that he was protecting his hatchling, and I am sure that even the mildest of us may have done the same in his position::
     ::How stable is he?::
     ::I would say extremely. However, it's not my area of expertise. And I am not entirely unbiased...::
     Prime 'nodded' decisively. ::I will speak with him. The Matrix will advise::
     Ratchet vented his relief as the Prime turned to leave the medic's Lair. ::I would appreciate it. Thank you::
     ::I will let you know what transpires::

'Spin checked the scans again. ::Everything looks fine. I don't think we'll need to make any further enlargements for at least six months, but it depends on whether he 'puts on a growth spurt', as Poppy would say::
     Ratchet nodded his agreement. ::Ideally I would like to create a final frame for him as soon as possible, to avoid the stress of continual upgrades, but not knowing his final size...::
     'Spin eyed the recharging hatchling thoughtfully. ::I wonder if this problem was caused by his co-creator being a grounder. I mean, we know so little about Seeker reproduction; perhaps a Seeker/grounder hybrid would always result in growth problems::
     ::That would argue that his co-creator wasn't The Fallen, though::
     ::I know. But we don't know who else was on board the Nemesis. It may have been Shockwave::
     ::Perish the thought! I'm not sure Starscream would have survived had that been the case::
     ::He is - was - a flier, originally::
     ::Brawl? Bonecrusher?::
     ::Mm. Possible, but unlikely::
     ::... I don't know of any others::
     ::I know too many - but most perished during the wars. Until or unless we can find out who crewed the vessel, we can't know. In the meantime, we'll continue with the agreed course of action::
     'Spin nodded, not willing to argue. Ratchet's 'tone' had turned chill, which the smaller transformer had learned meant the conversation was straying into areas the medic found difficult or antagonistic to discuss. At that point it was best to change the subject.
     ::Are we going to have enough supplies to cope with the upgrades? And the newcomers' needs?::
     ::Now that Skyfire has joined us, we will be able to retrieve material from the Ark on Mars - and possibly from the Nemesis, if we can find it:: He quirked a brow ridge. ::No point in leaving it unsalvaged when we can use it!::
     ::Assuming there are no 'Cons left to defend it::
     ::If there are, we should probably... dispose of them. So they pose no threat to us or the humans:: He paused for a moment. ::We should retrieve the remains of the Ark on the moon, too::
     ::That's more than enough to keep us going, at least until Wheeljack and I can devise alternative resources on earth::
     ::Indeed:: The medic glanced down as Nova's optics flickered online and the hatchling wriggled, systems rebooting. ::We'll discuss it further later. For now, let's get this bitlet back to his creator. I'd like to check on Starsong's wings::

'Beat was enthralled.
     He'd entered the rec room in search of Jolt - one of his sonic blasters needed recalibrating and he wasn't yet sufficiently confident of his own repair skills to risk fiddling with them - to find Hound and Trailbreaker there, with Jolt and Wheeljack, deep in conversation. Jolt had beckoned him over, made the introductions, and welcomed him into the group.
     After a few seconds 'Beat switched into historian mode and started recording...
     Information flowed faster than any human could have comprehended, detailed information of the planets the two scouts had visited in the eons they had been wandering space, all delivered with humour and affection. The pair obviously loved their function, and their enthusiasm swept their listeners along with them.
     They'd paired up with Skyfire quite early in their adventures, which had saved them the inconvenience of having to travel in their old, slow - for Cybertronian - ship, and in the years that followed the three of them had thoroughly surveyed and explored over twenty thousand planetary systems - a tiny fraction of what was 'out there', Hound said, but still a useful record. He used his hologram-projector to display examples of some of the more spectacular planetscapes, which 'Beat had recorded for Poppy and Phil to see later.
     ::But we can't wait to explore earth...::
     Trailbreaker 'nodded'. ::It's beautiful here. Overflowing with so much variety of lifeforms. It's overwhelming::
     'Beat 'chuckled': almost since their arrival they'd been drinking up documentaries about the planet like a terrestrial sponge. ::Wait 'til you can experience it in full!::
     ::That's the problem - we can't wait! But the Prime is insisting on a full debrief and induction before we can leave the island::
     ::Well, the geo-political situation here is a little... complicated. And quite sensitive in some places:: He paused in thought. ::I can help you with that. It will speed up your induction::
     Hound 'smiled' his appreciation. ::Our thanks, Upbeat. The sooner we can get out and explore this world the better::
     'Beat frowned to himself. He'd had an idea about that, but needed to talk to Poppy before voicing it...

Morshower rubbed at his eyes. He looked exhausted, Phil thought. Mind you, with anti-alien riots still springing up sporadically in the States and the Middle East, the attack on NEST's New York base, and his own attempted kidnapping - four of the officers with him had been killed, but fortunately Mirage was on site and Sideswipe not far away: with their assistance Morshower had escaped relatively unscathed - that wasn't overly surprising. He saluted the image on the screen.
     Morshower wasted no time on pleasantries. "We're going to need pictures and a statement regarding the newcomers. Can you meet with Prime and Poppy and get back to me in two hours?"
     "Yes sir. Is there anything in particular you want the statement to address?"
     "We need to reassure the people that our 'bots aren't staging some sort of invasion."
     Phil groaned silently. This crap again? "Very well, sir. We'll contact you in a couple of hours."

"I deeply regret the consequences that have been inflicted upon your people by our presence. I fully understand that to allay their fears, we must be a little more... forthcoming." The Prime gestured at the assembled transformers. "Skyfire has agreed to assist your world in its first steps into space, delivering supplies to your International Space Station, for example, and repairing, upgrading or replacing satellites."
     Morshower's expression brightened. "That would go a long way, Prime."
     "In addition, we offer our help in installing a manned base on your moon - with the proviso that it must be a global base, not belong to any one of your nations."
     Morshower nodded, smiling. "That'll certainly make a lot of people very happy. Will you have a presence there as well?"
     "Since we are better equipped to deal with conditions there, we feel it would be advisable. Initially, Skyfire will provide transport to and from the base - I understand that the lesser gravity has a deleterious effect on the human metabolism, requiring you to spend only a short time there. Later we will focus our endeavours towards helping you create stronger, faster craft, so that you can be independent."
     "Excellent." He leaned forwards. "There are questions being asked about the babies..."
     "Would an interview with Starstream and his hatchlings help?"
     Morshower blinked, then grinned.
     "I think that would do it."
     "Then we shall arrange transport for the major news teams from each continent to the island, and introduce them to the world."

"So, is this all going to happen before we go home?"
     Phil nodded. "Boss wants humans here as contrast and to run interference if necessary. You're already known, and a familiar and friendly human face will go down well - and you can 'interpret' and make sure they all get the right end of the stick, because if this goes wrong it could be disastrous."
     Poppy sighed. "Hostile reporters - what a dreadful thought." She frowned to herself, then grinned deviously. "But I can always complain that they're upsetting the babies."
     Phil stared. "That would work?"
     "Let me talk to them, with 'Song beside me. I'll have 'em eating out of my hands in no time flat."
     The lieutenant chuckled. "I'm glad you're on our side..."
     He waved as 'Beat approached them, then headed off towards the conference room to brief Graham in advance of the official instructions. The MGC inclined his head, then turned to Poppy.
     "Can I have a word?"
     "The BBC will be coming, won't they?"
     "Of course."
     "And they have a Natural History Unit, don't they? That one that makes all the documentaries about your world and everything that lives here."
     "Yes. It's very famous. Won lots of prestigious awards."
     "How do you think they would react if Hound and Trailbreaker offered their services?"
     Poppy stared for a moment, then grinned widely.
     "That's a wonderful idea! I think they'd snap it up."
     "The pair of them would be very useful, both as transport and as assistants. And it would allow them to do what they do best."
     Poppy patted his arm. "Leave it with me..."

Prime gazed bemusedly down at the hatchling yet again snuggling against Ratchet's shoulder.
     ::He appears to have taken quite a 'shine' to you, as our hosts might say::
     Ratchet 'nodded', field expressing surprise. ::I have no idea why. It's very soothing though, and I'm hoping it might make the separation a little easier once all the others start flying::
     ::Indeed, we all hope for that::
     ::What did Starstream say about his weapons?::
     ::That he felt that something was missing, and thought that he needed a means to help him protect the sparklings. He created them himself::
     ::He shouldn't have been able to do so::
     ::None of us know exactly what Seekers are capable of. However, I have impressed on him that they must remain hidden when he is in the presence of humans, at least for the moment, and definitely while the media are here::
     ::And he will? Can you trust his word?::
     The Prime 'nodded', and Ratchet relaxed a little. Nova vented a tiny sigh and nuzzled Ratchet's neck as the medic stroked his helm. Prime 'smiled' at the sight.
     ::That also will appeal to reporters::
     Ratchet 'shuddered' theatrically.
     ::I'll have to let myself be interviewed?::
     ::For the sake of our peace and the safety of our friends, I think it would be advisable::
     Ratchet 'sighed'. ::Then I had better make myself - and my new... attachment - available. When is this farce scheduled for?::
     ::As soon as possible. We believe they can all be assembled here by the day after tomorrow::

© JAT 07/06/12

For anyone not that familiar with G1 Transformers, Hound and Trailbreaker are original characters. They're actually rather sweet...

Part 3 - "And now over to..."

It had been a frantic and exhausting twenty-four hours, and now Poppy was nervous something would go wrong. She knew they'd done everything they could to prepare, but there was always the unexpected. And no doubt not all of their visitors would be friendly...

The corporate jets looked incongruous beside the C-17s and military helicopters as the passengers climbed out. There were seventy-five in all, reporters, cameramen, soundmen, assistants; the Associated Press, the BBC, Reuters, the Press Trust of India, the Xinhua News Agency, ITAR-TASS, NHK, The Canadian Press, and a handful of smaller news agencies were all represented. It was probably the largest influx of non-military outsiders the base had ever seen, and the Prime and Ratchet (with Nova settled in his usual place, blending in, clinging onto the medic's bull bars to one side of his spark) were there to greet them.
     That the Prime addressed each group in their own language made a great first impression.
     The visit started with everyone - except Wheeljack, Skyfire, who was too large, Starstream and the hatchlings (less Nova, who refused to be separated from Ratchet) and Jolt, who was guarding them - filing into the conference room, the only place indoors that was large enough to accommodate them all. Well, except for the hangars, but it had been agreed that their guests' comfort took priority. Prime raised a massive hand for silence, and the murmured conversation died quickly away.
     "I trust you will forgive my speaking English. We do not have interpreters, but I understand that all of you understand the language." Nodding heads and muttered affirmatives greeted the statement, and Prime nodded. "Please do indicate if anything said is not clear, and I will repeat it in your own tongue." The murmurs were appreciative this time, and everyone settled back a little in their seats. Prime inclined his head.
     "We have invited you here to clarify some misconceptions, inaccuracies inculcated by those of your people who are unhappy with our presence on your planet."
     Poppy, sitting inconspicuously at the back of the human part of the room, winced a little. Cable tugged on a lock of her hair from his post on her shoulder.
     "What is it?"
     "It's a nice way to call them liars, but he needs to be plainer. A lot of them just won't understand big words."
     "Ah. Good thinking." Cable was silent for a moment: without a pause Prime's language simplified.
     "We do not mean anyone any harm. We are grateful for your hospitality and are doing what we can to make your lives easier, as a thank you and an apology for accidentally bringing our war to your world. Now that the war is over, we offer our services to you, to all of you."
     "With respect, sir, we already know that. We've all benefited from what you've already done for us. What we want to understand now is how you can have babies." The reporter - from the Indian news agency, Poppy thought - waved his copy of 'Beat's history. "All we know is what we've read in here, and it was written by one of you. And there is nothing in it about children." He leaned forwards. "They have red eyes. Are they Decepticons? Are you breeding an army to take over our planet?"
     Prime blinked, then shook his head.
     "No, and no. Earth is your planet, and freedom is your right. The hatchlings - the infants - that we have here are, we believe, the last in existence. They were created before they came to earth."
     "How were they made?"
     Poppy held her breath. She'd not been privy to how their transformers intended to explain the sparklings, much to her annoyance: what was said next would colour her own responses to any questions she was asked later.
     "The process is rare and difficult, only possible for the most powerful amongst us. It needs time, a lot of energy, and the right physical conditions." He glanced at Ratchet. "Perhaps our doctor can better explain."
     Ratchet stepped forwards, Nova curled against him, optics shuttered, apparently asleep. The hatchling wasn't really noticeable in this state: he could easily have appeared to be a piece of medical equipment to anyone who didn't know differently.
     "You've read in the history that our... children are created from a spark, given from the AllSpark while it still existed, placed into a metal body, what we call a protoform. The protoform is built by specialists, either to a design agreed by those who... commission the sparkling, or in accordance with planetary need. The first of these hasn't been an option since the beginning of the last great war - none of us are stupid enough to risk something so precious in times of such great peril. So usually the sparkling is created as an adult, and placed into an adult body - most often one designed for combat." He gestured to himself. "I am a medic, and was always intended to be, but I have to be combat ready as well. However, our legends speak of a time when it was possible - not easy, but possible - to create a sparkling without recourse to the AllSpark, by combining the sparks of two of us to create a third."
     An AP reporter raised a hand, and Ratchet paused enquiringly. "You mean, like the way we reproduce?"
     The medic shook his head. "Not really. You combine gametes - sex cells, egg and sperm - to create new life. We share and combine energy - our souls, if you want to be poetic. We still need to build a protoform for the sparkling to inhabit."
     There was a chorus of nodding heads. Ratchet 'smiled' and continued.
     "Remember I said this was legendary for us? We seriously did not believe it was possible - until we found the infants we are now looking after."
     Poppy couldn't identify who asked the next question.
     "So... they were... made during the war?"
     "As far as we can tell, they were created back before the war and held in stasis until recently." He held up a hand as the group shifted restlessly, obviously readying itself to ask more questions. "All Cybertronians - and some other species - can enter what we call stasis. The depth and duration of stasis varies, from what you would call sedation right up to what you would call suspended animation. In this latter stage, we are able to continue for millions of years - or possibly longer; understandably no-one has tried. The sparklings we have may be many millions of years old, created back in the golden age between our last two wars and held in stasis to await a time when it would be safe for them to emerge and develop in a new peace."
     "But they woke up here."
     Ratchet nodded. "Apparently, Megatron found them and woke them himself. Presumably in hopes they would form a new army."
     "Is that why their eyes are red?"
     "Red optics do not necessarily denote a Decepticon - certainly not when they are this immature. Cybertronian optics can be other colours - gold, purple, even, though very rarely, green. In this instance red lenses help them to see a little better and help protect their optics in their native environment."
     "Why would they need that?"
     "Our sparklings are Seekers - now the rarest form of our people. Seekers are space-going fliers." His engine chirred. "I should say, four of the five are Seekers."
     "Who are their parents?"
     "Only four?"
     The two questions were called out simultaneously, and Ratchet answered the first one first, tone quietly distressed.
     "We will never know. We can never know. There is simply no way to find out with our world dead and all its records destroyed."
     There was a moment's contemplative silence, then he vented a sigh and raised his head.
     "The four Seeker sparklings are being cared for by our own neutral Seeker, Starstream, who we found at around the same time. He considers them his own progeny, and will call them such. He may have had his own at some point: his memory was effectively destroyed by the trauma of his landing here. As for the fifth sparkling..." He lifted the hatchling from his frame. "This is Nova."
     Nova's optics onlined and he shook himself, then stretched and gazed curiously around him.
     The BBC reporter peered at him, then grinned and waved. To everyone's delight, Nova sat up straighter in Ratchet's hands and waved back.
     Human eyes flickered to Ratchet then back to Nova.
     "It... he... spoke?"
     Ratchet nodded. "His vocabulary is quite advanced for such a young one."
     Nova tugged on Ratchet's digits. "'atchet - lots of peepul."
     "Yes, bitlet. They've come to see you and your friends."
     "Oh." Nova tilted his head, crimson eyes bright. "Dey is fwends?"
     "I think so."
     Nova wriggled, and Ratchet put him down. Holding onto the medic's digits, the hatchling toddled over to the stairs that led to the human mezzanine and laboriously climbed them, stopping at the top and holding onto the railing for support. The nearest human very tentatively extended a hand; Nova reached out and touched it very gently. The human - from Reuters, Poppy thought - pulled back with an '"Oh!" of surprise, and Nova flinched: Poppy saw Prime and Ratchet both tense, ready to move. But the human reached forwards again, taking the hatchling's hand and grinning back at her companions.
     "He's warm!"
     Ratchet snorted. "Of course he is! We all are! Living metal is warm."
     She chuckled nervously. "I'm sorry sir. We expect metal to be cold."
     Ratchet humphed, and Nova poked his arm and giggled - which had all the humans staring at him.
     "'atchet funny."
     And the doctor vented a long-suffering sigh, and everyone laughed.

By the time they had watched a little presentation Ratchet had devised, explaining how the infants travelled in stasis in energon filled pods (hence the term hatchling once they had, literally, hatched), and they'd all left the conference centre to visit Starstream and his little family, Skyfire had arrived back from his first jaunt - setting a new weather tracking satellite in place. He'd settled himself next to the hangar with the jet's nest on its roof, but even hunched down as close to the ground as he could he was still a daunting creature for the visiting humans. He'd greeted them softly, his deep, gentle voice obviously surprising most of them. It didn't surprise Poppy that the Russian and Chinese teams took a few moments to speak to him, the starcraft politely answering in their own languages, before hastening to join the rest, who had assembled in an open area nearby. As she slipped away to find and prepare Starsong for his introduction to the world, she asked Cable what was said. The little transformer startled her by saying he did not speak either language, but since Prime and Ratchet didn't seem to be alarmed they should assume it was nothing of any great import.

The sound of jet engines had everyone looking upwards, and seconds later Starstream landed gracefully, Starwind beside him, Starcloud half-hiding behind him and peering out around his hip, and the fourth hatchling recharging in his arms. For a moment or two jets and humans regarded each other, then Starstream inclined his head.
     It wasn't quite pandemonium, but for a couple of minutes it came close as everyone tried to ask questions at the same time. Finally the jet raised a hand and the commotion quietened.
     "I see that we have caused a great deal of interest. Allow me to answer your questions as best I can before you ask any more."
     As he settled himself on his haunches, military personnel appeared with stacking chairs, quietly ranging them in a rough semi-circle around the family for the humans to seat themselves.
     "I regret that I cannot tell you my history: I remember nothing before I was found and revived by our most excellent medic." He gestured to Ratchet, who bowed his head briefly. "I can only assume I arrived here, like the rest of the neutrals, in a ship that crashed, damaging me in the process. The hatchlings were on the same ship, and since four of them are Seekers it only made sense for me to care for them." He gazed down at the sleeping infant in his arms for a moment. "The doctor believed it would give me a focus, a way to recover at least some of myself, and so it has proved."
     "So they aren't actually yours?"
     Starstream shrugged. "They are Seekers. So am I. We look after our own. In every way that matters they are mine."
     "I was wondering about your name. There was a Decepticon called Starscream. Your name is very similar. Are you related?"
     Starstream gazed at the American for a moment, expression blank, then he shrugged again.
     "We do not have 'relatives' as you do. I understand he was a Seeker, so we are related by cadre. I have no knowledge of him, however."
     "You aren't a Decepticon."
     "I barely understand what the term means."
     "So you aren't."
     Starstream blinked, not understanding the insistence on an answer to that particular question. "No, I am not."
     "Do you fight? Do you have any weapons?"
     "I would fight to protect the hatchlings, and myself, and my companions if it were necessary. But I am not designed for combat. It would be defensive action only."
     The AP reporter nodded, apparently satisfied, and the BBC anchor leaned forward.
     "What are their names?"
     Starwind and Starcloud were duly introduced, 'Cloud shyly hiding behind his much more forthcoming sibling, and the jet indicated the hatchling in his arms.
     "He has not chosen a designation yet."
     The comment raised a ripple of surprise. "You choose your own names?"
     "Seekers seem to do so, at least. Of course, our names in your language are only approximations of our designations in our own language, which indicate function and usually hint at temperament."
     "A little like our surnames then." At the jet's puzzled head-tilt, the Canadian added, "Family names, like Carter, or Smith, or Weaver. They indicated professions, the jobs their bearers performed."
     "Ah, I understand. Yes, a little like that."
     "And all yours have taken Star-something as their names. Is that because of your name, or is it a Seeker thing?"
     "I believe it is a little of both. Seekers tend to take designations that indicate their power of flight - a celestial object or elemental force like weather phenomenon."
     "Well, they're very pretty. Very evocative. But I thought there were four of them?"
     Starstream nodded. "Starsong is with the Consul Poppy Moss. They have developed a special rapport. Would you like to meet them both?"
     There was a general clatter of chairs as everyone rose to their feet.

It was cool and dim in the rec room, after the brightness of the sunshine outside. Smiling, Poppy led Starsong into the room - only to face a barrage of brilliantly flashing lights. Starsong flung his arms up over his eyes, whimpering and cowering behind Poppy.
     "NO!" She stood in front of him, arms wide, protective. "Turn those damned things OFF."
     Startled, everyone did as ordered as Poppy turned to the frightened hatchling and laid her hands on his shoulders.
     "It's all right, sweetheart. They won't hurt you. I won't let them hurt you. It was just camera flashes."
     Hesitantly, skinny arms dropping away from the wide-eyed little face, 'Song's gaze fixed on the human.
     "Poppy promise?"
     She half-laughed, half-sobbed. "Yes, sweetheart. I promise." She glowered over her shoulder. "Any repeat of that gets you escorted off the island and banned from any further interviews. Are we clear?"
     A hurried chorus of affirmatives had her taking Starsong's hand and gently pulling the still-trembling hatchling back to her side. She nodded her satisfaction as the next peal of photographs were taken without flash.
     "Ms Moss - what happened? Why did he react like that?"
     She smiled mirthlessly. "There are a few people who don't like the thought of our transformers being on what they see as their world..."
     Phil watched from the sidelines with satisfaction as the gaggle of reporters', cameramen and photographers' expressions morphed from puzzlement to outrage as Poppy explained recent events, her anger deep and genuine, her words the more persuasive because of it.
     "They were going to vivisect him? While he was still alive?"
     Can always rely on the Beeb for the human angle, she thought as she nodded grimly, gritting her teeth and silently apologising to 'Song for what she was to say next. "Yes. They were going to cut him open, analyse what they found and use it to create weapons to use against us, against them, against anyone or anything they wanted. Against those they saw as enemies."
     "That's... that's horrific!"
     "It is, isn't it?" Poppy turned to Starsong, who was cowering on the ground again, wings dropped as low as they would go, and laid her hands against his face. "Sweetheart, you're safe here. We won't let anything happen to you."
     Golden eyes still locked on Poppy's, Starsong slowly rose to his feet: he switched his gaze to the humans surrounding them and flinched.
     Unsurprisingly it was the BBC reporter who smiled and stretched out a hand, tentatively.
     "I'm sorry, Starsong. Truly sorry that any of us could act in such a way."
     Glancing briefly at Poppy, who nodded, the hatchling carefully took the offered hand...

The last 'item' of the day was an interview with 'Spin...
     "He's a lot smaller than the others..." Phil heard the AP reporter whisper to his Canadian counterpart. "Bit easier to deal with."
     Don't bet on it, the lieutenant chuckled to himself as everyone settled themselves comfortably in a spacious, human-sized room back at the conference centre. 'Spin gazed around the room from his position at the front, blue optics bright in the muted light.
     "Greetingth, honoured guethtth."
     There was a sudden startled silence.
     "He's gotta lisp?" AP whispered to Reuters. "How the hell does that work?"
     Reuters just shrugged.
     Phil listened to 'Spin explaining his profession to the room for about fifteen minutes before he gave up trying to understand and started looking forward to dinner. It seemed that most of the rest of his fellow humans were also a bit lost, although credit where it's due, 'Spin had done his best to simplify his explanations. It wasn't his fault the work was so intensely technical and he was a very literal creature...
     Still, they all came away with a basic understanding that he acted as a cross between a specialised engineer and a paediatric surgeon - a profession both exacting and very highly-regarded. By the time they finished for the day they'd completely forgotten about his lisp.

Phil met up with Poppy and Starsong as the visitors headed into the mess hall for their evening meal. Poppy looked weary, he thought. She grinned tiredly as he kissed her cheek.
     "How did it all go?"
     "Prime is very pleased. So far everything has gone ridiculously smoothly. Only one more day and we can get back to normal."
     He snorted. "Whatever that is... Have you eaten?"
     "I grabbed a sandwich earlier. It'll do me. I have fruit back at the hooch if I'm hungry later."
     "We can have Karen run something out to us after this lot have retired, if you like."
     "No, she has enough to do. I'm fine." She grinned at him. "But thank you."
     Starsong patted her shoulder.
     "'Song should be getting back to creator now. Will see Poppy in the light cycle?"
     "Yes, of course, sweetheart. Easier day tomorrow. Follow up questions, a quick look around the base, meeting Hound, Trailbreaker, Jolt and Wheeljack, final assembly, then they head off home."
     The hatchling nodded, engines rumbling quietly.
     "Is good. Sleep well, Poppy, Phil."
     Engaging his thrusters, he drifted back to the nest as Phil and Poppy headed for their hoochs.

::It has been an interesting day::
     His frame gilded in the light of the lowering sun, Skyfire regarded Ratchet, who was sitting on the roof of the conference centre, Nova as ever clinging to his frame, and nodded his agreement.
     ::They are a strange and contradictory species. I have never met any quite like them::
     ::They're young. If they can settle their differences and learn to live in harmony they could be magnificent::
     ::Indeed. It would be a tragedy to see them suffer our fate::
     ::Well, we'll do what we can to prevent it, but it's really not up to us to interfere. Too much::
     The massive starcraft vented a quiet sigh.
     ::It still... hurts to see them making such simple mistakes::
     Ratchet swept a tendril of 'affection/sympathy' over the other's field.
     ::You are so compassionate. After all this time, you still care::
     Skyfire 'smiled'. ::It's in my nature::
     They sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the peace and the sunset. On the roof of the opposite hangar Starstream was trying to get Starwind to settle for the night. Ratchet instinctively cupped his hand around Nova's small frame.
     ::I don't know why he prefers to stay with me, but I have to confess I like it. It feels... right::
     Skyfire regarded him for a moment, then nodded.
     ::Of course. And he recognises you too. After all, you are his co-creator::

© JAT 11.06.2012

Part 4 - Regret

Nanosecond 1

::... what...::
     Ratchet's other hand automatically came up to cover Nova's little frame protectively as he stared at Skyfire, processor stuttering. The starcraft eyed him sombrely.
     ::Ah. You never knew::
     Waves of disbelief and utter shock flooded the communication bands; Skyfire flinched as Ratchet's personal field flared erratically. His 'voice' was a tortured whisper.
     ::... how...?::
     ::Do you remember when you first met?...::

Nanosecond 2

Ten and a half million years ago, during the last golden age, between the first Great War and the most recent second one...

     Already aware of Perceptor behind him, the medic "Mm"ed a response without taking his attention from the sample of refined energon he was scanning with his newly-integrated electron microscope. The biophysicist waited, politely, until Ratchet had finished and tabulated his results, then, as the medic looked up, gestured behind himself.
     "This is Starscream."
     Ratchet gazed at the Seeker with a less than enthusiastic optic. Seekers. Arrogant. Self-satisfied, privileged, expecting everyone to drop everything for them... Not his favourite people.
     "And what can I do for you, Starscream?"
     At least he was nice to look at...
     The Seeker eyed him warily.
     "I was... I am hoping to qualify for long-distance exploratory missions, but in order to do so I need training in self-repair. I have heard that it is one of your specialisms. I am here to ask for your assistance. Sir."
     "Are you indeed..." Ratchet regarded the young flier. At least he was polite, even if the 'sir' had been an afterthought. "Any experience?"
     "No, sir. Just the normal auto-self-repair."
     "Hm." Nice voice too - soft, low, slightly rough, unusual... "Training's rigorous. You have the determination and endurance?"
     "Yes, sir. This is what I want to do. I am already sufficiently qualified in the other required fields. My lack in this one is now holding me back."
     "It will hurt."
     "I know, sir. I am prepared."
     Ratchet nodded curtly. "Very well. I will make it as painless as I can, in line with what you may actually experience. I need three cycles to complete my current project, then I will be able to spare the time for you."
     Starscream's field lightened. "Thank you, sir."
     "Just make sure you don't waste my time."
     "I won't."
     Ratchet watched as the Seeker loped away, wings twitching with what he hoped was anticipation, then vented and rolled his optics at Perceptor. "Well, at least he's pretty..."
     Perceptor eyed him dryly. "He is also one of the Academy's brightest and best. Please don't break him."
     "Oh please, credit me with more sense than that! I do know how the Academy treasures its Seekers."
     "And I know you aren't fond of them. Just because Cloudfire caused you grief, it doesn't mean any other will."
     "I know that." But knowing it and feeling it are two different things... "And it wasn't grief. Just... irritation."
     "He did apologise."
     Ratchet vented. "Yes, he did. And it's fine. I just won't take anything for granted any more."
     "Which, while sensible, can prevent you enjoying yourself."
     "Not something I have a problem with."
     "... shutting up now..."
     Ratchet 'grinned'. "Excellent idea."

Three days later Starscream arrived promptly moments after the medic himself.
     "Greetings, Doctor."
     Ratchet nodded, a little brusquely.
     "Starscream. Prompt and punctual. Good." He gestured towards a medical berth against a wall hung with a variety of somewhat alarming medical instruments. "Be seated."
     Nervously glancing at the array, the young Seeker eased himself onto the berth and sat, watching the medic making notes on his personal datapad. After a few moments Ratchet looked up and offered a half 'smile'. "I see from your records that you are basically healthy. Standard Seeker systems and physiology. Any upgrades I should know about before we start?"
     "They haven't been decided yet, sir. Not until I qualify completely."
     Ratchet nodded approval. "Very well. We will start with basic procedures - pain control."

Cybertronian sensornets varied from frame-type to frame-type and according to how heavy and durable the outer plating was designed to be. Those dealing with heavy labour or who worked in dangerous fields or environments wore the heaviest, naturally, while those in lighter, less stressful and perilous work wore much less. Seekers of Starscream's type, Ratchet knew, were the most fragile of all, their frames composed of thin, light alloys, their complex internal systems delicate and flimsy compared to their ground-based colleagues. It allowed them to be the fastest and most agile of all the transformers, but also the easiest to damage. Especially their wings. And they had the most sensitive sensornets, instinctively reactive to air currents and tiny changes in pressure, speed, temperature, direction... again, especially their wings.
     That was going to be a problem.
     Ratchet started by holding the upper edge of the left wing, gradually increasing the pressure of his digits. To start with Starscream wriggled, cooling fans kicking on as his frame heated - Ratchet assumed the force was being interpreted as pleasant, even arousing - but as the pressure increased the Seeker tried to pull his wing away, wincing as the medic kept hold.
     "Isolate the sensors in this area."
     "I don't know how to."
     Ratchet paused, keeping the pressure steady, and called up a screen showing Starscream's sensor nodes. Pointing to a cluster close to where his digits had hold, he enlarged the image.
     "These are the discrete nodes controlling sensation in this part of your wing. You must mute them. Not turn them off, or you won't be able to tell whether you're repairing or causing more harm."
     "But... how?"
     "You can control them, Starscream. You can control anything you want to. It just takes practise." Using his internal medical protocol, he commed the lines of code that should be employed. ::Try it now::
     It was an admirable effort, he conceded. Ineffective, but certainly heading in the right direction.
     "But it didn't work!"
     "No, but it was the right procedure. Try again."
     In the end it took the Seeker seventeen attempts, and he was shaking and exhausted at the end, but - as Ratchet had hoped - the procedure suddenly 'clicked' in Starscream's processor and, 'smiling' tremulously with delight, the young flier was able to mute the pain. And keep muting it as Ratchet pressed harder. Finally the medic let go, gently rubbing the abused metal, strong digits easing out the sizable dent he had made.
     "Excellent. Well done."
     Starscream slumped on the berth, venting loudly, and peering up at the medic. "I can see how that would be useful."
     "Essential. Now, let's try it on the other wing."
     Groaning but not daring to object, Starscream tensed as Ratchet caught hold of the lower edge of the other wing and squeezed...

After that first success, it took Starscream surprisingly little time to learn to control his entire sensornet. Ratchet was impressed by the Seeker's dedication - he must have practised in his off-time as well to become so proficient so soon. After four days they were able to progress to the less pleasant aspects of the training.
     Starscream gazed up at the medic, optics dimmed, then stared down at his arm. His detached arm, the one Ratchet had just wrenched off.
     "Mute the pain."
     "I am muting it! It still hurts."
     "This is a major injury. Remember what I've taught you."
     Venting deeply, Starscream focused tightly, manoeuvring the arm back into its rightful place and carefully realigning and reattaching lines and cables. Ratchet had fitted him with a small laser sealer in each hand, and instructed him in its use: he would be able to repair most injuries, at least enough to get him to a properly equipped medical facility. His wings presented a more difficult challenge, but, as he himself pointed out, as long as he had the use of his thrusters he could manage - albeit less than gracefully and not very quickly, but in an emergency slow and clumsy was sufficient.
     "And if your thrusters are damaged?"
     "My internal systems will repair them very quickly."
     Ratchet 'nodded'. The thrusters were the one part of the Seeker frame with superior healing abilities, a sensible ability given how critical they were to survival.
     "So you simply hide and wait while your self-repair takes over. Very good."
     Starscream 'smiled' happily: Ratchet found it charming how well and easily the Seeker responded to praise.
     "Thank you, sir. You have been an excellent teacher."
     "And you have been an excellent student. We are mostly done now, although I would like another couple of days to consolidate everything you have learned."
     Starscream nodded. "Yes please. It's important for me to be ready." He 'grinned', optics bright. "The Academy is planning to team me with Skyfire for my first mission. I must be fully prepared for it. I don't want to let anyone down."
     Ratchet 'chuckled'. "Skyfire, eh? You're a lucky Seeker."
     "Do you know him?"
     "A little. Very experienced, very successful. Very pleasant to work with, gentle and tolerant. You'll get on well."
     "I can't wait..."

It was about a century before Ratchet saw the Seeker again. Starscream sought him out after one particularly stressful mission, arriving in the medic's surgery with badly damaged wings and a number of deep lacerations across his frame.
     "What happened, Starscream?" Ratchet sterilised his hands and began to take stock of the damage as the weary Seeker dropped onto the berth and sunk his helm into his hands, bleeding wings drooping as he rubbed his optics.
     "We were ambushed. Ambushed! I didn't think such things could happen these days."
     "Who else was hurt?"
     "Luckily just me. Skyfire retreated with the rest of the crew while I distracted our attackers. Unfortunately I underestimated their speed..." he winced as Ratchet cleaned and sealed the worst of the wing gashes, then peered over his shoulder at the medic. "I need some sort of weaponry. I don't want to be caught like that again."
     Ratchet 'nodded'. "I agree. I'll discuss it with the Academy board and see what we can come up with."
     "Thank you, Ratchet."
     "Can you lie down? It would make it easier to treat those wounds, and you need to rest."
     Moving carefully, flinching as his wings made contact with the berth, Starscream managed to lie flat, then relax as his training automatically kicked in and he muted the pain. He gazed up at Ratchet, crimson eyes dimming slightly.
     "I appreciate your tending to me."
     Ratchet peered into the worst of the lacerations and began to repair the torn internal lines. "There are medical facilities closer to the starport. Why wait to come here?"
     "I trust you. And it's been a long time since we've met."
     Ratchet eyed the Seeker. "I'm flattered. You've made quite a name for yourself since I last saw you."
     Starscream 'chuckled'. "You helped. I've heard horror stories about the way certain other medics train their students. Your method is empowering. Gave me belief in myself, that I could accomplish what I wanted, if I just kept trying."
     "You got all that from the short time we had?"
     Starscream raised a hand and gently touched the medic's face. "You are an excellent teacher. And an inspiring person."
     Ratchet paused, startled, and stared at the Seeker. "Thank you."
     "No, thank you."
     The medic shook himself and returned to his work. "You can recharge here if you need. This is going to take me some time."
     "I'd like that." The Seeker's voice - now a little deeper, a little more confident with age and experience - slowed and quietened, and before Ratchet had finished fixing the lateral gash to his thigh Starscream had slipped into recharge.
     The doctor paused for a moment, regarding his patient. Still pretty, but with a patina of fortitude and tenacity that suited him admirably... Ratchet shook his helm and returned to his task.

Another three centuries passed before they met again. This time Starscream sought him out before the mission.
     "Hello Ratchet."
     The medic glanced up from his research paper and 'grinned' widely.
     "Starscream! How are you?"
     "Well. You?"
     "Fine." He gazed at the Seeker. "You are looking in excellent form."
     "I need to be - we're off on a major mission in two light cycles. The furthest yet."
     "You're going with Skyfire?"
     "Of course."
     They gazed at each other for a moment, then Ratchet beckoned him in and gestured to a seat.
     "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
     Starscream eyed him momentarily, then 'smiled'. "Nostalgia. We're going to be gone for a very long time, and I wanted to see you before we left."
     "I'm flattered but surprised. Meetings with me usually involve pain!"
     "That's why I thought we'd try a meeting with no pain involved, for once."
     Ratchet 'laughed'. "Very well. Give me a little while to finish up and we'll head out."

Ratchet had been a little surprised that the Seeker wanted to spend the time quietly, just the two of them. They'd stopped first at Maccadam's Old Oil House, where Starscream seemed completely at ease, to Ratchet's surprise and despite some of the other clients giving him odd, not to mention downright hostile, looks, then moved on to the Celestial Spires...
     "Do you mind being up so high?" Starscream asked once they had reached the top of the most slender and graceful Spire.
     "Not at all."
     The Seeker 'smiled'. "Good. I like it here. It reminds me of the towers of Vos."
     They were silent for a while, Ratchet intrigued by the view, Starscream apparently lost in his own thoughts. Then the medic 'sighed' and turned to his companion.
     "Starscream, why are we here, really? Why am I here?"
     "I told you. Nostalgia."
     Ratchet eyed him sardonically, and eventually he chuffed a sigh.
     "The mission is going to be a very long one. Very long. I won't see Cybertron again for millennia. I wanted to spend a little time with you, because to me, you are the epitome of home."
     "I.... what?"
     Starscream turned to him, optics sombre, and cupped his face in strong clawed hands.
     ::You were the first grounder I ever knew. I know you thought I was going to be an arrogant, privileged glitch when we first met, but I had heard a lot of good things about you and I was curious - about grounders, and about you in particular. You represent everything that is good about our home - you are skilled, tolerant, dedicated, and endlessly patient. You are quite wonderful, Ratchet. I'd like to take the memory of you with me on the mission. It will keep me... :: He 'grinned' ::'grounded' while I am so far away::
     Speechless, Ratchet stared into crimson optics, his own brilliant blue wide and startled.
     :Oh, now, don't go getting all sentimental on me. I'd hate to lose the respect I have for you::
     ::And we can't have that:: He placed his hands over the Seeker's. ::Star... I am honoured. I don't understand why you think that of me, but I'm not going to argue::
     ::Good... There is one more thing. To fix the memory indelibly...:: Ratchet stared as Starscream slowly opened the plating over his spark chamber. ::Will you share sparks with me?::
     ::Star... that's...::
     The Seeker paused and gazed at him. ::I will understand if that is too intimate, Ratchet. I don't want to distress you::
     The medic shivered, then opened his own plating. ::I would be honoured::
     He lost himself in the achingly bright ice-blue spark that was the Seeker's soul.

Nanosecond 3

::... but we only shared sparks the once... how...?::
     Skyfire gazed at him. ::You know very little about Seekers, still, don't you?::
     ::There was little information available...::
     The starcraft 'sighed'. ::By their very nature the lives of Seekers can be perilous. They have evolved a mechanism whereby a spark created by sparkmerging can be placed in stasis within the carrier's body and held there, safely, until an appropriate time for it to be hatched arrives::
     Ratchet stared, shaken, uncomprehending. ::It was ten and a half million years ago...::
     ::Yes:: Skyfire very gently touched Ratchet's face with one massive hand. ::No sparkling has ever been held for so long. But Starscream wanted him, wanted him to survive - he told me that much before we were separated on that fateful last mission::
     ::He waited until... until he could... he was going to pretend to Megatron and the Fallen that Nova was theirs...::
     ::I believe so. It was the only way he could be sure the sparkling could survive::
     Ratchet lifted his sparkling up to his face, regarding him with awe. ::Mine...::
     And Nova, half asleep, patted his face and 'sighed'. ::... papa...::
     ::Does he remember?:: It was whispered as Ratchet gazed at the little jet hovering over his other hatchlings.
     Skyfire shook his head, optics infinitely sad. ::I am sorry, Ratchet::
     And the medic lowered his head, his child held close to his spark, rocking with grief for what could have been.

© JAT 16/06/2012

The notion of Starscream and Ratchet having some history was mooted back in Consular pt 10.

You can partially blame my Australian partner in insanity Lutra for the resolution to this part. Back when we were discussing it I said I loved the idea of Ratchet being daddy - but how could that work? Then Lutra told me it already does in kangaroos, who will hold the fertilised embryo in 'stasis' until it's time to let it develop...

Life. It just won't give up...

Part 5 - Plans

::Ratchet?:: The medic looked up as Prime's large hand came to rest on his shoulder, gently, consolingly. ::Are you all right?::
     Ratchet lowered his head, venting a sigh. ::I will be::
     ::We need to discuss this::
     ::I really don't want to talk about it::
     ::Nevertheless, we must. This changes things::
     Ratchet nuzzled the hatchling clinging to his frame. ::I know. Give me a few kliks to get used to the idea, please::
     Optimus patted his shoulder. ::Of course, old friend. Find me when you're ready::
     Ratchet watched his leader head back to the conference hall, then turned to Skyfire.
     ::What am I to do?::
     The starcraft glanced at Starstream, who had settled the hatchlings down and was drowsing over them, his frame gleaming in the light of the rising half-moon. ::Would you want to rekindle the relationship?::
     ::What relationship? We never got that far. And I doubt we ever would have. Grounder and Seeker? I can't see that working, certainly not long-term::
     ::Why not? Exploratory missions can always use a medic::
     ::Then, maybe. Now? I can't be spared::
     ::True. But things change. The war is over...::
     ::This war is over::
     Skyfire eyed him sadly.
     ::So cynical::
     ::Realist:: His optics closed for a moment. ::Don't distract me... It's not possible, Skyfire. If nothing else, Sparkspinner and I rebuilt him almost from scratch. In effect, I'm his creator. He's a complete innocent:: He glanced down at Nova then back up to the starcraft and over to Starstream. ::He's... my sparkling...::
     The miserable bewilderment flaring though the medic's field had Skyfire wincing, reaching out to cup a massive hand protectively around Ratchet's frame. The medic gazed up at him, shoulders slumping, 'expression' defeated, hopeless.
     ::And he doesn't remember anything. I can't take advantage of that, of him::
     Skyfire nodded minutely. ::What will you tell Nova?::
     ::He's too young to understand right now. When the time comes, I... I will need to tell him the truth... But I don't want Starstream hurt:: His optics closed as he nuzzled the recharging hatchling. ::I don't know what to do::
     The starcraft gently stroked his back. ::There is time. It will be several years before he needs to know. In the meantime - he is obviously deeply attached to you, over and above his creator. I believe you should apply for stewardship::
     Ratchet blinked. ::We haven't done that since... well before the war...:: He 'frowned'. ::But it is certainly an option::
     ::Approach Starstream tomorrow. See how he would feel about such an arrangement. Then you should both speak to the Prime. If neither of you plans to leave the island for the foreseeable future, the hatchling will still have both his creators nearby, even if they aren't a unit. And since, as far as I can see, none of the hatchlings onlined with any vocational code hardwired into them, they will be free to choose what they want to be. That will make it easier for you all, in one way::
     Ratchet stared at him. ::... I hadn't... of course. I haven't had the time to fully internalise the circumstances, but you're right:: A small surge of delight flared through his field, brightening the overall misery. ::They can choose. When was the last time we had a generation able to determine their own future?::
     Skyfire 'smiled'. ::Longer ago than either of us have been online:: He gazed at the hatchling, smiling gently. ::It is a wondrous thing...::

A peaceful mug of strong coffee on the beach, watching the sunrise with Poppy. Phil had begun to enjoy the little ritual...
     Phil glanced at Poppy, who was frowning. "Something wrong?"
     "Not really. Just wondering... The hatchlings are just really protoforms at the moment, aren't they? Will Ratchet and 'Spin need to make them extra plating or armour or whatever they call it? They did for Starstream, before he got his alt mode."
     Phil chuckled. "You're asking me? Better ask Ratchet."
     She grinned at him. "Good point. Maybe later."
     There was an easy silence for a few minutes, then she sighed and let a handful of sand trickle through her fingers. "We'll be going home soon, I think."
     "You'd rather stay?"
     "Nnnno... It's just... it's going to feel odd, after everything that's happened. Getting back to normal, I mean." She glanced at the lieutenant. "I'm afraid it'll feel dull."
     He grinned. "You're Consul with a houseful of transformers, responsible for running the first Cybertronian Consulate on earth. And you think it's dull."
     She thumped his shoulder lightly. "No, of course not. Only in comparison to recent events."
     "Could you deal with that much excitement on a regular basis?"
     She laughed. "Not sure my blood pressure could cope! But you have to admit it's been interesting." Her smile faded. "I'm really going to miss the hatchlings though. And Starstream."
     "We'll stay in touch. And if we ask nicely I'm sure Skyfire would be happy to give us a lift over here every now and then, if he isn't doing anything else."
     "True..." She gazed absently out to sea for a moment. "I wonder what happens next?"
     Phil eyed her enquiringly, and she inclined her head.
     "I mean, according to 'Beat, all the adults were sparked knowing what they would become. But the hatchlings weren't sparked by the AllSpark. So presumably they're a bit like our babies - kind of blank slates."
     "Not completely, obviously. They all have different characters."
     "Yes, and how does that work?" She frowned. "They all started off the same way, and have all been treated the same, so how come they're so different? It's not like they have DNA or inherited characteristics... is it?" She chewed lightly on her bottom lip, pensively. "I suppose they must have something similar. I mean, the Stars are all fliers, but Nova isn't..."
     Phil patted her shoulder. "Is it that important to you?"
     She shrugged. "Not really, I suppose. I'm just curious. Though it may be important in the future. We're going to be coexisting with them after all."
     "Hm. Well, if Ratchet is cagey about the details, you can always ask Ramp. I don't think it's possible to keep anything from him, and now Chatter is here..."
     Poppy rolled her eyes. Chatter carried on umpteen conversations simultaneously, and since his arrival had somehow inserted himself into every communication and security system on the island - and hence into every communication and security system they were connected to. Which was pretty much everything on the planet.
     And he never, ever shut up.
     Fortunately for the human inhabitants, most of his conversations were with his fellow transformers, especially Ramp, so they were spared his unending nattering.
     "Yes, quite." Poppy grinned. "We need never miss an episode of 'As The Kitchen Sinks' again."
     Phil stared at her blankly, and she giggled. "In-joke. Don't worry about it."
     "If you say so... But I suppose they'll choose what they want to do and be at some point. And they'll get some sort of education in the meantime?"
     "'Beat says Ratchet and Wheeljack and Starstream himself are trying to coordinate that. They think 'Beat can help, since he knows more of their history than anyone else." She sighed. "Imagine just being able to plug into a computer and have everything downloaded directly into your brain."
     "Is that how they learn?"
     "Basic stuff, yes. Ratchet is keeping it simple to start with, and once they've downloaded the junior Encyclopaedia Britannica, or whatever it is that Ratchet's planning on using as their first lessons, he and 'Stream will talk about the information with the babies, to make sure they've understood it properly and to answer any questions."
     "Speed learning then."
     "Kind of. They do have a lot to learn, both about their own culture and ours. But they'll get to play too." She laughed. "That's my fault. Ratchet and 'Stream hadn't even heard of the notion." Her expression saddened. "I suppose millions of years of war and not having any babies in living memory is to blame for that. But when I pointed out that it's healthy and fun and good for them, you could almost see the cogs turning, and playtime is being incorporated into the schedule. Though no doubt Ratchet will find a way to make it educational..."
     "Oh, no doubt!"
     Poppy nodded happily. "Just a pity I won't be here to join in. Then again, I'd hate to get... squished."
     Phil chuckled. "Yes, that wouldn't be much fun."
     Poppy drained her coffee and pushed herself to her feet as the sound of 'Beat's engine revving came from the direction of the road. "Better get to the base, see what's happening today..."

::Can't I go too?::
     Starstream cupped 'Song's face with one hand. ::You are too young, little one. You don't know enough yet, and Poppy and Phil wouldn't know how to look after you::
     ::But mummy...::
     The jet vented a sigh. ::Starsong, no. You need to stay here for the moment, to learn, to grow, to find out how to interact with the humans without hurting them::
     ::'Song would never hurt Poppy!::
     ::But Poppy wouldn't be the only human::
     ::'Song be careful::
     The jet nuzzled the persistent hatchling. ::Not yet. If you study hard, and learn to move amongst the humans here, maybe in a few months we could consider a visit for you. If the Prime is in agreement::
     Starsong's field 'rippled' with excitement. ::'Song will be good!::
     ::I know you will, little one. And I'm sure we can arrange for you to talk to Poppy every week::
     ::'Song happy!::
     'Chuckling', the jet caught his eldest as the hatchling hopped into his arms, holding the infant close. Over Starsong's head he could see Ratchet on the opposite hangar roof, eyeing him sadly, Nova now an almost permanent fixture against the medic's frame. Starstream felt an odd jolt of... something. Not jealousy, no - the little grounder obviously adored the medic, and Starstream trusted him implicitly. No, it was something else, something he felt he should recognise, should know, but which stayed frustratingly just out of reach...
     ::Mummy all right?::
     Jerked from his deliberation the jet blinked and gazed down at the hatchling, 'smoothing' the agitation in his field. ::I am fine, little one::
     Starsong nestled a little closer. ::Is good. We go see Ratchet now?::
     It wouldn't do any harm to see how far the medic had got with scheduling the lessons...

Poppy sighed regretfully. "So we're off tomorrow?"
     Phil nodded. "We can't really put it off any longer. 'Spin won't be needed for a good six months now, and I think Matthew is going grey trying to do your job!"
     She giggled. "You men just can't multi-task, can you?"
     "Well, if it would save our lives we'd probably manage..."
     "And then we'd have to sort out the mess you left behind you."
     He chuckled. "Most likely, yes."
     "Heaven forbid." She nodded. "OK. At least we can spend today saying our goodbyes. How are we getting back?"
     "C-17 I'm afraid. Skyfire will be otherwise engaged."
     "Pity, but expected." She frowned. "We're going to have to argue with Highdive again, aren't we? He really really wants to stay here."
     "He enjoys having other fliers around him. But it's been made clear to him that he is needed as the first resort if we ever need to get you to safety in a hurry. He's much more versatile in alt mode than a jet would be in a tight place." Phil grinned. "That stopped the complaints about not being allowed to reformat to jet, too."
     Poppy nodded. "Oh good." She smiled. "The BBC have also got the permissions for Hound and Trailbreaker to join the company as 'special correspondents', so they'll be coming with us. They're very happy."
     "Good. They're a nice pair, it'll be great to let them officially do what they love doing. Anything else?"
     "I don't think so."
     "Shall we go say goodbye to Wheeljack first, then?"
     Poppy laughed. "Think it's safe?"
     "We'll ask him to come out to us..."

Private Smith and Sergeant Harris watched the massive plane take off, then Karen turned to her superior officer.
     "Sad to see them go sir."
     David nodded. "But they'll be back. And in the meantime, we still have to find out how it was possible for Starsong and Poppy to be abducted. NEST are sending a unit of special investigators. Be ready to give them any help they ask."
     Karen nodded sombrely. The hostiles must have had inside information - which meant that someone on the island was a traitor...

© JAT 23/06/12

'As The Kitchen Sinks' is a fictional soap opera mentioned in one episode of the G1 Transformers - a spoof, I think, of 'As the World Turns'. The watching transformers were vocally disappointed when a newflash interrupted the latest episode!

Part 6 - Fragments

The Prime gazed down at what looked for all the world like the Cybertronian equivalent of a little family, Ratchet on the right, Starstream on the left with the youngest hatchling dozing in the crook of his left arm, and Nova in between them, holding his creators' hands and smiling up brightly, personal field filled with joy.
     It was a lovely, if quite alien, sight.
     ::And you are all in agreement?::
     ::We are, my Prime:: the jet bowed his head respectfully. ::We have discussed the ramifications together, and have decided that it would be the best for us all. I would ask, however, that Ratchet occasionally spend time with all the hatchlings, so that Nova may benefit from socialising with his... siblings::
     ::And I welcome the idea:: Ratchet nodded. ::It is only fair to us all::
     ::Then of course I will make no objection. Nova may spend the majority of his time with Ratchet. Ratchet is, accordingly, released from full time duty, except in emergencies::
     ::Thank you, Optimus::
     ::We are grateful, Prime::
     "Fank you, Pwime!"
     The Prime 'smiled' as all three voices sounded at once.
     "You are most welcome." He hesitated for a moment. "May I spend a little time with them, also?"
     "We'd be honoured..."

Poppy sighed as they stepped out of the C-17 into the rain. 'Spin glanced at her as Phil laid a hand on her shoulder.
     "You OK?"
     She nodded. "Just... feeling a bit flat."
     Phil resisted cracking a joke, instead patting her back sympathetically. "I'm sure that'll change once we get back into the swing of things."
     "I suppose..." She waved at Graham and Stronghold, waiting in their usual place at the edge of the runway. "Matthew's bandage is off. I suppose that means he'll be leaving us soon."
     Phil frowned. It wasn't like Poppy not to see the bright side of everything.
     "Are you sure you're OK, love?"
     She grimaced. "Ignore me. I'll be fine." She forced a small smile as they reached the small group awaiting them. "Hi! How's things? How's the hand?"
     "Still in physio, but getting stronger. Should be back to normal in a couple of weeks." Matthew flexed the hand: Poppy winced at the scarring. The Wing Commander noticed and grinned. "Ah, don't worry. They don't bother me. But how are you? All recovered?"
     Poppy nodded. "Though I'm looking forward to some decent English food."
     Matthew chuckled. "Oh, no problem there. You should see what Steamy has in store..." He gestured towards 'Beat and Stronghold, who were standing close together, fields intermingling companionably although none of the humans could perceive it. "Shall we make tracks?"

The rain had cleared and the sun was shining mistily through the thinning clouds by the time they arrived back at the Consulate. Highdive landed and transformed as Poppy and Phil climbed out of 'Beat: Poppy just had time to step away from the MGC before Steamy hurtled towards her with all the force of a speeding bowling ball and nearly knocked her off her feet.
     She grabbed Phil's conveniently-extended hand to balance herself then hauled the little transformer into her arms.
     "Miss me?"
     She giggled as Steamy spluttered static, unable to express himself adequately. It took him three minutes to calm down, by which time everyone else had said their "hello"s and they were in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil for coffee. Poppy sat back and smiled around at everyone.
     "So what's been happening?"
     "It's been fairly pedestrian. Beverley can fill you in on anything tricky on the consular side. In general, things have trundled along much as usual. No 'Con sightings, no attempted incursions, it's all been very quiet. Muncher's very happy with his crop of asparagus pea - whatever that is - and is thinking about growing wild rice, but he'll talk to you about that later. Steamy's idea." Graham paused to take a slurp of coffee. "I've referred the idea of having a swimming pool constructed to NEST and the local planning authorities. Money is no object, of course, but there are security issues to take into account."
     Poppy raised a hand to interrupt. "I was thinking more along the lines of a lap pool rather than a big one. Long and thin with two or three lanes."
     Graham nodded. "I'll pass that on. We're also planning to have a sturdier landing pad built, not just here, but at all the Consulates. Prime's request: after the kidnap, he wants the flyers - Skyfire included - to be able to land safely close by if needed. We've marked out the land already - just needs your OK. And on the subject of flying..." He grinned and gestured to Vault.
     "While it's not really our field, Sinewave and I have been considering the possibility of constructing a Consulate aircraft, using Cybertronian materials and techniques. It would be much faster and far more environmentally sound than your own vehicles, and make travel considerably more comfortable."
     "Because we can't always rely on Skyfire or the Seekers to be available - or willing - to transport consulate staff. And those C-17s are terribly fuel-wasteful." Sinewave shuddered theatrically. "Not to mention ugly, noisy and clumsy."
     "We have some initial plans drawn up for you. If the project is acceptable - and of course the Prime and our human colleagues must be consulted - we will need Wheeljack and 'Spin's assistance."
     Poppy nodded pensively. "It's a wonderful idea. And since 'Spin's probably going to have to go back and forth between here and Diego Garcia for the foreseeable future I think it's an excellent project. I'm all for it."
     Vault inclined his head. "Thank you, Poppy. In that case, we will organise a conference with NEST, Prime and Wheeljack, and your aviation authorities."
     "Will you offer the technology to them?"
     "Maybe. Eventually. We will have to discuss that issue..."
     Poppy smiled and glanced down at the little transformer fidgeting in her lap. "Anything else right now or can Steamy make dinner?"
     Graham chuckled. "Dinner, I think. Do you want to talk to Muncher while it cooks?"
     "I should unpack..."
     "I will do that for you. And thort out the wathing."
     Poppy glanced appreciatively at 'Spin. "I'd appreciate that. Thank you." She smiled at Phil. "Want to come?"
     He shook his head. "I'll sort out my own stuff. I should have Matthew officially brief me on how things stand, too. I'll see you at dinner."

Lennox stepped out into the heat of the island and saluted Prime.
     "Good to see you again, sir. Sorry it's under such circumstances."
     "Unfortunately, it goes with the territory, as you would say. At least no permanent damage was done."
     Lennox looked up to where the infant jets were flying circles - wobbly ones in the case of the youngest two - around their creator, and grinned. "So I see." He sobered and headed for the conference room, his small team of investigators behind him and Prime pacing slowly at his side. "Any news this end?"
     There was a hint of frustration in the Prime's voice. "No, and that troubles me. Chatter and Ramp have scrutinised all Diego Garcia communications, both incoming and outgoing, for the last six months, but have been unable to pinpoint anything suspicious. But it may be that we are hampered by not being human."
     Lennox nodded. "Well, that's why we're here. Where can we set up?"
     "There is a side room ready for you. It has full comms access and Chatter has already been tasked to assist you in any way you require."
     "Thank you. We'll get started right away."

It only took Poppy a few days to settle back into what passed for normal. It helped that the Consulate was steeped in its usual air of academic calm - and Aaron had taken Abigail on holiday for a couple of weeks, so she was spared his occasionally exhausting enthusiasm.
     A week later, just after her regular weekly chat with Starstream and 'Song, she realised that, fast as she was at adapting, the newly-arrived transformers were faster...
     Poppy gaped at the TV screen. The announcer was talking over a news clip which was apparently an outtake of a forthcoming nature documentary. As the shot pulled back they saw Trailbreaker, force field shimmering, protecting a herd of elephants, while Hound faced off several poachers. Their shots ricocheted harmlessly off his dense metal plating, and the poachers, showing rather more stupidity than common sense, carried on firing at him regardless - and at Trailbreaker, although the rounds simply bounced off the force field - as he strode to them, delicately plucked the massive rifles from their hands and snapped them in half with negligent ease. He then reached to pick a poacher up by the scruff of his neck and lift him to eyelevel...
     Poppy giggled, a little nervously, as Hound initialised his hologram, forming a giant rhino at his back - a roaring crimson rhino with fangs and fiery eyes. The poacher screamed in terror, staring at the apparition while Hound intoned ponderously into the air, brilliant blue gaze sweeping over the rest of the poachers who were frozen in fear. What the transformer said wasn't in English on the news clip, but Cable obligingly translated for the humans.
     "Hound says, he and his companion are here to protect the animals, because they are rare and worthy of protection, but that the hunters are neither, and as the planet is already overpopulated they would not be missed in the slightest. And he ended up by saying, Don't make me hunt you down..."
     Poppy and Phil stared at each other, then Poppy turned to 'Beat.
     "He wouldn't - would he?"
     "What, Hound? Kill a human? Only by accident. But he's perfectly capable of hunting the poachers down and making their lives an absolutely misery - he's big and strong enough to wreck all their equipment, at the very least."
     Poppy thought about it for a moment, then burst out laughing. Phil joined her.
     "Well, I never expected that, but they might just be able to solve the poaching problem all by themselves, at least in Africa! That would be fantastic!"
     'Beat inclined his head. "And I'll bet Prime would authorise Starstream and the hatchlings, or Skyfire, to go and 'play' over their heads if they persisted. That should do the trick..."

Zee looked up, frowning, as Aitch burst into his office. "What the...?"
     "I'm sorry sir. It's Walker."
     Zee scowled. The last he'd heard the ex-NEST officer had started counselling, and by all accounts seemed to be, if not accepting his situation, at least beginning to come to terms with it. Well, as much as any man could, at any rate.
     "What's happened?"
     Wordlessly, Aitch gestured to the bank of monitors against the wall, punching at the remote on the desk. Several monitors buzzed to life, one of them showing... Zee peered at the screen.
     "Is that Johnson?"
     Aitch nodded, averting his eyes from the image of the blood-splattered room and the body of The Club's primary psychiatrist lying crumpled half on a couch, half on the floor, limbs at odd angles. "He was in session with Walker, he said something, and Walker just... exploded." He skipped back several minutes of the digital recording and set it going again: Zee watched in horror as the sergeant lunged for the psychiatrist, fingers driving straight for his eyes...
     Aitch winced at the screams, refusing to look at the screen. After a few minutes the door to the psychiatrist's office slammed as Walker fled, and Aitch stopped the replay.
     "We don't know where he is. By the time the guards got to his room it had been rifled and he was no longer there..." He glanced over his shoulder as Zee pointed silently. On a different screen they watched, in real time, as Walker knifed a guard in the neck and forced open the door behind him, leaping through it to the alley outside.
     Zee and Aitch stared at each other for long moments. Then Zee sat back in his chair and slammed his fist down on the intercom.
     "Security to my office now."
     "What do you plan to do, sir?"
     "We'll have to find him. While I'd much rather he became someone else's problem, he knows too much about us. And he's skilled, and at a guess now dangerously unstable."
     "To put it mildly!"
     "And we need to strengthen our own defences. Going by that spectacle, he may very well be blaming us for his... predicament."
     Aitch nodded grimly, wondering if it might be better to disappear until Walker was dealt with.

At the very edge of the solar system a sleek dark shape flickered into existence, paused to take readings, then aimed itself unerringly towards the pretty blue marble that was third out from the sun...

© JAT 30/06/12

Blame Lutra for the poacher bit - unfortunately I can't find the Skype conversation where she suggested it (well, actually, I don't have the time to hunt for it), or I'd quote it here...

Part 7 - Old Enemies, New Friends

Poppy signed off the next month's schedule and handed it over to Beverley.
     "I think that's everything covered. Aaron's back in three days: we'll organise the next kids' day once he's recovered."
     Beverley laughed. "Yers, not sure how long it takes to recover from a snowboarding holiday. Whatever possessed him to take it up?"
     "I really don't know - not my sort of thing at all. 'Spin did mention in passing that he was asking about possibly making a new board using Cybertronian materials..."
     "I dread to think."
     "Yes, I didn't enquire. As long as he doesn't kill himself what he gets up to in his own time is his own business." Poppy glanced at the screen as Ramp beeped tunefully to attract her attention. "Yes?"
     "I have a transmission coming in from your counterpart in Australia."
     Poppy blinked. "The Australian consul?"
     "Yes. Want to take it?"
     "Of course." She frowned. "What time is it there?"
     "Nine thirty in the evening."
     "OK. Put him through."
     "Her, actually. Jacinta Stott. Similar background to you, same age."
     Bemused, Poppy nodded. "Um, thanks..."
     The screen flickered, and a smiling face appeared, tanned, black haired, almond-eyed.
     "Good morning!"
     Poppy smiled back. "Hello. I'm Poppy Moss, UK consul."
     "Jacinta Stott. Nice to meet you!"
     "And you. What can I do for you?"
     "I thought it was about time we all got to know each other."
     "Yeah. There's ten of us now, and I realised I don't know any of the others. Which is silly. After all, we're all doing the same job. Makes sense if we network..."
     Poppy grinned, instinctively liking the other woman. "Share recipes, yes... You're thinking a consul videoconference?"
     Jacinta nodded. "To start with, anyway. Be nice to get together in real life at some point, but that might be tricky."
     "Well I'm all for it! Both ideas."
     Jacinta chuckled. "Great. How's about I get hold of the Japanese, Indian and Russian consuls, and you get the Americas and Europe? You and I can liaise. We should be able to find a time that more or less suits us all."
     "OK." She frowned, curious. "Who do you have there?"
     "Our comms transformer..."
     "Call me Mike!" the electronic voice of Ramp's antipodean counterpart had a distinctly Australian brogue, and Poppy - and Ramp - chuckled. Jacinta grinned and patted the screen.
     "... Mike. He's a bit of a character. And my car, a VH Valiant. Called Valiant. Likes heavy metal."
     Poppy laughed. "Nice!" If a bit unoriginal. "Mine's an MGC called Upbeat. 60s fan. We'll have to get them together."
     Jacinta mock-shuddered. "That'll be fun..." She glanced behind her at a figure that had poked its head around the door Poppy could see in the background.
     "Ah. Sorry Poppy, got to run. Can we meet up again in a couple of days?"
     "Sure! I'll contact the western consuls and let Mike know. Let's give it a week, shall we?"
     "Sounds good to me! See you then."
     Jacinta signed off and Ramp's monitor went to screensaver, but not his usual starscape. Instead he displayed a rolling slideshow of various Australian sights - places, people and animals. Poppy giggled.
     "Getting to know the place?"
     "Getting to know Mike. He's newly arrived."
     She patted him "Have fun. I have to see Muncher. Apparently I need to approve his plans for next year's planting. Including wild rice. Not sure how feasible a rice paddy is in England..." she paused and laughed. "What am I saying? Since when have any of you lot considered anything impossible?..."

It took Walker considerable time and a lot of effort to reach the caves - which was, of course, why Barricade had chosen them. Up in the bleak wilds of northernmost Canada there were few people, and satellite coverage was minimal compared to other more heavily populated areas. It was a good place to rest and recover - if you were a transformer and the sub-zero temperatures didn't bother you...
     "Are you here?" Walker's voice echoed around the cave, but otherwise there was no sound. He pulled his hood more closely around his face and called again. This time a slight clinking towards the back of the cave had him drawing his firearm. "Barricade?"
     A light flashed from the entrance to a side tunnel.
     "Through here, fleshling."
     Warily, weapon ready, Walker followed the light and the voice away from the main cave. The tunnel debouched into a smaller cave, where Barricade was crouching over a pile of... metal? Walker frowned as the pile moved sluggishly.
     Barricade eyed him narrowly, headlights dimly lighting the cold dismal cavern.
     "Soundwave. What is left of him."
     "I thought he was destroyed in Chicago."
     Walker gingerly moved closer, keeping one eye on the former Mustang SSP, and peered down at the mess that was Soundwave. The ex-satellite ex-Mercedes looked like a pile of scrap metal.
     "Can he recover?"
     Barricade was silent for a moment. "With time, energon and medical assistance, yes. To some extent. Spark survives, and most of his main processor. He won't be quite the same."
     Walker nodded. "OK. What do you want me to do?"
     "We need somewhere safe and sunny."
     "Oh, is that all?" Walker growled. "How the fuck do you think I can provide that?"
     Barricade tensed and raised a hand, half-revealing his bladewheels, then settled back.
     "Private junkyard will suffice."
     Walker stared, then grinned. "You need sunlight and somewhere you won't be disturbed in order to heal, right?"
     "And metals. Earth metals inferior, but will have to do."
     The human nodded. "OK. How do we move Soundwave? You got him here - can you get him away?"
     Barricade stared for a moment or two then bowed his head.
     "Not far. And not without refuelling."
     Walker nodded. "Can you refuel with normal petrol or diesel?"
     "If we must."
     "Yeah well, since I can't get energon, you must." He thought for a moment. "OK. It'll take me a day or two to get to a gas station, fill up a few cans and get back. Do you need anything else?"
     "That will be sufficient. For now."
     "Good." He backed away from the 'Cons. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
     Making his way through the rain to his rental truck, he considered how best to proceed. He knew the 'Cons needed sunlight to boost their self-repair and refuelling: how they could use terrestrial metals to help Soundwave rebuild himself was beyond Walker, but he assumed Barricade knew what he was talking about. He'd have to move them both further south, and the easiest way was probably to hire a flat bed truck and drive them there, since he'd bet that the Mustang wouldn't be able to drive himself very far, even refuelled. He did not look at all healthy. He might have survived the Chicago battle, but he'd taken a lot of damage.
     So, first step, get the flat bed and gas, get the two out of the cave and loaded, then head for the sun. Stay on the backroads and drive until he found some little backwater town where they didn't ask too many questions and had never heard of Cybertron...

::What does this do, papa?::
     Ratchet turned towards the hatchling - only to dive forward and grab the laser scalpel out of Nova's hand just before he managed to switch it on.
     Nova flinched back, pulling his servos behind his back.
     "I sowwy..."
     Ratchet 'sighed' and, putting the scalpel well out of reach, bent down to pick up his sparkling and snuggle him close.
     ::It's all right, bitlet. But you must ask before you touch anything in here. It could hurt you. Lots of dangerous things in the lab::
     Nova nuzzled his co-creator's neck. Ratchet flared his field soothingly, and the hatchling cooed.
     The medic held him for a few minutes, then lifted him so they were optic to optic.
     "I think perhaps you should spend a little time with Starstream today. I have to get this work finished, and it's going to be dangerous and noisy and boring for you. Tomorrow we'll go exploring the island - would you like that?"
     "Oooh, pwease!" Nova wriggled excitedly, and Ratchet 'chuckled'.
     "All right then. Let's get you over to the nest."
     Loping through the bright afternoon sunlight towards Starstream's hangar, Ratchet's mood sank a little. He knew it was impossible, but he couldn't help but wonder what life would have been like if he and Starscream... if things had been different.
     "He likes you lots, papa."
     Ratchet blinked, gazing down at Nova. It was alarming how easily the hatchling was able to guess what he was thinking. He smiled.
     "I like him too, bitlet. He's a fine creator and a brilliant mind, and a good and caring person."
     Nova eyed him, expression and field unnervingly adult for a second. Then he giggled.
     "He's funny too..."

Skyfire was idling above the clouds, re-energising, converting the planet's abundant solar energy to energon to fill his tanks while he kept half an optic on the goings on below. Such a pretty little planet, so full of life. And so peaceful right now. Unusually so, in fact.
     It seemed he and his colleagues might be partially to blame for that. He was no communications expert, but he occasionally listened in to the chatter on the ground, and apparently the results of the 'new' technology the Consulates were releasing to the natives had gone some way towards alleviating some of the problems plaguing the world. Purification plants had sprung up in most countries, replacing the far less efficient old sewerage plants, and new forms of horticulture had started the first steps towards easing world hunger. Antiquated and failing public utilities structures were slowly being rebuilt using new materials and processes, although it would take decades, if not centuries, for that work to be completed. But all in all it was going well, and the peoples of the world were grateful.
     In the main. There were always going to be those who resented having power taken away from them...
     His systems stilled for a moment as he detected a signal from way out past Pluto's eccentric orbit. And heading towards earth.
     There was something familiar about it...
     He 'frowned', then reached out towards it - dropping several metres in shock, his lifters stuttering as he recognised the signature glyph.
     Several startled seconds later - ::Skyfire? That really you?::
     Skyfire wasn't sure whether to be pleased or worried. ::What are you doing here?::
     ::Received the Prime's call. Wasn't doing anything else so thought I'd come visit::
     ::... are you alone?::
     The 'grin' he got back was anything but reassuring.
     ::Got a couple of passengers. Prime'll be... pleased to see them...::

© JAT 04.07.12

Part 8 - Meetings and Greetings

It had been a bit of a busy week, but Poppy had actually managed to contact 'her' share of the Consulates...
     She had been a little worried, to start with, that she might have problems with language: the French and German she'd learned at school may have been enough - just - to serve her for a brief visit to either country, but that was a long time ago and all her determination to practise and improve had, alas, evaporated in the exigencies of earning a living.
     Of course, she needn't have worried. As Ramp told her, smugly, he would automatically translate any foreign language into English for her - and her English into other languages - if it was needed. Colloquial, idiomatic English at that: he'd been here quite long enough to learn everything she would ever need, linguistically speaking.
     Her fellow Consuls had been an interesting bunch. Some, like Néa Grahn in the Scandinavian Consulate in Odense, and Chu'si Mclintock in New York, she'd taken an immediate liking to, one that appeared to be reciprocated. On the other hand she'd found Marguerite Valois, at the Swiss Consulate in Geneva, distinctly stand-offish, although the woman had, reluctantly, agreed that she supposed it would be a useful idea for them all to meet, albeit electronically. Poppy smiled as Jacinta's face appeared on the screen.
     "Hi! How's it going?"
     The Australian grinned. "Not bad. How'd you do?"
     "Managed to get agreement from them all. You?"
     "Same here."
     Jacinta laughed. "Great! So... we should strike while the iron's hot and all that. When shall we all meet?"
     Poppy frowned. "I think it's going to be a case of fitting in with the most awkward one the first time round, then trying to agree on a mutually convenient time from then on. Perhaps we could shift it around the world so everyone gets a fair shot at a time that's good for them." She shrugged. "I don't mind, myself - happy to make it night-time here - and with one exception those in time zones near me seem fairly easy too."
     "Who's the exception?"
     "Marguerite. Geneva."
     Jacinta rolled her eyes. "Why am I not surprised?"
     "Yers, quite... I've met people like her before, and I think the best way to deal with her is to be firm and not let her take over. We're all in the same boat, all doing the same job, and we're all equal. There's really no room for queen bees."
     Jacinta nodded. "I'm sure she'll see reason."
     "I hope so, but I'm not going to expect it."
     "Bit pessimistic there?"
     Poppy grinned. "Realistic. So - what's going to be the best time for this conference?"

The following Wednesday was finally chosen, at nine a.m. GMT. That gave Marguerite, Néa, and Abla of the Port Said Consulate a ten am start, and meant that the meeting would take place during daylight hours for most of the Consuls. The only two who would be inconvenienced were Chu'si, and Calfuray in Peru: Poppy apologised profusely and promised they would be sure to even things out in future - although as it happened both women were happy to oblige. As Chu'si said, eyes twinkling mischievously, not everyone enjoyed the nice, sedate, regular schedule Poppy had established in the English countryside. New York never slept. And, added Calfuray, it was cooler in the early hours of the morning anyway, for her...
     In the meantime, the consuls' computers - transformers, all of them - had got to know each other a little better. They all deferred to Ramp, as the longest-serving Consulate comms 'bot amongst them, even though he wasn't the oldest. That honour went to Undertow, the big, sombre ex-specops military transformer at the Egyptian Consulate, tasked with keeping a very close eye on the goings on in the Middle East as well as his normal duties. Néa's commbot had, somewhat whimsically, taken the designation Loki, although Ramp had warned Poppy and Jacinta that he had been known as a bit of a prankster back home.
     Poppy and her antipodean counterpart uttered identical weary sighs at the announcement, then both laughed.
     "I'm sure we'll cope..."

Poppy was up early that morning, and settled in the rec room with 'Beat behind her just before nine. Ramp was already jacked into the system - had probably been there all night, Poppy thought - and in conversation with his colleagues around the world. As expected, Jacinta's face was the first to appear on the main screen, right in front of Poppy at bottom centre. The Australian grinned and waved. Behind her was what had to be her car, Valiant. Poppy's eyes widened. The transformer was the most lurid shade of fuchsia pink.
     "Hi Poppy, Upbeat."
     Poppy waved back. "Hello! And this is Valiant?"
     "Val for short. He's been looking forward to meeting you, Upbeat."
     Poppy glanced back at the MGC, who was staring at the Valiant with what, to Poppy who knew him well by now, was an expression of part astonishment, part horror. She nudged him gently, and he twitched.
     "Um... 'ullo Valiant."
     The pink VH leaned forward over his human and smiled.
     "Good t'meet ya, cobber!"
     There was a sort of horrified silence in the Iacon House rec room, then Poppy exploded into spluttering giggles as she felt 'Beat shudder behind her. Wiping her eyes she grinned at Val.
     "I'm sorry. Not being rude, you just took me by surprise."
     "No worries, sheila."
     Jacinta turned and slapped his torso.
     "Behave!" She turned back to the screen, grinning and rolling her eyes. "You'll have to excuse him. He's watched too much Crocodile Dundee."
     Poppy grinned back, then was interrupted by a quiet tone from Ramp. Two other sections of the screen lit up one after the other; Poppy recognised Abla's elegant, regal form, deep brown eyes bright in her lean face, cobalt-blue scarf vivid against her coffee-coloured skin, and smiled a welcome. The other face she didn't recognise - a pretty Oriental woman, black hair cut in an asymmetric bob and streaked with bronze. The newcomer waved enthusiastically, then folded her hands together and bowed her head.
     "Hello! I'm Kiku, Kyoto Consul. I'm honoured to meet you all."

After that the screen filled up quickly, although Marguerite was late. Twenty minutes late, to Poppy's annoyance, and with no apology. But by then the conversation was in full swing, and she was afforded a brief greeting from the rest as they gave their name and Consulate before resuming talking. Poppy noted, from the narrowing of the large dark eyes and the tightening of the wide, full-lipped mouth, that the French consul wasn't happy about the treatment, but mentally shrugged. Her problem for being late...
     They were a wonderfully eclectic group, she thought later, when they'd signed off and closed down amidst expressions of how much they'd enjoyed the session and queries about when the next would be. Calfuray had been quiet and reserved - although some of that was probably tiredness: it was four thirty in the morning in Peru when they finally finished - but friendly enough after a half an hour, her broad face and deep expressive eyes relaxing into a shy smile as Poppy chatted to her about... well, she couldn't actually remember what she'd said, but it seemed to put the other woman at ease. Saroj, the classically beautiful head of the Indian Consulate in Puri, had come across as a bit snooty to start with, but warmed to her fellow consuls as they shared their experiences of Consulate life in general and the transformers in particular. And, to Poppy's surprise and delight, Chu'si and Syuzanna, the solemn Russian Consul, struck up an instant friendship, arranging to chat at more length at a more convenient time for them both. Even Marguerite had ended up joining in, presumably realising that any patronising nonsense would only result in her being ignored.
     Poppy grinned happily at Jacinta as everyone else finally signed off, waving and smiling.
     "That went well."
     Jacinta whooshed a huge relieved sigh. "Didn't it just?! A right bunch we are too!"
     Poppy laughed. "Certainly interesting."
     "Oh yeah. So - when's the next one? And perhaps we should mix in a bit of business next time?"
     "Definitely. If nothing else, we should all be sharing our knowledge and skills. Did you pick up on what Calfuray was saying about the problems in her neck of the woods? The oil drilling that's going on and the damage it's doing to the environment? Not to mention to the locals."
     Jacinta frowned. "No, I missed that - I was listening to Abla talking about the current state of affairs over in Israel. God that was depressing..."
     Poppy winced. "Has been for longer than I've been alive." She frowned. "In fact, for centuries longer."
     Jacinta sighed. "I suppose you're closer to it than we are over here. We tend to hear about Korea rather than anywhere further afield."
     Poppy pursed her lips. "OK, I think we ought to contact everyone and ask for some sort of summary of what their concerns are at the moment, and what they're focussing on workwise. I'm sure, between us, we can come up with something to help everyone." She shrugged. "We really don't have many problems over here right now. Makes sense for us to try to help out those who do. Or at least consider what might improve matters."
     Jacinta grinned. "In the spirit of enlightened self-interest, if nothing else. Sounds good to me! I'll do the ones I first contacted, if you can do the others."
     "Certainly can. When shall we two meet up again?"
     Jacinta's gaze flickered down to what Poppy assumed was her diary.
     "How about six p.m. my time on Saturday? That'll be nine a.m. your time. Will that give us long enough, do you think?"
     "Let's give it a try."
     "Great! See you then."
     The screen went blank, and Poppy turned to 'Beat - who was crouched at her side with an extruded cable from one of his digits plugged into Ramp. She frowned and laid a hand on the MGC's arm.
     "You OK?"
     'Beat's dimmed optics brightened again.
     "Yeah. Just sharing music files with Valiant."
     Poppy blinked. "Oh. Found anything you can agree on?"
     "Not a lot, not yet. But we've agreed to listen to each others' favourites and see if they... 'grow on us'."
     Poppy laughed and patted his hand.
     "Good luck!"

Phil smiled and handed her a mug of coffee as she entered the kitchen.
     "Good meeting?"
     "Yes it was." She took a swig of coffee and inclined her head. "Actually, it was a very good meeting."
     "What's everyone like?"
     Poppy frowned as something nagged at her. "An interesting mix. All sorts of characters and temperaments. I can imagine our discussions could get quite lively in the future."
     "And no-one tried to take over? No conflicts?"
     "Not really, no."
     And suddenly it twigged. Poppy eyed him, a little startled. "We're all women. All the Consuls, I mean."
     Phil nodded. "I know. Optimus insisted."
     Poppy blinked. "You what?"
     He grinned. "Prime insisted."
     "He said that women are practical, pragmatic, natural multi-taskers, instinctively help each other and those in need, and are far more likely to talk things out than to fight."
     Poppy stared at him. "Where the hell did he get that idea from?"
     "I think it was from you."
     "I... but... how..."
     Phil chuckled and patted her shoulder. "He has been here for a few years, you know, and he's been watching us. He thinks you women keep the world running. And he does have a point."
     "I... I don't know what to say..."
     "You don't need to say anything. Just keep on doing what you already do..."

Starflare got as far as the asteroid belt before the alarms sounded...
     Skyfire watched bemused as Starstream and the hatchlings were hurried down into Ratchet's Lair while the Prime, Jolt, Mirage and Sideswipe - the latter two back on the island for some essential maintenance - moved smoothly into the defensive bearing they'd planned several years ago. As the Prime settled into position the starcraft caught his shoulder.
     ::Sir... there is no need to be alarmed::
     The Prime paused and regarded him narrowly.
     ::Why not, Skyfire?::
     ::Because he is not a threat. Well, not a threat to our security, at any rate::
     ::Who is not a threat?::
     ::His designation is Starflare. He is the same build as me, but an older model, and a little larger. He left Cybertron a millennia before the war. He is a neutral::
     ::Why did he not announce his presence?::
     ::It was always his game to see how close he could approach before being noticed::
     Prime glowered at the starcraft.
     ::And you did not think we ought to know he was on his way? You know how scattered and woefully thinly spread our defences are, how tenuous is our life here::
     Skyfire flinched - it honestly hadn't occurred to him that there was any cause for alarm. He lowered his head in shame.
     ::I am sorry, sir. It was remiss of me. It will not happen again::
     ::It had better not:: He untensed a little. ::What do you know of him?::
     ::He is a puzzle. He refuses to take sides. I admired him::
     Skyfire hesitated. ::He... his attitude was less than sincere. There were rumours that he assisted in conflicts on alien worlds:: Huge brilliant blue optics gazed pleadingly at Prime. ::We should never get involved, not unless we have joined a faction. It is unscientific. And we cannot be sure we are supporting the right side::
     Prime 'nodded'.
     ::I understand. So we should be wary of him::
     ::Perhaps keep him under surveillance, at least::
     ::Will you assist us?::
     ::... very well, sir. As long as I do not need to compromise myself in so doing::
     ::Then you must tell me if you think such compromise might occur::
     Skyfire relaxed with a small 'smile'. ::I can do that willingly, sir::
     ::Good:: Prime turned to stand down the warriors, then paused as Skyfire touched his hand.
     ::Sir, he said he has passengers. Ones you would be interested in::
     Prime eyed the starcraft for a moment. ::Indeed. Then we had best remain in a state of readiness...::

Starflare arrived three hours later, dropping down through the atmosphere with breathless ease. He was noticeably bigger than Skyfire, and black where the starcraft was silver and white, but otherwise they were seemingly identical. He landed with a ground shaking thud and held still, sensors scanning the smaller transformers around him.
     ::Not a very amiable welcome, Optimus Prime::
     ::When we know you are not a threat we will welcome you properly::
     ::Ah:: the black starcraft's field flared out towards Skyfire. ::My reputation precedes me::
     ::Skyfire says you have passengers. Please disclose their identities::
     ::I can do more than that...::
     As his hatch swung open and down, Prime, Sideswipe and Mirage readied their weapons...
     ...and an instant later Sideswipe flung himself forwards with an inarticulate, static-filled cry as a battered form limped from the craft.
     His plating the colour of old gold, the injured front-liner grabbed his twin close, frame shaking.
     ::Yes:: He pulled back just a little to glance down at dull silver plating then back up to gaze into his brother's optics. ::You're in mourning? Did you really think I'd leave without you?::
     ::Of course not. I'd have known. But... it's been so long... You want my old colour back?::
     ::If it's not too much trouble. You look like a 'Con in that::
     ::And we can't have that:: Sideswipe held still for a moment, focussing inwards, and second later his silver grey plating began to turn red, the colour of human blood. Sunstreaker 'nodded'.
     ::That's better. Now, is Ratchet here?::
     ::Yes:: Sideswipe took half of his brother's weight and turned towards the medic's lab - then paused, glancing up at the Prime. Sunstreaker followed his gaze and bowed his head.
     "My Prime. Forgive my rudeness."
     "There is nothing to forgive. We welcome you, Sunstreaker. Go with your brother: Ratchet will assist you. We will talk later."
     "Thank you, sir."

As the twins made their way haltingly to Ratchet, another form appeared from the hatch - sleek and blue and silent. Prime frowned, then held out a hand in welcome.
     "Bluestreak. It is good to see you again."
     The newcomer bowed his head in salute, then gazed up at his Prime.
     "Sir." It was whispered, and Prime laid a hand gently on a faintly trembling shoulder.
     ::You are hurt?::
     ::I... not really, sir...::
     Alarmed, Optimus beckoned to Mirage. "Take him to Ratchet."
     Mirage slid an arm across the sniper's shoulders and led him after the twins as Prime turned back to Starflare - only to see another form stride through the hatch. Optimus stared, stunned.
     There was a dangerous edge to the tactician's field, sharp and perilous as splintered glass as he saluted his commander.
     "Oh, you are most welcome, Prowl."
     "I'm sorry it took so long."
     Prime laid both hands on the doorwinger's shoulders, concerned at the raw emotion flooding his field. Such anger...
     ::But you are here now::
     ::But at what cost...:: His head swivelled as the sound of young voices reached him from the hanger as the family exited - then, faster than a human eye could follow, he had pulled away from Prime, engaged his weapon and aimed at a startled Starstream. The jet just had time to gather his hatchlings behind him as Prowl fired, the shot smashing through his wing rather than his spark chamber as Optimus shoved the weapon then gripped both of Prowl's arms to prevent him firing again, comming Ratchet as he did so.
     "STARSCREAM!" Prowl turned on his commander, snarling. "Why did you stop me?"
     Optimus increased his grip as his once-second in command struggled to escape, ignoring the terrified whimpers coming from the hatchlings and the bitten back moans of pain from the jet. He shook Prowl, trying to get his attention.
     "It's not Starscream."
     "It is! I know that spark. I'd know that spark anywhere. Let me go!"
     Ratchet had raced outside and was crouched down by Starstream, checking the damage and trying to reassure the panicking hatchlings at the same time. He glanced at Prime.
     ::I'll get him inside. Try to calm Prowl down: I'll need to run a complete system diagnostic on him - on all of them - but for now I want him well away from Starstream and the sparklings::
     ::Of course:: Optimus dragged a struggling, snarling Prowl away from Ratchet's Lair, heading for the main transformer complex. As Ratchet half carried the jet inside the tactician yanked himself away from his commander and stood, tensed and quivering, glaring at Prime.
     ::Why is he here?::
     Prime sighed. ::There is much you have missed. For now, just know that Starscream died in battle. Starstream is a neutral under our protection. And a creator. His scientific expertise is proving valuable::
     ::You betray us all::
     ::No, old friend. The war is over, and we are trying to find the best way to survive::
     Prowl covered his optics with his servos and slumped, not objecting when Optimus once again rested a strong servo on his shoulder.
     ::We have much to talk about::
     Prowl 'nodded' without looking up.
     ::I am tired::
     ::Then we will wait until you are rested. Come with me::

"Why?" Starstream was bewildered and distressed, trying not to flinch as Ratchet gently started repairing his wing. "Why did he shoot me? I don't know him."
     "He mistook you for someone else."
     "He called me Starscream. But I'm not." Field suddenly wrenchingly uncertain, he gazed up at the medic. "Am I?"
     Ratchet 'soothed' him as best he could.
     "No. You are Starstream."
     "He could hurt the hatchlings..."
     Ratchet glanced over his shoulder to where Jolt was trying to calm the little ones while Wheeljack subjected Sunstreaker (Sideswipe hovering at his side) and Bluestreak to thorough and detailed diagnostic scans, then 'smiled' down at the jet.
     "He won't. Trust me. We won't let anything happen to them."
     "You promise?"
     Ratchet laid a servo against the jet's pale, too-cool face. "I promise."

"So how is he doing?" Walker stared down at the pile of scrap that had been Soundwave. It looked a little different from last week, he had to admit. Which presumably meant the 'Con was healing.
     "Slowly. It will take longer than anticipated."
     Walker grunted. That meant it was going to be more expensive. At least fuel was cheap over here. "I'm going into town. You need anything?"
     Walker left without responding, growling to himself. Stuck out here at the arse end of the universe, doing odd jobs to scrape up enough to get by on while Barricade and Soundwave recovered. It was going to be months before he could put any plans into motion.
     This had better be worth it!

© JAT 15.07.12

Shame upon me, I forgot to credit Lutra with the character of Jacinta in the last chapter, so I'll [GLOMP] now. She was also incredibly helpful the last couple of days when I was researching names/races/locations for the various Consuls and Consulates. Many thanks!

For those unfamiliar with G1, Bluestreak was so named because he never stopped talking. In at least one continuity that's because he was the only survivor of the destruction of Praxus (his, Prowl and 'Beat's home city). Megatron made sure he survived to bear witness, and Bluestreak talks incessantly to drown out the memories. I think it's fanon, but there's a theory that Prowl found the distraught youngster in the ruins and took him under his wing.

For anyone interested, this is Valiant. (Stolen from somewhere online but can't remember where...)

Part 9 - Repercussions

Prime gazed down at Prowl, noting the signs of fatigue in his frame, the tremors of anguish in his field.
     ::What has happened to you?::
     The doorwinger hunched forward, servos pressed tight over his face, for the moment too overwrought to communicate. Prime laid a hand on his shoulder, field as calm and soothing as he could make it, and little by little Prowl relaxed - physically at any rate. After a few minutes he looked up, golden optics dull and desolate.
     ::We were hunting for the AllSpark...::

They were spread so thin...
     Prowl stared out of the forward viewer as Ark 19 continued on its journey. So far they had encountered no sign of the precious AllSpark, the source of their life. No signal, no residual trace, nothing. They may not even be heading in the right direction...
     But something had been heading for them.

::It was a 'Con ship, but not a build I recognised. Huge, powerful - we did not stand a chance. The Ark was disabled before we could bring weapons to bear...:: His optics dimmed, field suddenly, frighteningly tight and cold. ::They boarded. Disabled our entire crew. Terminated Red Alert, Windcharger, Pipes... Took the rest of us captive...:: His frame shuddered violently. ::Took us back to Cybertron. Back to Shockwave...::
     Ratchet interrupted, privately. ::Prime - don't push too hard. I've finished scanning Bluestreak, and what Shockwave did to them all... I need Prowl here and in stasis shortly. I'll send Starstream back up to the nest with the sparklings and Jolt, then please escort Prowl to the lab. You'll have my report once I know how severe the damage is::
     ::Understood:: Prime rested a hand gently on the 'winger's shoulder. ::Easy, old friend. In a little while I'll take you to Ratchet::
     Prowl's optics brightened, his whole frame flinching backwards, and for a moment Prime expected him to object. Instead, he slumped forwards, doorwings sinking as his servos came back up to cover his face.
     ::Maybe he can make the nightmares go away...::

Things were quiet in Ratchet's Lair. Sunstreaker was offline, Sideswipe at his side, the two connected by data exchange cables, bringing each other up to date on their experiences since they had been separated millennia ago. Bluestreak lay completely limp, silent and dark on a medical berth, Wheeljack plugged in and scrutinising his systems minutely. Ratchet pointed to a third berth.
     "Hop up."
     Prowl stared at him for a moment, and the medic vented a sigh. "Onto the berth, Prowl."
     The expected "Why did you not simply say so?" was not forthcoming. The 'winger hauled himself wearily onto the berth, field resigned. Ratchet inclined his head.
     "I'll make this as easy as I can, but I must warn you I need to be thorough."
     "I know. I am prepared." Prowl's voice was expressionless, but both Prime and the medic could see the tremors flickering through his frame, and his field was now flaring wildly. Prime patted his shoulder.
     "You know that Ratchet would never deliberately harm any of his patients. You could not be in better care."
     "I know. That does not mean I have to like it."
     Ratchet carefully detached Prowl's shoulder-mounted missile launchers and laid them aside, then pushed him gently down onto the berth. Opening panelling at throat and thorax on both himself and the 'winger he plugged himself in: Prime nodded and left them to it.

He'd made his way to the nest, to sit with Starstream and the hatchlings while he waited for Ratchet: there was always more work to be done but he'd started setting aside an hour or so every couple of days to spend with the family. He found it soothing, and being in the company of new life gave him hope for the future...
     Starstream was, understandably, jumpy as Prime pulled himself onto the roof, flinching even as Optimus kept his movements slow and unthreatening. As he seated himself the hatchlings tumbled over to him, nestling closely to his warm frame, the four Seekers attaching themselves to his shoulders and knees, while Nova climbed up to his chest and settled in the crook of his arm. Their creator eyed them for a moment then moved closer, a servo on the Prime's thigh as if to anchor himself to safety. Optimus 'frowned'.
     "Are you in pain?"
     Starstream twitched his injured wing and 'grimaced'.
     "A little, but it is easing." He shuddered briefly then gazed up at Prime. "Who is he? Why did he do that?"
     "His name is Prowl. During the war he was my second in command and our chief tactician. He thought you were someone else."
     "Starscream. He's the second... being to mention that name in relation to me..." He hesitated for a moment, then said, tentatively, "I have tried to access the records about Starscream, but they are off limits to me. I... would like to know why."
     Prime regarded the Seeker sombrely. Subterfuge did not come naturally to him, although he had learned it during the war, but in this instance he really did want Ratchet's advice before telling the jet anything of his previous incarnation's history. The servo that wasn't supporting a dozing Nova stroked gently over Starstream's crest.
     "I promise that you will, Starstream - but not right now. Suffice it to say that Starscream was a Seeker, Megatron's second in command, probably the fastest flier Cybertron ever produced, and a truly proficient warrior."
     "Then how could anyone mistake me for him?"
     "For the humans' part, the similarity in your names has led to the confusion. And Prowl... Prowl is not in his right mind."
     "He frightens me."
     Prime cupped the jet's face in his servo, saddened by the Seeker's faint but noticeable trembling. "Then we shall have to correct that. When he is repaired. In the meantime, we will make sure you are all safe."
     "Thank you."
     They were both distracted by Starwind giggling, and Starstream glanced up to his hatchling, field and expression changing from pensive to horrified. Prime turned his head to see what the infant was doing, only to chuckle at the sight of a simple but surprisingly accurate picture of Ratchet drawn in paint upside down on his shoulder armour.
     "Oh, I'm so sorry, Prime!" Starstream chittered angrily at his offspring, who - to their astonishment - uttered a noise that sounded suspiciously like what the humans would call 'blowing a raspberry'. Starstream lifted him down to the roof, ::scolding:: him, and the hatchling stood with his wings drooping, head lowered but optics turned upwards as he muttered a not-entirely-convincing 'Sorry, Prime".
     Optimus very gently patted his head.
     "It is all right, little one. No serious damage was done. Although I expect you to help clean it off."
     Starwind nodded, huffing resignedly as a silently laughing Jolt handed him a damp cloth. Prime eyed the warrior narrowly.
     ::You're prepared? You saw what he was doing?::
     ::Um... yes sir...::
     ::I see::
     ::... sorry sir. But it was very cute::
     If he'd been human Optimus would have rolled his eyes in a 'what am I to do with you all?' fashion. As it was he vented quietly and sat back a little as the hatchling hovered around his shoulder, diligently if a little clumsily wiping off the paint - which fortunately hadn't dried.
     ::Please do not allow him to do anything of the kind to anyone important - especially the humans::
     Jolt saluted.
     ::Yes sir. I mean no sir:: He 'grinned', a little cheekily. ::I won't, my Prime::
     Prime's spark pulsed suddenly, joyfully, at the realisation that they finally had the leisure and safety to joke. To tease. To relax, at least amongst themselves and even if only for a little while. Such moments were precious. He 'chuckled'.
     ::Please see that you do not::

It was evening before Ratchet entered the Prime's 'office' - a large, sparsely furnished room off the main conference hall. Prime looked up from the reports he had been reading and gestured to the large block of metal that was doing service as a seat until they could organise the manufacture of correctly-sized equipment. To date it had been a low priority, but now there were more of them... He made a mental note to bring it up at the next meeting.
     The medic looked tired, his field harried. Optimus offered him energon, which he took gratefully.
     ::How is he?::
     Ratchet vented and rubbed his face, a habit picked up from the human medics on the base.
     ::Unstable. They both are::
     ::What happened?::
     ::In more detail, please. I need to know so that we may make necessary allowances - and decide how to proceed::
     Ratchet's optics dimmed.
     ::Physically, they were starved, kept from recharge, subjected to shockstick torture - the usual treatment for Autobot prisoners. That's not so much of a problem. What is of grave concern is the rest. Soundwave and Megadeath were there too. Blue was made to watch while Prowl's systems were invaded. Then Prowl was forced to watch as the same thing happened to Bluestreak::
     Prime winced. He'd heard of the procedure, though thankfully never seen or experienced it. The closest human equivalent was rape, although humans didn't have the capacity to also have their minds violated the way a Cybertronian processor could be. And of course humans had no spark...
     ::How long?::
     ::Neither of them are sure. It was intermittent, ongoing - days, years... It felt like forever. Prowl's suffering was short-lived when the 'Cons decided they couldn't break him. Blue's was much longer and more vicious. He is traumatised::
     That explained his silence - and Prowl's fury. For all that the younger transformer's non-stop chattering irritated him, they had grown close. Their shared home of Praxus - and the grief that followed its destruction - gave them common ground to start with: that Bluestreak deeply admired the tactician and set himself to learning from the older transformer also helped. Prowl would never admit it, but he was at least fond of the sniper.
     Ratchet continued. ::Sunstreaker rescued them. He'd found Starflare - rather, Starflare found him - and between them and Twister they were able to liberate some of Shockwave's captives, although Sunstreaker was damaged in the process. After that they drifted, in stasis when the memories or the pain became unbearable, until Starflare heard your call::
     Prime nodded pensively. The full details could wait until Ratchet had the leisure to record them: right now Optimus had enough to begin making plans.
     ::Are they salvageable?::
     Ratchet hesitated, then 'nodded' slowly. ::It will take some time, but I believe they can both recover. Prowl faster, perhaps. It would be most useful if he has an outlet for his rage. I want him to expel the anger before he clamps down and hides behind that emotionless front again. Blue... he needs somewhere quiet and soothing. Somewhere gentle where no demands will be made of him...:: He stared at Prime, who gazed back, then as one they said ::Poppy::
     Ratchet 'nodded'. ::Ideal. Will she agree?::
     ::I am sure she will, but I will confirm it. What of Prowl?::
     ::When Sunstreaker recovers, he and Sideswipe will want to be back in the thick of the action, as always - and that probably means either America or the Middle East. I suggest Prowl accompany them::
     ::I will consider it. Estimated time for their initial recovery?::
     I'm keeping them all in medical stasis for the next four days. After that - we'll see. I'll let you know::
     ::Thank you, old friend. Get some rest::
     ::Is that an order?::
     ::If it needs to be::
     Ratchet slumped, frame untensing, then hauled himself upright, offering the Prime a 'smile'. ::It doesn't. I will see you later::

Beverley drummed her fingers against the desk and frowned at the screen. They really ought to have seen this coming. After all, the country's new buildings now came with integral solar collectors and, where appropriate, wind turbines, and were, to a large extent, self-powering. Of course the energy suppliers were going to kick up a fuss - their profits were taking a hammering, and it was only going to get worse. Though how they thought the Monopolies and Mergers Commission could do anything she didn't know. The Cybertronians only owned the patents: they didn't make any money from the actual builds. And since the technology was available to anyone who wanted to use it...
     Eh well. She'd bring it to Poppy's attention when the consul got back from town. In the meantime, she would contact Vos House, the Australian Consulate, to start organising the next consul meet.
     Ramp beeped tunefully, and Beverley found herself facing a broad dark smiling face.
     "Good morning, Iacon House. Vos House, Garringarri Sheehan here."
     Beverley blinked, then smiled tentatively. The voice was warm and friendly with a faint nasal twang - not what she'd been expecting.
     "Oh, hello. Beverley Jones, Ms Moss's assistant."
     "Nice to meet you! How may I help?"
     "Ms Moss has asked me to start co-ordinating the next meeting. Is Ms Stott there?"
     "Not at the moment. I'm her PA - well, one of them. I have all the details: what do you have in mind?"
     Beverley hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
     "Very well, Ms Sheehan..."
     The other raised a hand.
     "Garringarri, please. Or Garri if you prefer."
     "Oh. Um, thanks. Beverley." She grinned. "But not Bev, I don't like that."
     Garri laughed. "Beverley it is. Let's try and set a time and date then. How is Ms Moss's diary fixed for next Friday, at 1 p.m?"
     Ramp flashed up Poppy's calendar: Friday afternoon was completely free. Beverley nodded at her counterpart.
     "That would be fine - and makes it a reasonable time for everyone else too."
     Garri grinned. "That's what I was thinking. We could make it a regular date if everyone agrees. Perhaps once a month?"
     "That sounds excellent. Can you contact your usual suspects?"
     Garri looked blank for a moment, then brightened as the idiom made sense, and nodded. "Can do. Is this a good time for you? We can speak again in - what? three days? Is that enough time?"
     "Sounds good to me. Poppy - Ms Moss - is keen for us all to be aware of each others' problems and hopefully offer mutual support. Perhaps we could ask the others to let us know their top concerns and priorities? Then we could set up a schedule for everything to be considered."
     Garri chuckled. "It'll be a long meeting!"
     Beverley grimaced wryly. "I know. Well, we'll have to prioritise the priorities. There are bound to be some that involve us all. And there'll be some that we simply can't do anything about. But we'll get around to everyone bit by bit."
     Garri nodded, then glanced at her watch. "Ah, I'm sorry, I have to go. It's been great meeting you though."
     "Same here. I'll speak to you on Thursday."
     "I'll look forward to it. Take care and have fun!"
     Beverley laughed. "You too."
     As the screen went blank she called up her list of Consulates. Odense, Geneva and Cairo would be awake, but she'd have to leave the American Consulates until later. Geneva it was then.
     "Guten Morgen. Praxus Haus, Freida Schmid hier..."

Zee was gazing avariciously at the screen as Aitch entered. Without taking his eyes off whatever he was lusting after, he waved his second in command to a seat.
     "I want one."
     Zee pointed at the screen, and Aitch moved around the desk to take a look. His eyes widened. Yes, he could see why his boss was impressed. The Cybertronian Consulate aircraft had been approved and the first images - artists impressions really - were online, along with a brief description of how the plane would work. And it was beautiful, sleek, powerful, fast and, if the blurb was to be believed, as near as dammit carbon neutral.
     He'd rather like one himself.
     "Yes sir. I understand. Perhaps they'll make the technology available to us in the future."
     Zee growled something that sounded like 'too late, want it now', then sighed and sat back in his chair.
     "So - any news?"
     Aitch shook his head.
     "I'm sorry, sir. He's gone to ground and we have been completely unable to trace him. His known bank accounts have been cleared out, and our attempts at visual recognition have failed. Unfortunately, Bob Walker is a common name, far too common for us to use it as a point of reference. Even if we had the computing power, we don't have the time to track down every instance everywhere in the world."
     "The only thing we're pretty sure of is that he's no longer in the country."
     "Pretty sure?"
     "We can't be 100% certain, sir. But it really would be too dangerous for him here right now."
     "Very well. Maintain what surveillance we can. We don't want him sneaking back here unobserved."
     "Indeed." Aitch placed a file in front of his leader. "The report you wanted, sir."
     Zee opened it and frowned. "Another of the big ones?"
     "Yes. And it brought three more of the smaller ones with it."
     "Do we know anything about them yet?"
     "No, but our agent is going to investigate."
     "Good. Let me know as soon as we have any information."
     "Yes sir." Aitch stood. "If that's all...?"
     "Yes, yes."
     The second in command bowed his head briefly and left the office as Zee continued to read. Kidnapping any of them wasn't feasible, but The Club needed to know what was happening in far more detail. Time to put a little pressure on young Aaron.

© JAT 26.07.12

Part 10 - Structures

"We will, of course, understand if you say no."
     Poppy nodded pensively. On the screen Ratchet paused, watching her. Between them, he and Prime had decided that the medic would be better making the request: Optimus did not want to risk her feeling unable to say no, which could be the case if he asked her himself.
     "Is he violent? Might he be?"
     Ratchet shook his head.
     "Bluestreak hates violence. He fought only because he had to. Removed from the necessity he has always been peace-loving."
     "And he gets on well with other transformers?"
     "Yes. His approach to aliens has always been cautious but amicable too, so you need have no fear there. But to reassure you, we will have Stronghold seconded to the Consulate while Bluestreak is with you. His alt mode is a wheeled grounder vehicle, so he will feel more at home with Stronghold, Upbeat and Castle on base." And in the remote possibility that he reacts unfavourably to his new surroundings or companions, the three of them can subdue and contain him.
     Poppy nodded decisively. "Then he'll be welcome. Will he need any special treatment or anything?"
     "A lot of patience, a quantity of medical grade energon which I will supply, peace and tranquillity and - when he does start talking again - even more patience."
     "We can do that."
     Ratchet managed a smile. "I know. That's why we're asking it of you."
     "Next week. Would Wednesday be convenient?"

Graham growled at Phil as he climbed out of the Defender on the Iacon House driveway.
     "They might just as well station me here permanently for all the time I spend here."
     Stronghold stayed silent. He was torn between being happy to be back with 'Beat, intrigued and excited to be meeting with and helping tend to a legend, and irritation that Prime's team thought they could order him around as though he was an Autobot.
     The excitement won.
     ::Bluestreak. This is going to be interesting:: Stronghold 'grinned' at 'Beat. ::He's Praxian, like you. You'll be able to reminisce about the place::
     ::If he feels up to it::
     ::When, Upbeat. When he feels up to it::
     'Beat 'nodded as Stronghold, now that the Wing Commander's bags had been lifted from his interior, transformed and saluted his friend. ::And he's a sniper, so you and he will have something in common too. This could be quite successful::
     ::We'll do what we can to make it so...::
     In the meantime Poppy had kissed Graham on the cheek in welcome.
     "Good to see you again, Matthew. How's the hand?"
     He flexed it easily. The scars, while still noticeable, had faded. "All healed. Nearly back to normal." He frowned. "You look... different..."
     She reddened and chuckled self-consciously. "It'll be the hair. Beverley pointed out that now the Consulates are becoming a bit more well-known and more in the public eye I ought to smarten up a little."
     Graham regarded the sleek chin-length bob with subtle highlights and grinned. "Suits you."
     "Thank you." She gestured to the house. "Steamy has the kettle on - time for coffee and a cake I think."

The following day they were up early and on their way to Brize Norton to meet the incoming C-17. Mirage had accompanied Bluestreak on the journey, a diversion on his way back to the team in America: although Sideswipe and Sunstreaker - and Prowl - were eager to get back into the field, Prime had insisted on the two newcomers learning a little more of their adopted home and its inhabitants before letting them loose on an unsuspecting world. That it was also necessary for Prowl to fully understand the transformers' position on earth, so that he could most effectively use his innate skills, went without saying...
     Poppy, Graham and Phil, with Stronghold and 'Beat behind them, waited on the tarmac as Mirage led a silent, trembling 'winger from the massive plane. Bluestreak kept his head lowered, his steps unsteady, and Poppy wondered if this was the best course of action. Wouldn't he be better under Ratchet's care? But the medic knew what he was doing. If he thought Bluestreak would be better off here, who was she to think different?
     'Beat stepped forward as the pair approached them, doorwings flicking outwards in a gesture of greeting. Bluestreak raised his head, pale blue optics regarding them all warily, then flicked his own 'wings in reply. It was half-hearted, but it was at least a response, and 'Beat stepped a little closer, allowing his field to brush very gently over the traumatised sniper. Bluestreak jerked back, then quietened and leaned forward very slightly, his own field flickering uncertainly. 'Beat 'smiled'. Perhaps this wouldn't be as difficult as he'd feared.
     Bluestreak was a little shorter than Stronghold and a little taller than 'Beat, and looked thoroughly alien, thought Poppy. Then again, he didn't have an earth mode yet, and had been told by Ratchet to delay choosing until he'd had the opportunity to peruse a variety of terrestrial vehicles. They drove in single file back to the consulate along quiet country roads, 'Beat leading the way with Bluestreak in the middle, and arrived back at midday, then 'Beat led the still-silent newcomer into the transformer wing, leaving Poppy gazing after them. Stronghold touched her shoulder.
     "Give him time, Poppy. Leave him with us for a few days. We'll look after him until he feels able to... mingle."
     "Will he be all right?"
     "I'm sure he will. We are pretty resilient."
     She chuckled acknowledgement. "Please make sure he knows he's welcome."
     "We will. Thank you, Poppy."

[The chapter dealing with Stronghold, 'Beat and Bluestreak's first interaction - Calming Blue - is over in the Things Poppy Never Knew section, here.]

Meanwhile, on Diego Garcia, Prowl was learning about the events of the last few years and trying to decide whether he approved or not...
     That Shockwave was terminated pleased him, although, he'd growled, he would rather have done it himself. Still, that the 'Con scientist responsible for so much horror, suffering and devastation was no more was excellent news.
     That Megatron was gone was also a cause for satisfaction, especially on hearing he was the cause of Jazz's deactivation... Prowl had put aside that knowledge for later consideration.
     That Starscream was now Starstream, with no memory of his past life, was not so welcome.
     "He should have to pay for his actions, for the deaths he caused." Prowl was angrily pacing back and forth, doorwings high and tight. Prime exchanged a worried glance with Ratchet. This was not the Prowl they knew...
     "As well kill a sparkling because of what his creators did."
     Prowl halted and stared at the medic.
     "What...? That's not the same thing at all!"
     "Logically, it is. There's nothing left of the Starscream you knew. He has his genius from before the war - which he's using to help Wheeljack and Skyfire in their projects - and of course he has Starscream's spark. But everything else is completely new. Completely."
     "There must be something left..."
     "Spark memories of the abuse he suffered at Megatron's servos." Ratchet vented quietly. "I want you to speak to Skyfire, ask him about Starscream and how he became the being he was. Then I want you to think about how beneficial Starstream is, now, how precious a resource. Not only a scientist, but a creator."
     "Those sparklings? They are his progeny."
     "Who was the other creator?"
     "We think, the Fallen. Except for Nova." Ratchet indicated the dozing infant clinging to his frame. "I am his co-creator."
     For a moment they thought the tactician was going to crash - then he shook his head and stared at the medic. "I don't understand."
     "I'll explain later. For now, you have to understand that Starstream is one of us, part of our family. No harm is to come to him or his sparklings."
     "I would never harm a sparkling!"
     "Good. Now take that one step further and don't harm their creator either."
     "That... may take some time..." But they could both 'feel' the 'winger's field settling, his systems realigning as his logic circuits overrode everything else. They watched for long tense minutes as Prowl dimmed his optics, calculations unfolding effortlessly in his processor. Finally he regarded them sombrely.
     "So the legends are true. And there is a future for our species."
     Metaphorically slumping with relief, Prime 'nodded'.
     Prowl 'frowned'. "And our Seekers will not become extinct."
     "No, they will not."
     "And they will become Autobots?"
     "The war is over, Prowl. The old factions no longer matter. They will grow up as Cybertronians - albeit displaced at present - and part of our clade."
     "And Cybertron?"
     "We are not sure. It would be best to believe it destroyed."
     Prowl nodded absently. "I need to learn more about this earth. About this part of the galaxy."
     "You have unlimited access to the world's information through Chatter. It is a most fascinating place."
     "And what will be my role here?"
     "I would very much like you to resume your post as my second in command, if you are willing and feel able."
     The first real 'smile' Prowl had given in an age filled his field. "That would be satisfactory."
     "Good. You have my thanks. But first you need to thoroughly familiarise yourself with what has happened since we have been here."
     "Of course." He vented. "And I suppose I had better... make amends to the Seeker."
     "Apologise, at least. And speak to him. He is a treasured member of our community. His sparklings are a delight."
     "Perhaps later..."

Skyfire flew beside Starflare on their fourth trip to the moon, ferrying construction materials to the site of the slowly growing lunar base. Hardly the most interesting or exacting of tasks, but they could make the return trip in just under 8 hours at an easy pace, to the amazement and gratitude of the humans. A handful of the neutrals who had landed on earth over the last couple of decades had construction skills, and had volunteered to help out, but it was still mostly a human project.
     Starflare 'chuckled' indulgently as they approached the barren surface near the site, lowering both his landing gear and his loading ramp. Overreach, Shovels, Fixer and Pushback stood waiting to offload the supplies.
     ::They're making good progress::
     Landing with his customary grace, Skyfire 'nodded'. ::Two more habitation modules since you arrived:: He widened his hatch as Pushback gingerly manoeuvred panels of rigid strengthened transparent silicate from his cargo-bay. ::I understand there's to be a small consulate module as well, and something Prime called a 'greenhouse' to provide fresh food and the oxygen the organics need::
     ::An ambitious project for such fragile creatures::
     ::It is one of their most notable features. It has not always been beneficial to them, however:: Skyfire regarded his companion as a larger figure approached them. ::You have not yet said whether you will be staying::
     Starflare was silent for a moment, then vented a sigh. ::I will. For a while at least. I have nothing better to do - and it is pleasant to be in familiar company::
     The larger figure raised a hand in greeting as he reached the starcraft.
     "Are we done yet?"
     Shovels hoisted a load onto his back and 'grinned'. "Nearly, Hauler. Glad you're here to help us."
     "It's no Crystal City, but it's coming along nicely." The Autobot eyed Skyfire. "Do you need to rest before heading back?"
     "No, we are both fine."
     "Good. Can you take back a couple of passengers? Couple of the human crew got fatigue. They'd be better off resting on earth."
     "Of course! Do you need them replaced right away? We can transport more personnel on our next visit."
     "No, the normal replacement shift will do."
     "Very well. In that case, we will see you in three days."

Walker leaned against the wall and glowered at the sight in front of him. As far as he could see, there'd been precious little improvement. The heap of metal that had been Soundwave still looked like a pile of scrap. Moving scrap, admittedly, which was a little on the unsettling side. Sometimes he thought he could make out the rough shape of a thin body and what might be limbs: other times he shook his head and decided he'd imagined it.
     Barricade was still keeping watch, and eyed the human balefully. Walker growled back.
     "How much longer is this going to take?"
     "We need a medic."
     "Yeah, well, we don't have a fucking medic, and I can't see that green thing leaving his pals to come fix a 'Con, can you?"
     "No. Ratchet is not the only medic, though."
     "There are more on earth?"
     "There were two. One a Decepticon, the other... a hanger on, who served us to ensure his own safety but never took the brand."
     "Can we reach either of them?"
     "I have tried to contact Hook. There's no reply. He may have been terminated. The other..." As far as he was able, Barricade looked irritated. "I have a trace of the other, but he is not replying. He will need an incentive."
     "And what possible incentive could we offer a mercenary?"
     "He is not a mercenary."
     "I don't care what he is, how can we get him here?"
     "I'll need to think on that..."

"Hm. And you're sure about this?"
     Aitch nodded. "We've been able to recreate one of those energon detectors. There are at least half a dozen signatures unaccounted for in the list of transformers we know about. Most of them are inaccessible, but this one... this one seems to take great pleasure in mingling with humans. Well, human cars, anyway."
     "Right out in the open. How arrogant."
     "Self-confident, anyway."
     "We still have that weapon that knocked out the things on the island?"
     "We do."
     "Is it powerful enough to do the same to this one?"
     "It should be. It will definitely weaken it."
     "So what are we looking for."
     "A customised Aston Martin DBS V12."
     Zee blinked. "Not a shrinking violet then?"
     "Anything but. Morello cherry red with gold detailing. Last seen in Paris. On the Champs Élysée."
     "Excellent! Are we tracking it?"
     "It's gone to ground for the moment, but we have eyes everywhere. When it shows up again, we'll be ready to move."
     "Then I'll leave it in your capable hands. As for that other matter, time to put the frighteners on. Send in that Stevenson woman, would you? We can get to Aaron through Abigail, and we can get to Abigail through her mother..."

© JAT 03.08.12

Part 11 - Scraps and Splinters

Sideswipe was in the best mood he'd been in for at least four millennia and wasn't afraid to let everyone know it. Sunstreaker glowered at him.
     ::It's too early to be so cheerful::
     Sideswipe thumped his shoulder with a loud clang. ::You're back. And while admittedly we could have done with your help in the last battle, I'm sure there's still plenty we can do::
     ::Right now, where's the range? I need to recalibrate::
     Sideswipe rolled from the hanger, his twin following eyeing his wheels.
     ::Those look useful... I suppose I'll need an alt form::
     ::Could use the same as mine. Corvette. Stingray. Fast, sleek and stylish::
     ::It'll do. Where do I find one?::
     ::When we get back to what passes for civilisation on this mudball:: Sideswipe glanced down as a small figure peered around the undercarriage of a nearby C-17. "Hey, scraplet. What you doing?"
     Sunstreaker stared in disbelief as Starwind edged out of the big plane's shadow and warily approached them. ::Is that... a Seekerlet?::
     Sideswipe reached down and hefted the sparkling up to optic level, 'smiling', then gestured to his brother. "This is my spark-twin, Sunstreaker."
     The sparkling stretched out a tiny servo and patted Sunstreaker's chest a little nervously. "H'lo. I Starwind."
     Sunstreaker was still staring. "How the frag do we have a Seekerlet?"
     ::It's a bit of a long story. I'll tell you later. For now, all you need to know is he's shaping up to be a right little prankster::
     Sunstreaker 'chuckled'. ::Is he now?:: He stroked the sparkling's helm. "Hello Starwind. I hear you like playing tricks?"
     Crimson optics sparkled slyly. "I drawded doc-bot on Optimumses arma."
     Sunstreaker stared for a moment, then burst out 'laughing'. Admiringly. "You little horror!"
     Starwind 'pouted'. "But he maded me cleaned it off."
     "Yes, well, we have to accept the consequences of our actions. Sometimes." Sideswipe settled the sparkling on his shoulder and 'grinned' at his twin. "I think Starwind might like to watch us train, if you don't mind."
     Sunstreaker shrugged. "As long as no-one else minds and he doesn't get in the way, I'm fine with it."
     Sideswipe 'commed' Jolt - he was pretty sure Starstream might object if he knew - who said it was OK as long as they were careful and on the understanding that if the sparkling got even as much as a scratch their lives would be worth less than a dead herring. After he'd established what that meant, Sideswipe mentally saluted and assured that they would treat the little Seeker like a princess. And after Jolt had worked out what that meant, and chucklingly advised them not to tell Starwind unless they wanted a repeat of what was currently happening with Starsong, the twins made their way to the range, Starwind chattering happily to them both.

Starsong was sulking. In the last few days he'd turned sulking into an art. Even Ratchet was impressed.
     Starstream was agitated over his eldest's state of mind (otherwise he'd have been more suspicious of Starwind's absence, though to be fair the second eldest Seekerlet was a gregarious and adventurous little thing and often spent his days away from the nest. It had taken his creator a long time to stop worrying: it was only when the Prime assured him that no-one would dream of hurting the infant - not after what happened to Walker - but that nevertheless one of them would keep an eye on him at all times that he began to let go a little).
     Starsong was refusing to talk to anyone right now.
     Starstream was trying to cuddle his hatchling: Starsong refused to unstiffen. Finally the jet, his wings quivering unhappily, turned Starsong to face him.
     ::Please tell me what is wrong, little one. I can't make it better until I know::
     Starsong pouted.
     "You din't tell me I'm called after an 'orse."
     Starstream blinked. ::I don't understand::
     "Is human toy thing. My Tiny Horsie. Is one called Starsong." His engine growled. "Is silly an' pink."
     Utterly confused, Starstream quickly accessed the human 'net...
     ::Oh. My Little Pony:: He nuzzled his resisting infant. ::Sparkling, I didn't know. I don't think anyone knew or we would have said::
     Starsong relaxed minutely. ::You promise?::
     ::I promise::
     "Want new name."
     Starstream hesitated, and the hatchling stiffened again. "Don' wanna be called after a toy!"
     ::I understand. What would you prefer?::
     Starsong slumped and nestled closer to his creator. ::Don' know...::
     Jolt, who had been 'comming' the whole incident to his fellows on the island, was just about managing to restrain his amusement. Keeping his field grave, he knelt beside the jet and eyed the hatchling.
     "A name is an important thing. You should take your time in choosing. We could call you... NotStarsong in the meantime."
     Starstream glowered at the warrior. ::That's not very helpful::
     ::Maybe not, but if it keeps him happy...::
     And indeed, it seemed to be working. The hatchling had noticeably cheered up and was nodding.
     "NotStarsong. Is good for now."
     "Then I'll make sure everyone knows."

::Physically, everything is in near-perfect running order - better than any time since the beginning of the war:: Ratchet unjacked from Prowl's ventral port and reeled in his diagnostic cable. ::All the damage is repaired and your systems are optimal::
     ::Thank you::
     Ratchet 'shrugged'. ::Can't have you at less than 98% operational if you're to resume your old post:: He tapped the tactician's helm gently. ::How are things in here?::
     Prowl considered the question for a moment. ::Functional::
     ::That's not really good enough:: Ratchet vented quietly. ::What do you need to purge the residual stresses?::
     ::Time. Self-recalibration. And...:: He hesitated uncharacteristically. ::I believe I need to speak to Starsc... Starstream. If he will endure my presence::
     ::You spoke with Skyfire?::
     ::As you instructed. There was much I did not know. It does not excuse the Seeker's actions during the war - but it does mitigate them somewhat::
     The medic nodded. ::He was not entirely sane, nor operating within correct parameters. I believe forgiveness is in order::
     ::Much as I would like to say otherwise, I agree::
     Ratchet nodded, satisfied. ::I'll set up the meeting::

At Ratchet's request Prime had been present when the medic spoke to Starstream. As soon as Ratchet mooted what he had planned the jet had started to tremble, and Prime had reassuringly laid both servos on his shoulders.
     ::Shall I stay with you?::
     Starstream thought about it for a moment, then reluctantly shook his head.
     ::I need to deal with this by myself, my Prime:: He glanced nervously at Ratchet. ::You are sure he won't attack?::
     ::I'm sure::
     ::And you'll look after the hatchlings? I don't want them here for this::
     ::Of course::
     ::... very well...::
     ::Do you want time to prepare?::
     ::I think... I would rather... 'get it over with', as the humans would say. I don't like feeling afraid all the time. It's disrupting my work::
     Prime squeezed the jet's shoulders gently. ::We will not be far away. Comm us if it becomes too much to cope with::

Prowl stared at Starstream across the tarmac - and across millennia of wasted time.
     ::What do you remember?::
     Starstream was flinching, wings low and shoulders hunched submissively. ::Not... not very much... I remember pain. I... I think I was... lost?:: The Seeker shivered. ::Lonely. So lonely. But mostly the pain::
     There was such a hopeless vulnerability about the Seeker. It was hard to hold onto the hate, given what Prowl had learned in the last few days.
     This was not Starscream. Not even a pale echo of him.
     Prowl 'sighed' and slowly relaxed. Their war was over. The spark may be the same, but this being was new, and full of potential. He slowly stretched out a servo, open and welcoming, and after several fraught seconds Starstream clasped it, lightly, digits shaking, fearful but willing to trust.
     It was an excellent augury for the future.

Poppy rubbed her eyes and yawned, gazing blearily at the mug of coffee Phil was offering. He smirked.
     "Late night?"
     She nodded and took a slurp of coffee. "Talking to Jacinta and Saroj, trying to decide if there's any way we can do anything to ease Australia's asylum seekers problem."
     "Any joy?"
     "We couldn't come up with anything. It's not really something our transformers can help with - it needs some sort of joint political aid and agreement, and getting the relevant authorities motivated is a major issue. We'll address it again when we've had a chance to reflect, but it may well be we simply don't have the clout to help."
     He rubbed her shoulder consolingly. "I know you want to save the world, love, but it will take time."
     "I know. I don't have to like it though!"
     He chuckled and seated himself. "And in the meantime Muncher wants to speak to you."
     She finished her coffee and inclined her head, now a little more awake as the caffeine kicked in. "What about?"
     "You'll have to ask him, he wouldn't tell me."
     Poppy frowned. "That's worrying. I'd better find out what the problem is. He's in the greenhouses?"
     "Where else?" Phil grinned. "While you're out there, take a look at the new bananas he's trying. He thinks he may have made them cold-resistant enough to grow over here."
     "Oh, that would be nice!" Poppy chuckled as she rose and headed for the affectionately named 'veg bed' - currently consisting of over half an acre of raised beds and three large greenhouses. Since they'd constructed the little lab next to the largest of the greenhouses Muncher, helped by Livewire who had decided he needed a useful hobby, had been tinkering with hybridisation. Only on a small scale, of course, but so far he'd produced a new tomato with twice the nutritional value of the best earth had to offer, a variety of rice that retained its vitamins when polished, and a way of processing cattle feed that lessened the amount of methane the animals produced. There were several agri-businesses already very interested in his work, but he was so far refusing to deal with any but those with ethical credentials.
     As Poppy entered the greenhouse she saw the convalescing transformer - the pretty blue one from Diego Garcia - watching Muncher at work. The lawnmower was keeping up a quiet almost one-way conversation with Bluestreak, who was murmuring monosyllabic replies. Poppy sighed. She only knew the bare minimum about the newcomer, but that was enough to be heart-breaking. He was still very twitchy around humans, but at least he was interacting with the other Cybertronians at the Consulate. That was very encouraging: for the first three weeks he'd stuck to 'Beat and Stronghold like the proverbial glue...
     She kept her movements audible, not wanting to startle him, and called out to Muncher from a couple of aisles away. The lawnmower turned and waved cheerfully.
     "'Ullo Poppy!"
     Bluestreak flinched, but didn't retreat, and hazarded a tremulous smile, something his faceplates managed more easily than Muncher's. Poppy smiled at him.
     "How are you doing?"
     "I am... fine."
     Well, obviously he wasn't, but he had at least responded. Poppy nodded.
     "I'm glad. If you need anything, please just ask." Not wanting to overwhelm him, she smiled again and turned to Muncher. "Phil said you wanted to talk to me?"
     "Yurs." He hesitated, then gestured to one of the stools he kept in the greenhouse for just such human visits. Poppy seated herself and waited patiently, if a little worried. Muncher 'ummed' for a few moments then sighed.
     "I bin asked t'help out wi' the lunar base. They'm buildin' a green'ouse t'help 'em produce oxygen an' fresh food."
     Poppy grinned. "And of course you're the best to advise them! That's fantastic, Muncher!" She sobered. "How long would it be for?"
     "They says mebbe three month, t'start with. But they wants me to 'be available in case o' problems'. I said I 'ad to ask you 'fore I could say yay or nay."
     Poppy nodded pensively. The human gardeners - there were ten now, they'd needed more as the garden grew in area - were perfectly capable of maintaining the place in his absence. And Livewire could deputise if anything major needed to be decided - they'd set up a private comm line between them and Ramp which, Poppy had been assured, was operational from one side of the solar system to the other, if required, although they didn't expect to be gardening on Pluto in the foreseeable future... And of course, with Skyfire and Starflare running flights between earth and the moon it was faster to get to the lunar base than to travel from the Consulate to John O' Groats.
     "You must go. It's a fantastic opportunity, and you'll be able to learn so much that could be vital in the future." She grinned. "And the kudos won't do any of us any harm, either!"
     Muncher rumbled a laugh. "I'll tell 'em yay, then. They'll put in official request for me secondment in the nex' couple weeks." He gazed around the greenhouse. "I'll get everythin' organised 'fore I go."
     Poppy patted his shoulder. "Thank you, Muncher." She smiled at Bluestreak, who had been listening attentively. "Maybe we'll see you both later? Steamy is planning a barbecue for this evening, I gather, up at the copse. It would be lovely if we could all be together - Vault and Sinewave have already said they'll come. Perhaps you could take your evening energon with us?"
     Muncher nodded, deliberating. "Not promisin', but us'll try."

At the Port of Brest in Brittany a Morello-cherry-red customised Aston Martin was being loaded into a container for shipment to America...
     The nanosecond databurst had been transmitted during a time span when the chatter in European cyberspace had been intense; obviously the sender had intended it to get lost in the noise. If it hadn't been a distinctly Decepticon signal he'd have ignored it - but he was aware that certain humans were taking an extremely worrying interest in him. The 'burst contained two co-ordinates, two names, and a time - and nothing else. The first set of co-ordinates pinpointed a house on the outskirts of Paris, while the second were somewhere in the midwest of North America. The names were those of a human male, and a shipping company.
     With nothing to lose, he'd found the house and waited. At the prescribed time a large trailer had arrived, and he'd been carefully but swiftly loaded inside and driven to the port. The thought of being stuck in a container for over a week was alarming - but when the alternative was capture and evisceration by humans, he'd cope with the discomfort and the claustrophobia and try not to think of everything that could go wrong...
     As the ship left the harbour and headed for the open sea, Knock Out remotely checked the safety restraining straps and settled himself into stasis, internal chronometer set to rouse him in seven days.

© JAT 10.08.12

I was horrified when I found out StarSong was the name of a MLP (next time I check against google as well as the tf wiki!). Lutra thought this was a daft reaction and suggested I watch an ep on Yt. Which I did. Baby Cakes, to be exact. And yes, I can see why it would appeal even as I could feel the saccharine melting my teeth. It's not for me. If I want cuteness I'll watch Tf: Rescue Bots - Blades' adorable cuteness goes up to 11...). So, NotStarsong needs a new name. Any suggestions? (Preference given to ones that don't start 'Star' - or even with an S. There are an alarming number of tfs with names starting with S and poor 'Thpin is getting evertho thlightly thick of it...)

This Knock Out is the one from Tf: Prime, of course.

For any Tf fans reading... I have to confess I simply cannot tell G1 Prowl and Bluestreak apart, and whenever I try to envisage Bluestreak the mental image I get is of Blurr from Tf Animated. So for the sake of my own sanity I'm reinventing Blue in a form I can manage!

Part 12 - Scraps and Splinters pt 2

"... Upbeat?..."
     The MGC looked up from his monitor and 'smiled'. Bluestreak was beginning to talk again, to speak without being spoken to.
     "Could... could you show me some images? Of Praxus, before the war?"
     "Of course!" 'Beat shifted over on the long, padded rectangular block of metal he was using as a seat and gestured to the sniper to join him, delighted when Blue tentatively settled beside him, their thigh components just touching. Clearing the large screen, the historian jacked himself in and called up a folder of old memories...
     Bluestreak watched, field flickering between longing, regret and a kind of gentle happiness that 'Beat ::shared:: with Stronghold, currently mid-way between the Brize Norton base and the Consulate. The Defender 'grinned'.
     ::A very good sign indeed. Try to get him talking about his own memories of home, perhaps?::
     ::It might be a little early, but I'll try...::
     The MGC paused at a particularly striking image of the Helix Gardens at sunrise, when the increasing warmth made the crystals sing. Resting a servo on Blue's shoulder, he inclined his helm. "Did you ever see them like this?"
     Bluestreak nodded slowly. "Once. I was very young. My carers took me. We sat and listened to the music." He smiled, lost in the memory. "It was beautiful. I never wanted it to end..."
     'Beat 'nodded' sadly. The gardens had been destroyed, of course, when Praxus fell to the 'Cons. The crystals had taken millions of years to grow: their like would never be seen again. Bluestreak glanced at him.
     "Can I show you something?"
     "Of course."
     Blue reached under his plating just below his spark, wincing as his digits tugged and twisted. After a few moments he carefully pulled his servo out, cupping something close to his torso. Something that glowed.
     He slowly opened his digits, allowing 'Beat to peer at what he held. The MGC's optics widened.
     "Is that...?"
     A tiny sliver of iridescent blue crystal that hummed faintly, high and sweet, under the lights of the rec room. 'Beat vented very softly.
     "You saved it."
     Blue 'nodded'. "I went to the ruins, after the fall. I couldn't... I needed..." He fell silent for a moment, then shivered. "I have kept it with me ever since. Sometimes I think it has grown, just a little. But I know I'm just imagining it." He gazed at 'Beat, optics dimmed. "It's all I could save, but I feel that even if this tiny bit of home exists, Praxus will never die."
     'Beat hugged him tightly. Bluestreak nestled into the embrace, untensing for the first time since his arrival, the MGC murmuring to him, "While we live, Praxus will live..."

Poppy smiled at the screen as the hatchling's image appeared.
     "Starsong! It's..."
     The hatchling interrupted her loudly and grumpily.
     "NOT Starsong."
     Poppy blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
     "NotStarsong. Not a Little Pony."
     Poppy glanced helplessly at Cable - who giggled.
     "He found out Starsong is the name of one of those plastic pony things little earth sparklings like playing with. He wasn't happy. He's been calling himself NotStarsong since, until he finds a name he likes."
     "And you didn't think to tell me?"
     Cable lowered his gaze. "Sorry..."
     Poppy sighed and raised her hands at the screen.
     "I'm sorry, NotStarsong. No-one told me."
     He sniffed disdainfully, then tilted his head, faceplates moving into his version of a smile. "Is all right."
     "So... what do you want to be called?"
     "Don't know. I liked Starstreak, but Jolt says it's name of a missile from your country." He vented a sigh. "Don't think I want the name of a weapon."
     Poppy nodded. "Well, NotStarsong will do for now, I suppose." She grinned. "We could call you NSS for short. Or Ness."
     The hatchling considered the designation for a moment or two, then nodded. "Ness. Is better."
     "OK then, I'll call you Ness for now. What have you been up to?"
     He brightened, wings twitching excitedly. "Creator took me flying. High flying..."
     As he launched into the story of his first flight around the local group of islands, Poppy laughed and settled back to listen.

"May I speak with you, doctor?"
     Ratchet looked up from his terminal and nodded to Starstream. The jet entered the lab and seated himself on a diagnostic berth, waiting while the medic filed his research. Ratchet 'smiled' as he turned his attention to the Seeker.
     "What can I do for you?"
     The jet eyed him sombrely.
     "I believe I need to upgrade."
     Ratchet sat back and regarded the Seeker appraisingly.
     "What makes you think that?"
     He gestured to himself. "Observations while I was flying with NotStarsong. While this frame is fast, it could be faster. And stronger. My manoeuvrability leaves much to be desired. And I very much doubt it will hold up to the rigours of spaceflight."
     Alarmed, Ratchet raised a hand. "And what makes you think you'd want to leave the planet?"
     "I am a Seeker. The skies are my natural habitat. The skies of any world. At present I am restricted to this world, when there are many in this system. It is a waste of my abilities." He inclined his head. "I assume I am not a captive here?"
     "No, of course not. But we want to protect you. You are a vital resource and a precious member of our small family."
     "Precisely why I need the upgrade - for my own protection." He vented a sigh. "I am not asking for much, doctor. I do not need heavy weaponry, nor the capability for deep space exploration. I simply want to be restored to my primary and original functionality."
     "The capacity for interplanetary flight."
     Ratchet was silent, considering the notion. Physically, it was perfectly possible. Starflare and Skyfire had been bringing back parts of the Ark on their return trips from the moon, and Diego Garcia now had a large stockpile of basic Cybertronian metals, assorted circuitry, rare elements, cabling... everything they would need for the next few years. Upgrading Starstream would be no problem. And they were fairly sure that Starscream's personality was gone forever. And the jet wasn't asking for weapons... although he had already created some for himself, so that unexpected ability had to be factored in... Prowl's attack had shown that at the very least his armour needed to be upgraded...
     Ultimately it wouldn't be his decision, but Ratchet knew Optimus would want a detailed analysis of the consequences. And he himself was biased. He'd much rather have Nova's co-creator here, where he could keep an optic on the jet, make sure he was safe...
     But that was not fair. As Starstream had said, he was a creature of the skies - of the heavens, as the humans would put it. Ratchet 'sighed' silently and nodded.
     "I will put it to Prime. It will be his decision."
     Starstream tilted his helm. "And will you try to dissuade him?"
     Ratchet blinked, then rested a servo on the jet's shoulder.
     "No, my friend. I would not be so selfish."
     Starstream eyed him sombrely, then gently touched his face.
     "Thank you, Ratchet."

Starstream left the lab and headed to the range, where he expected to find Starwind with the front-liner twins: over the last few week the little Seeker had been following them everywhere, and to everyone's surprise they didn't seem to mind. In fact, Sunstreaker seemed to have taken rather a shine to the sparkling. No-one had told Starstream yet but the golden twin had started teaching the little jet marksmanship, albeit with a human rifle... Sideswipe wasn't at all sure his carrier would approve...
     Ratchet decided they could sort it out themselves and he'd deal with any fallout if it happened. Which he did not expect. The twins were mellower than he'd ever known them, and while they hadn't yet 'made friends' with Starstream, they also had shown no rejection, even knowing who he had been. They greeted him in passing, and Starstream replied - a little nervously - in return, and the medic expected everything to settle down nicely in time. He headed for Prime's office to advise him of the latest developments with their resident adult Seeker.
     Prowl was there, seated at a bewildering array of screens and touchpads, jacked into Chatter and immersed in... something. Ratchet decided not to ask. The tactician's field was relaxed and focused and he was obviously content with what he was doing, settling back into his role as second in command with admirable ease. Prime looked up from his desk - finally, a proper desk, built to his size, Ratchet noted - and 'smiled' in welcome.
     "All is well, I trust?"
     "Apart from Starstream wanting his space wings back, yes."
     Prime paused and eyed the medic.
     "What do you advise?"
     Ratchet had downloaded his own thoughts on the matter onto a datachip, which he handed to the Prime. Optimus clipped it into a dataport on his wrist and scanned the information it contained, then leaned back and regarded the medic.
     "No obvious contraindications? Would he be able to cope with the stresses?"
     "He's completely stable. It's almost frightening."
     Prime 'chuckled'. "It would be useful to have another space-capable flier. And as a Seeker, he would be reconnecting with his essential nature."
     "He would. And earth has no extraterrestrial enemies. At the moment, at least. He would face no more than the usual dangers - space debris, radiation, micro-meteors - and we can upgrade him to cope with them."
     "We have the materials?"
     "We have everything we need. Wheeljack and I can have everything ready within a week."
     Prime 'nodded', then laid both servos on his desk and regarded Ratchet gravely.
     "And what would you advise?"
     "That we allow it, but in stages. Strengthen his plating first, adjust his frame to allow for faster flight. His wings will need modifying - it would be useful if Skyfire could assist."
     "He is capable of so doing?"
     "Yes - but it's as a check for me, really. I really don't want to make mistakes. Later we'll remodify his plating to allow for solar refuelling in flight."
     Prime 'frowned' pensively for a moment. "Very well. You have my authorisation, but I strongly suggest you explain to the hatchlings what's going to happen. No doubt they will want the same when they are mature enough."
     "Oh joy." Ratchet rubbed his forehelm. "Of course they will. Ah well. We'll deal with that when it happens." He rose. "I'll give Star the good news."

Walker watched as the... vehicle lurched up the lane. It had probably once been a decent car: now it was filthy, grimy, a sort of dull brown, windows smeared and several lights cracked. One tyre was on the verge of flat. And the noise it made! It sounded like it was dying...
     "Ah. Good." Walker growled as Barricade loomed behind him. The 'Con had a very irritating habit of sneaking up on him. How he managed it Walker couldn't work out.
     The disaster on wheels squealed to a stop a few feet away. And transformed, slowly, painfully, swaying as it rose to its feet.
     "Heh. Not looking so good now, are we, Knock Out."
     The once-pristine Aston Martin glowered at the 'Con.
     "You want my help, you'll mind your manners." He coughed. To Walker it sounded like the last stages of human lung cancer. "I need energon."
     "Tough. We don't have any."
     "Lucky that I do, then." Walker couldn't see where they came from, but a second later there were two large jars of glowing blue liquid in the transformer's servos.
     "Where'd you get that?" Barricade's optics brightened as he snatched the offered jar from Knock Out and downed it in one.
     "Misappropriated it from a delivery truck parked overnight at a motel." Knock Out sipped gingerly at his own. It seemed to Walker he wanted to drink it quickly but was holding back. "I don't have a lot, and I'll need most of it to repair Soundwave." He sneered at Barricade. "Drink too much and you'll show up on an energon detector. In order to stay off the radar I've had to use that filthy stuff the fleshlings put in their vehicles." He grimaced. "Besides the debilitating physical effects it tastes disgusting. No wonder their cars are so inefficient."
     Walker stared up at the newcomer, impressed despite himself. This one was obviously cultured, despite its terrible state of repair. It caught sight of him staring and frowned.
     The human grinned. "I don't know you."
     "And I don't want to know you." Knock Out's gaze returned to Barricade. "Why is the fleshling here?"
     ::Much as I hate to admit it, it saved our frames after the Sentinel Prime fiasco::
     Knock Out peered more closely at the human. ::I wouldn't have thought that possible. What are you going to do, keep it as a pet?::
     ::Hardly. When it's served its purpose I'll dispose of it. But at the moment we need it::
     ::I'm not of a mind to trust a fleshling. Not after the last month::
     Barricade 'grinned'. ::Giving you grief, are they?::
     Knock Out growled, the sound a ghost of the finely-tuned engine he once possessed, and started coughing again as his intakes clogged. ::How they found out about me I can't imagine. I was being so careful...::
     Barricade chuckled to himself. It would probably not be a good idea to let the vain creature know he'd used his old access to the police services in Europe to leak Knock Out's details to both the local authorities and, via Walker, The Club. He needed the medic for Soundwave's repairs first.
     Knock Out was draining the very last minute drops of energon from the jar, reluctantly disintegrating it with a tiny burst of energy. He gazed miserably at Barricade and sighed. ::Very well. Let's take a look at the spymaster::
     ::I hope you have all your tools. It's not a pretty sight...::

© JAT 18.08.12

There were some very interesting name suggestions for NotStarsong from the commenters over on FFNet. Some of them, unfortunately, turned out to be corporate names, so I can't use them, but there were several excellent ideas. We'll see which NSS goes for in a future chapter.

NSS - Ness - was the suggestion of Vivienne Grainger. [g] There's more to that story yet to come...

Part 13 - Scraps and Splinters pt 3

Knock Out planted his servos on his hipstruts as he stared at the pile of scrap metal that was Soundwave.
     "And just what do you expect me to do with that?"
     "Fix him."
     Knock Out stared at Barricade, then chuckled. "'Fix him'. Just like that." He vented an irritated sigh. "Barricade, when you commed me offering sanctuary in return for medical assistance, you did not see fit to explain what you wanted."
     "You accepted the deal."
     "Because I had no choice. It was either accept it or risk capture by the fleshlings."
     "So you ran. Coward."
     "Realist, please. You know what the flesh creatures are capable of when they band together." He gazed down at the weakly-moving Soundwave. "How the mighty have fallen."
     "Our chances of survival increase if you can fix him. Or do you like being forced to remain as a human car?"
     Knock Out glanced at him disdainfully but didn't deign to reply. He reached for his medical scanner - battered, scratched, but still fully functional - and aimed it at Soundwave.
     Barricade hovered until Knock Out scowled back over his shoulder. "This is going to take some time and I don't need you getting in my way. Go and make yourself useful somewhere else."
     Growling but not inclined to irritate the only medic they had access to, Barricade retreated.

     The consul looked up from the screen and smiled at Bluestreak standing uncertainly at the door of her office.
     "Hello sweetheart. Come in."
     He tilted his head. "Sweetheart... we don't have hearts, we have sparks. I suppose we'd say sweetspark. If we were going to use the term, I mean..."
     Poppy chuckled to herself. 'Beat had told her a little of Blue's history, and that he used to chatter non-stop about anything that caught his attention. That he was now beginning to talk again was a source of great satisfaction, even if it wasn't continuous yet.
     "I think it's a lovely idea! Would you like me to use it?"
     He paused, considering the notion. "Um... only if you'd like to."
     She grinned and beckoned him on. "I'd like that - sweetspark. What can I do for you?"
     Bluestreak hesitantly seated himself on the large, solid chair Poppy had had provided for such occasions as these and leaned forwards. "I think... Upbeat thinks it's time for me to choose an earth vehicle mode. He and Stronghold want to... they think it would be a good idea for me to... 'get out more'. Or at all, actually."
     Poppy nodded. "It's a very good idea."
     Blue vented a relieved sigh and settled a little more comfortably. "Oh good. Anyway, Ramp let me look at some cars, and I found one I like, but he said I should ask you for your opinion."
     "So what have you found?"
     "It's called a TVR Sagaris."
     Ramp helpfully called up the details - and Poppy's eyebrows rose.
     "Well, it's a beautiful car, but perhaps a little... flashy?"
     "You think so?"
     "Very... noticeable. Very rare. You'd be the centre of attention everywhere you went."
     Bluestreak visibly shuddered. "Oh, no thank you." He paused for a moment. "Can you suggest a vehicle?"
     "It's not something I know very much about, to be honest... Let's see - you're a bit larger than 'Beat." She gazed at him appraisingly. Strong but sleek, elegant doorwings, his choice of the TVR showed he liked the streamlined sporty exotic look... "Ramp, can you pull up some pictures of Porsches?"
     The computer obliged, and Poppy gently turned his monitor to face Bluestreak. "Is there anything here you like the look of?"
     He leaned forward, gazing at the images as Ramp paged through the different models. After a moment he pointed.
     "That one."
     Poppy swivelled the monitor back to face here: Ramp had highlighted a silver-blue Porsche 918 RSR. She nodded.
     "It's a beauty - but it's a racing car."
     "Is that a problem?"
     "Well, you'll still grab attention..."
     His shoulders slumped, doorwings drooping. "Oh."
     "But how about the commercial version of it? The Spyder."
     He gazed at the images Ramp displayed, 'wings perking up again. "That's pretty." He scanned through the stats for the model, optics brightening. "I like that. Would it be appropriate, do you think?"
     "I'd say so."
     "Where can we find one?"
     "Don't you want to think about it? Have a look at some more cars?"
     "No. I like that one."
     Poppy laughed. "That was easy!"
     Blue offered a shy smile. "Would you prefer me to make it more difficult?"
     "No, sweethe... sweetspark. Easy is good. There'll be a dealership somewhere near. We'll get it organised as soon as possible."
     "Thank you. I know it's not necessary for us to hide ourselves anymore, but it doesn't feel right not blending in. It's part of our nature, after all."
     "I understand."
     Blue stood and inclined his head. "If you don't mind, I'll get back to the rec room. Upbeat is tutoring me in British history."
     "Of course not. Have a good afternoon. Will we see you at dinner?"
     "I... yes, I think so. Thank you, Poppy."
     She smiled as he left the office, then sighed and had Ramp connect to Backchat, his counterpart in Geneva. She wasn't overly fond of speaking with Marguerite, but with a group of her patrons and graduate students requesting time with the transformers working at CERN, she needed to clarify some details of their visit before she had her weekly chat to Starso... NotStarso.. Ness...

On Diego Garcia, Starstream was trying to grow accustomed to his modified frame.
     "I feel so heavy."
     Ratchet 'grinned'. "You wanted it."
     "I know, and I'm not complaining, just making an observation."
     Ratchet relented. "We've made it as light as possible while still retaining the tensile strength you'll need for the deflection of space debris. I'll adjust your cabling and hydraulics so you can manage the additional weight more easily."
     "Thank you." He swivelled his helm to look at his reformatted wings, twitching them a little. "Shorter and wider?"
     "For speed. They'll increase your manoeuvrability as well." He rested a servo against the jet's torso. "You'll need to transcan to reformulate your internals when in alt mode. We need to get rid of the additional seating to increase fuel storage and make space for the more powerful engines."
     "You have a form here for me?"
     Ratchet 'frowned'. "Well, yes - but it's bigger than you have the mass for."
     The Seeker inclined his helm. "As big as my previous mode?"
     The medic halted, suddenly wary. "Nearly."
     Starstream vented. "I do not wish to increase my size. I have grown accustomed to this frame."
     Relieved, Ratchet 'nodded'. "There are a couple of small military jets in development that may be suitable. I will make enquiries of the General. Can you manage in the meantime?"
     "Yes - although I would prefer the reformat be completed as soon as possible."
     "Of course. I'll see what I can do. In the meantime, try flying as you are and we'll schedule in a session to increase the efficiency of your internal power systems for tomorrow."
     ::Can I help, papa?::
     Ratchet jumped: Nova had developed a habit of creeping up silently while keeping his field so tightly held it didn't impinge until he was just inches away. It had the medic a little concerned - the sparkling shouldn't be able to do such a thing at his age, but then, all of them showed signs of exceptional abilities. Though with their creators it wasn't all that surprising...
     ::You can watch. If your creator says so::
     Nova scuttled over to the Seeker and tugged his servo.
     "Can I watch, creator?"
     Starstream glanced at Ratchet, who 'nodded', then picked up the little grounder, snuggling him close.
     "Of course, bitlet. If it won't upset you."
     "It's interestin'." He glanced back at Ratchet, 'grinning'. "I wanna be a medic too."
     The jet nuzzled him affectionately. "You might change your mind later."
     Starstream eyed Ratchet dourly. ::Determined little spark, isn't he?::
     The medic 'beamed'. ::Certainly is. And he's already showing considerable dexterity. It might not be such a far-fetched idea at that. Though I'd want him to experience more than just my speciality before he makes any sort of decision::
     ::Agreed:: Starstream put the now-wriggling Nova back on the ground and inclined his head to Ratchet. "Tomorrow, then?"
     "First thing. And if you test-fly now, you can report anything else that needs adjusting."

In the Seeker nest Starcloud and the youngest hatchling, with Jolt standing guard, watched as Starstream leapt from the ground, transforming and streaking for the sky. The littlest one vented a sigh.
     ::Can't wait 'til I can do that...::
     Starcloud petted his helm. ::Won't be long. You're hovering good now::
     ::I want to race the wind. Want to be...:: - red-gold optics widened - "windchaser::
     ::Need to fly very fast then!::
     ::I mean, my designation. Windchaser::
     Starcloud 'laughed'. ::Is pretty::
     Windchaser hugged himself, 'beaming' happily. ::Will tell creator when he comes back...::

"So what's the diagnosis?"
     Knock Out straightened up from his examination, 'frowning', and turned to Barricade.
     "Well, I believe I can get him back into some sort of working order. There's no hope for his vocoder, I'm afraid: he'll have to resort to sound bytes, like the Autobot scout. And I don't have the materials to reconstruct any sort of decent visage for him. But he'll be functional, and his processor is undamaged, so he'll still have all his skills and memories."
     "His vehicle mode?"
     "There's not enough left for a wheeled vehicle. But I have an alternative in mind."
     "What do you need?"
     Knock Out 'smiled' grimly. "I'll make you a list. I assume your tame fleshling will be able to get everything?"
     "One way or another I'll make sure of it."

© JAT 21.8.12

The Sagaris is one of my favourite cars of all time...

This should be the last chapter of the fragments: the next few chapters will be a litte meatier.

Part 14 - Repairs

"Fuckin' junkers..." Walker muttered to himself as he flicked through the depressingly long list of items on Knock Out's 'shopping list'. "Where the fuck am I supposed to get half this stuff?"
     At least money wasn't a problem: he rode Barricade into a nearby town, stopped at the first ATM he found and waited while the 'Con jammed the electronics, then hastily pocketed the flood of notes that issued from the slot. He slid back behind the wheel and glowered at the list and then the dashboard.
     "Where now?"
     "Nearest large city." The 'Con put himself in gear and drove off, Walker belatedly remembering to put his hands loosely on the wheel when a passing policeman glanced in his direction. "He's already contacted the fleshbags who provide what he wants - all you have to do is collect and pay for them."
     The drive took three hours, and that was with Barricade staying just inside the speed limit. Mile after mile of flat, dull landscape rolled by: Walker almost fell asleep. Eventually they reached the outskirts of the city, and the 'Con slowed down to negotiate the grimy streets.
     After half an hour the car drew up outside a nondescript warehouse surrounded by others tucked away in a backstreet. The driver's side door opened with an impatient 'clink'.
     "The fleshbag you want is called Smith. The amount agreed was two and half thousand. If he demands more, you can go up to three. Any more than that and I'll deal with him."
     Growling inarticulately but unable to object, Walker pushed himself out of the car and slammed the door unnecessarily hard, earning himself a threatening snarl from the engine. Ignoring it, he hammered on the door.
     "Waddya want?" The face that glowered at him from the sliding panel in the door was unexceptional, the tone guarded.
     "Who wants him?"
     "Walker. Here to pick up the merchandise."
     "Who sent ya?"
     For a moment Walker's mind went blank. What the hell had they agreed on, again?
     Oh, yeah.

Five minutes later Walker placed a large but light box in the boot and slid back into his seat.
     "No. And he didn't ask for more dosh either."
     Barricade grunted approvingly and headed off to the next rendezvous.
     Two more pickups and they were headed back 'home'. All had gone remarkably smoothly, to Walker's relief. Only the second supplier had demanded extra cash, and had settled for an additional five hundred dollars for himself on top of the four thousand for whatever electronic components were in the box now safely stowed on the back seat.
     They rolled to a halt inside the once-gas-stop now-junkyard just after two in the afternoon: Walker barely had time to pull everything out of the vehicle before Barricade transformed. Grabbing the packages the 'Con strode through the sagging rusting vehicles at the front of the yard, heading for the covered section at the rear, where Soundwave was currently resting in pieces. Walker followed, unhurriedly, and was brought up short by the sight that greeted him.
     Knock Out had been busy while they'd been away. Most of the scrapes and dents in his frame had been dealt with, his tyres properly inflated, and instead of dull beige his colour was now closer to that of dried blood. He'd washed off the dust too. Underneath the crap he was, Walker thought sourly, not at all bad looking. For a robot. Barricade rumbled a chuckle.
     "Didn't take you long. You're gonna be conspicuous like that though, out here."
     "Yes, thank you for that most helpful insight." The medic eyed him sardonically. "It's going to take me a while to repair our friend here, and unlike you I take some pride in my appearance. And the grime was making me uncomfortable."
     "Effete fragger."
     Knock Out planted both servos on his hipstruts. "My my. I had no idea your processor was equipped to handle such big words..."
     Barricade snarled and flicked out his spinning blades - and Knock Out countered by suddenly producing a very large and viciously sharp circular saw.
     "I may be effete, you rusting cable dragger, but I can fight with the best of them. Now, do you want me to fix Soundwave or not?"
     Reluctance in every plane and angle of his frame, Barricade backed down, engine growling continuously as he folded away his weapons. Knock Out collapsed his blade and nodded.
     "Good. Now if you don't mind, I need peace and quiet."
     Barricade spat some sort of insult and stalked off. Knock Out watched him go then turned back to Soundwave.
     ::I'm sorry. This is going to hurt, and I have no way to turn off your pain receptors until I can partially reconstruct your neural net::
     ::Understood. Do what you can::
     All Walker perceived was a faint trembling through the metal tangle at the medic's feet...

It had only taken Prowl three days to internalise the entirety of earth's military history and establish an internal 'map' - though of course it was far more sophisticated than that - of the current global situation. It wasn't pretty, but it was far less hazardous than Cybertron at the end.
     At least on earth, if the humans managed to kill each other off, the planet would still be here for the Cybertronians to inhabit.
     ... It would, perhaps, be diplomatic not to mention this fact to the Prime, however. Not yet, anyway.
     His studies had led him to the conclusion that second-hand information was all very well, but the fleshlings did not operate according to readily-comprehensible data. Ergo, it would be most useful if he could interact with one, or preferably more, to gain a first-hand understanding of how they processed information. How they thought. How they felt.
     There were a lot of humans on the island. They would be a good place to start.
     Ratchet suggested he speak to the earthlings Sergeant David Harris and Private Karen Smith. These two had had the closest dealings with the Cybertronians at the base, and had close relationships with other significant humans - namely Poppy the Consul and Lieutenant Philip Collier, tasked with her protection. Prowl had considered this for a few moments then agreed, and they had accordingly set up a series of meetings...
     Three days later Prowl was still collating information.
     1. The humans were a lot more complex than any organic creature had any right to be.
     2. How could they be both so primitive and sophisticated at the same time?
     3. He was beginning to understand how vital 'emotions' were to them, and how emotions could influence everything from the 'love' of a creator for their creation to the fear that could have one nation annihilate a nation of a different creed or skin colour - for that fact alone.
     If he had not been such a rational being Prowl would have found the whole thing terrifying. He found himself feeling grateful that their Cybertronian frames were proof against most weapons that the humans could bring to bear, and that the Prime was doggedly working to ensure that they would be accepted by the native inhabitants of this world - regardless of whether said natives deserved it or not.
     He vented a sigh. Humans were very difficult to understand, illogical and driven by instinct and feeling. Jazz would be able to make sense of them. Well, more sense than Prowl could anyway...
     Jazz... He shuttered his optics momentarily. Prime had told him how Jazz had been terminated, but... Why? Why had they decided he couldn't be saved? Megatron had been resurrected. Starscream too. And Ironhide. So why not Jazz? Sparks were very, very difficult to extinguish and from what he had heard it did not sound as though Jazz's had been.
     But Ratchet wouldn't have allowed it if there had been any hope. Would he? The medic had proven himself over and over again. He was brilliant, one of the finest Cybertron had ever produced...
     Prowl decided to ask the doctor when he next had a chance. For now though, he needed to speak with more humans. And not military ones. Now he needed to experience this world's neutrals - and preferably Poppy the Consul, since she was held in such high regard by the Prime.
     Apparently Bluestreak was recovering well too. It would be good to see him again, gain a first hand idea of when he would be fully operational, and discuss with him possible functions on this planet. Now that the war was over, they didn't have to fight all the time. They would need to find another purpose.
     He booked an appointment to speak with Prime later that afternoon.

"So you want me to try to get closer to the goings on at the Consulate, yes?"
     Aitch nodded, and smiled quite charmingly. Abigail had been a little overawed by their surroundings - five star dining wasn't something she'd ever experienced - but the food had been superb, and the glasses of Jasper Hill Emily's Paddock Shiraz (2006 vintage) she had been plied with were wonderfully relaxing. She pursed her lips.
     "And if I can't?"
     "Then we will understand, of course. It's not the easiest appointment in the world. However, if you can manage it, the rewards would be... significant. For you and your mother."
     She nodded. "It would have to be something very minor. Chambermaid, housekeeper's assistant, something like that."
     "Ah yes, but it's amazing the sorts of things you can overhear when you're part of the scenery, so to speak. And Aaron is there, and he is much 'closer to the action', as they say."
     "Mm. I wouldn't want to get him in any trouble though."
     "We're not asking you to. Just pass along any snippets he might let drop."
     She took another sip of the wine and sighed. "OK. I'll see what I can do."
     Aitch took her hand and squeezed gently. "That's all we would ask of you. Thank you, Abigail."
     She blushed and grinned. "Thank me when I've got a foot in the door..."

Zee gestured to the chair on the other side of his desk, and Aitch seated himself comfortably. "Everything went according to plan?"
     The lieutenant nodded. "Young Miss Randall is primed to take whatever post comes up."
     "Excellent." Zee's smile was malicious. "And we have 'discovered' that the brother of Sally Potter, the youngest of the kitchen assistants at the Consulate, has been carrying out industrial sabotage for the last few years - and we have 'proof' that Sally herself knew about it."
     Aitch stared at his boss for a moment, then smirked. "Nice."
     "Of course, this contravenes the Official Secrets Act, and she will be made to leave immediately, and quite possibly taken into custody. And with the forthcoming unusually large influx of student apprentices to the Consulate, her loss will be felt rather keenly."
     "And it's already known that Abigail is interested in gainful employment there. She's on site, already knows the place, and her boyfriend is a trusted student-staff member. Ideal. Well done, sir."
     Zee preened. "I have my moments... Can I leave the details in your capable hands?"
     "Of course sir. I have contacts in all the right places. We'll have Abigail installed within the week."

Phil stared as Stronghold and 'Beat drew up on the drive - followed by a gorgeous silvery-blue Porsche. Beside him, Graham chuckled.
     "Pretty isn't he?"
     "That's Bluestreak?"
     The three cars transformed, revealing that yes, the Porsche Spyder was in fact their newcomer. Phil grinned at him, and the sniper smiled back tentatively.
     "It suits you, Blue! An excellent choice of alt mode."
     "Thank you, lieutenant Collier. It feels... right. Comfortable."
     "Please, Blue, it's Phil... Perhaps I could take you for a drive - I mean, you could take me for one - some time?"
     "I would need to check with my superior officers, but I have no objections."
     "Great!" The transformer inclined his head and followed his fellow cars into the house for 'lunch', and Phil turned to Graham. "Think I could put in a bid for him?"
     Graham laughed. "He's not exactly military issue. But since our roles are flexible these days... give it a try. Assuming he doesn't object, of course."
     Phil grimaced. "And there's the problem. He doesn't like saying no." He thought for a moment. "I'll discuss it with 'Beat and Stronghold before I say anything to anyone."
     "Good call." The wing commander smirked. "Have you asked Poppy out yet?"
     It never failed. Phil reddened and dropped his gaze. "I told you, we're not like that. And at the moment she's too busy to take time off."
     "And that's the problem - she's working too hard. She needs a break. When do you go back to the island?"
     "Last I heard Ratchet anticipates Nova needing upgrades in a couple of months, so 'Spin will be called for then."
     "Hm. A bit far off."
     Phil shrugged. "I know, but what can we do? You know how dedicated she is."
     "Then we'll need to think of something. Let's meet up tomorrow lunchtime and see what we can come up with."
     Graham shook his head. "Too many ears. Let's use the pub in the village. Been a while since I've had a decent pint of real ale."
     Phil slapped his shoulder. "You're on."

Poppy smiled at the screen as Ness settled himself before Chatter on Diego Garcia. She could swear the young Seeker was visibly larger every time she saw him. He folded long arms across his torso and regarded her sombrely.
     "You think I'm a monster?"
     Poppy blinked, her mouth dropping open. "What?! No! Of course not! Whatever makes you ask?"
     "I looked up Ness on your world web. It's the name of a lake in the country at the top of where you live, and there's supposed to be a monster living in it."
     Poppy frowned, then it clicked. "Oh! You mean Nessie, the Loch Ness monster?"
     "Yes." He managed to frown without moving more than a couple of faceplates. "First a pony, now a monster."
     Oh gods. It simply hadn't occurred to her. Now he was upset, and she couldn't blame him.
     "Oh sweethe - sweetspark, that's not it at all! I honestly didn't think. I'm so sorry..."
     He eyed her for a few seconds, then vented a sigh. "Is all right, Poppy." He tilted his helm. "Is better being a scary monster than a silly little pony."
     She smiled, relieved. "I am sorry though. I'll think next time. What shall I call you instead?"
     He waved a taloned servo. "No, is all right. You can call me Ness. But have decided on real name."
     She grinned and leaned forward. "Yes?"
     "Yes. Is Wavefront."
     Ramp helpfully called up a window explaining what a wavefront was, and Poppy smiled. It felt oddly, instinctively fitting.
     "Wavefront. I think that's lovely." She paused. "Are you sure? You aren't going to change your mind again, are you?"
     "No. Is Wavefront for good."
     "Then I'll let everyone know."
     "Thank you."
     "What else have you been up to?"
     And Wavefront launched into his usual rundown of the news, including his youngest sibling's choice of name and that now Starcloud was thinking of changing his name too, and that their creator would be pulling his hair out if he was human and had hair of course...
     Poppy laughed delightedly - she could visualise poor Starstream trying to keep up with the sudden name changes, and kept her fingers crossed Nova didn't also decide he wanted something else - and settled in to listen.

Starstream stood on the tarmac, shifting slightly to settle his new frame. Prime had managed to persuade General Morshower to loan them the latest prototype jet - secret as in 'I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you' top secret - with dire warnings of consequences and terrible fallout should it come to any harm, or, even worse, be seen by anyone outside the half dozen individuals on the team.
     Wide-opticed, the Seeker had examined the little craft - single person, sleek and deadly looking, most of its structure given over to speed and power - then eagerly transcanned it. Seconds later an identical plane stood on the runway. Well, almost identical. Starstream had opted to keep his previous star-speckled black and ice-blue colouring.
     The effect was stunning.
     But now Ratchet wanted him to take an inaugural flight - just a short one, up to the edge of the atmosphere then a slow descent back to the island - to accustom himself to his new systems. Skyfire would accompany him, to monitor everything.
     He managed to wait until the starcraft had gained a couple of miles of height, then lifted from the ground, transformed, and soared...
     It was...
     It was the spark and purpose of a Seeker - to fly. Yes, their duties defined part of them, but this...
     He rolled, diving, wheeling, tearing clouds asunder. Racing at hypersonic speeds for the edge of space. Mach 4, mach 5, mach 6... Skyfire was left far below him.
     Even the glaze of ice crystals as he rose higher felt good.
     ... he had missed this. Oh, how he had missed this...
     Eighty miles up he paused, hovering for long moments, trembling with pleasure...
     ... and then the memories began.
     Killing. Watching sparks gutter out, optics fade, strong colourful bodies fade to grey as their nanites crumbled and died. Laughing at the destruction...
     He instinctively transformed, but his engines stalled. Systems frozen into immobility, processor stuttering, he began to fall, blind to anything but the horrors playing behind his shuttered optics.
     Skyfire transformed and caught him before he could reach terminal velocity, holding his shuddering frame carefully as they fell back to earth. By the time the starcraft landed, meeting a deeply worried Prime and a panicking Ratchet, Starstream was lost in self-induced stasis.

© JAT 26.08.12

Part 15 - Pain

"This world is... so unlike any I have ever visited..."
     Phil patted the royal-blue leather covered steering wheel and smiled. "We are rather fond of it. Unfortunately some of us don't treat it with the respect it deserves."
     Bluestreak, Porsche engine purring as the miles sped by, vented a sigh. "I know what you mean. Look at what we did to Cybertron."
     Phil flinched. "I didn't mean... I wasn't trying to..."
     "It's all right. I'm not upset. Well, yes I am, that things got so bad, and we somehow couldn't stop, and no matter how hard we fought there was no way out, but I'm not upset because you think you may have been... insensitive? Is that the right word?"
     Phil chuckled. "Close enough."
     It was only the second time the two had ridden together and Phil was already half in love with the car. It was a bit like having an adorable little brother who was brightly curious about everything and followed you everywhere. That he was a sheer joy to drive - be driven in, rather, although he did allow Phil to take control in cities - didn't do any harm either. And Phil thought the feeling might go both ways: Blue was much more at ease with him than with any other human except Poppy.
     "I was young when Praxus fell, but old enough to remember Cybertron as it was before the last war. A marvel, truly. Do you have such things as funfairs on earth?"
     The non sequitur gave Phil pause for a moment, then he nodded. "Yes. They're a popular human thing. There are several large ones in this country alone, bigger ones in the States."
     Blue sighed. "We had one. Six Lasers Over Cybertron. It was magnificent. I never visited - you had to be high caste before they'd let you in."
     "You had castes?"
     "Well, yes. Didn't Upbeat tell you? It's in his history book."
     "Shame upon me, I've never found the time to read it."
     "Oh, you should, it's very instructive. Or you could ask Poppy to tell you the highlights. She's very knowledgeable for a human. I mean, she's very knowledgeable about Cybertron for a human. She knows a lot about earth too."
     Phil backtracked a couple of comments. "So you've never been to a funfair?"
     "Not to ride, no." His voice turned wistful. "And I doubt that human rides would hold my weight."
     "Probably not. I'm sorry."
     "Why? It's not your fault."
     "No, but I'd like you to be able to experience them. They're a lot of fun."
     "Eh well... Where are we going?"
     There was a silence while Blue accessed the human 'net and absorbed the relevant information. It intrigued Phil that while the transformer was happy to look up the basics, he much preferred hearing about places, people and events from a real human rather than a database. It was quite flattering in a way.
     "That's a big city. For here, I mean."
     "Yep. I thought you might like to take a look at a major port, then afterwards we'll drive along the coast a little."
     "I'd like that. So, what's Southampton like?"
     "Noisy, busy, energetic... I've only visited, but I like the place. We'll go down to the docks; you can take a look at some of our ships. And if you feel like it, maybe tell me if you had anything equivalent back home?"
     "Oh yes, I'd like that." He hesitated for a moment, then, "And Sparkspinner believes immersing myself in something that may seem somewhat familiar and homely will help my recovery, yes?"
     Sometimes it was easy to forget that despite Bluestreak coming across as a somewhat empty-headed chatterbox, he was actually intelligent, self-aware and surprisingly pragmatic. Then again, apparently he'd had the master tactician, the intensely logical Prowl, as his mentor and carer for a very, very long time.
     Phil sighed and nodded. "He hopes so." The human stroked the sleek, elegant dashboard. "We all do, Blue."
     The Porsche shuddered, very lightly. "It happened. It was no-one's fault. Life is too interesting to allow something like that to blight it. I am safe now, amongst good friends..."
     It sounded suspiciously like a mantra to Phil, but it was spoken firmly, with determination, resolution and belief. He patted the wheel again.
     "Indeed you are, Blue. Indeed you are."
     The car purred. "Thank you, Phil. I value your friendship... Um, what does the National Oceanography Centre do?"
     Phil frowned, then grimaced. "I'm sorry, Blue, but that one you really will have to google - I have no idea. Then perhaps you could tell me!"
     A hint of a laugh in the growl of the finely-tuned engine. "It will be my pleasure..."

Poppy sighed and managed a smile. Muncher carefully patted her shoulder.
     "S'not for long, Poppy. An' t'will be interestin'. An' I'll stay in touch through Ramp."
     "I know. I'll miss you though."
     The lawnmower rumbled a chuckle. "T'is only for three months. I'll be back 'fore you knows it."
     With Hauler's help, and the two starcraft running frequent trips to the moon, the lunar base was almost complete, and the greenhouse had been finished. Muncher had spent the time researching and experimenting to increase the oxygen output of some of earth's tougher plants - he planned to plant grasses on the floor - and had developed a filtration system for turning human waste into good quality compost, thus solving two problems at once.
     The lunar base administrators had been awed, and approached NEST to ask if they could have Muncher permanently seconded to the project. Morshower had refused, but advised them that with Consul Moss's approval they may be able to avail themselves of his expertise on a regular basis. The application was currently sitting on Poppy's desk awaiting her attention.
     Poppy nodded. "Is everything ready here... sorry, of course it is." She glanced around the large greenhouse. A couple of the gardeners were tending to something at the far end, and the soft gurgle of water underscored the tranquillity of the place. As far as she could see everything was perfect. Muncher inclined his head.
     "Should be good 'til I get back, but if you'm worried, tell Ramp. I can always come back for a weekend, if need be."
     "Excellent." She hesitated for a moment, then sighed again. "Well, I suppose you'd better head off. There's a NEST truck waiting out the front."
     "I know - 'eard 'em arrive." He patted Poppy's shoulder again, very gently, and forced his faceplates into a grin. "I'll bring you back some pictures!"
     "Thanks." She chuckled, then quickly stretched up to kiss his cheekplate. "Have fun!"
     The bemused Muncher followed her to the drive and climbed into the waiting vehicle, waving as they drove off. Poppy sighed and turned to re-enter the house, but paused as Stronghold, followed by a NEST vehicle, pulled up. She grinned as Graham pulled himself out of the Defender, the smile vanishing at the sight of his grim expression.
     "I'm sorry, Poppy. This is official." He waited for a moment until the three MPs from the other vehicle joined him, then saluted Poppy. "Consul Moss, we are here to take Miss Sally Potter into custody."
     Poppy's mouth dropped open.
     "What? Why?"
     "On suspicion of industrial and interplanetary espionage."
     Graham gestured to the MPs to enter the house, then turned to Poppy.
     "I'm sorry. But we have proof. Pretty compelling proof. We can't let her stay here."
     "Matthew, that can't be right. I mean, it's Sally. She doesn't have a devious bone in her body!"
     "Then she has nothing to worry about." He glanced over his shoulder as the MPs escorted the bewildered and frightened young woman from the building, the group closely followed by her angry and anxious fellow kitchen staff, Steamy, and Aaron. Sally reached out to Poppy as the expressionless men hustled her past.
     "Ms Moss! I don't understand..."
     Poppy slapped her hand onto the chest of the smaller MP. He looked quickly at Graham, who nodded brusquely, and paused. Poppy took Sally's hand.
     "I don't know what's going on, Sally, but I'll get to the bottom of it. Just go with them for now. We'll get legal advice and get everything sorted out as fast as we can." She glared at the closest then the other MPs. "And you two treat her with respect, or I'll have you done for assaulting Consulate staff."
     Blinking their surprise as Poppy stood back, glowering, the trio led Sally to their vehicle. Graham sighed as the consul turned to him.
     "She'll be well looked after, I promise. I'll have Lieutenant Bowers assigned to her. And I'll get back to you with the details as soon as possible."
     He saluted and climbed into Stronghold. As the little convoy headed off Beverley came to stand at Poppy's shoulder.
     "I've rung our legal team. They're sending Sanders over."
     "He's good." Poppy said distractedly, then turned to her PA. "Ask Ramp if he knows what's going on, will you? And in the meantime, see if we have anyone on our subsidiary staff list? We have that big dinner planned for our new intake and we need the kitchen fully staffed..."
     "Um, Ms Moss...?"
     Poppy looked over her shoulder to where Aaron was hovering, one finger raised. "Yes Aaron?"
     "Abigail's free."
     "Abigail. She has culinary training, and can step in right away."
     "What about her current employment?"
     "It's coming to an end in a week, and she has some annual leave to take." He grinned. "And she's always wanted to work here."
     Poppy frowned. "Hm. OK, I'll think about it." She gazed at the fretting group standing at the door and made shooing motions with her hands. "Back to work, everyone. Standing here won't bring her back. Beverley..." she caught her PA's arm and hustled her inside. "We need to get organised right away..."

The Club had been very thorough. Abigail's references checked out perfectly. She was installed in the kitchen within two days, although, as Poppy made sure to stress, it was a temporary post until the situation with Sally was sorted out.
     Abigail agreed. Even if Sally was acquitted or whatever the NEST equivalent was, it was likely to take a good few weeks. Abigail was sure she'd be able to learn enough to guarantee her future wellbeing - and if she could make herself indispensable in the meantime the consul may make the post permanent anyway. The way the Consulate was expanding, they could do with another kitchen staff member.

Walker frowned. The red robot - Knock Out? - was still fiddling with the pile of metal on the ground. Well, it looked less like a random pile of metal now, and more like a figure. A very skinny figure, with a blank, glassy faceplate.
     Knock Out was ignoring him, was entirely focused on his work.
     ::Another four connections and I can mute the pain...::
     Soundwave shuddered, then held as still as he could for the last welds to his neural net. As the medic delicately tripped a relay, the communications expert collapsed with a clang that made Knock Out wince. The absence of pain was overwhelming: for a moment Soundwave offlined.
     ::Much:: Soundwave turned his faceplate towards the medic, not entirely happy about the blurriness of his vision. Or his inability to move more than an inch or so in any direction, and even that was jerky and uncontrolled. ::Status?::
     ::Now your neural net's operational, I can make a start on the rest. Sensornet first - that will improve your vision and hearing. But first I want to show you this:: This was the schematics for a vehicle - a flier, small, light and deadly. ::The fleshbags call it a Reaper. An MQ-9 Reaper drone, to be precise. It does not require a pilot, and its mass is close to what you have left::
     Soundwave would have sighed had he been able. With no Cybertronian metals accessible to enlarge his frame, he was stuck with what was left after Chicago. He supposed he ought to be grateful there was enough for the medic to be able to give him a decent alternative mode. And the more he considered it, the more appealing the drone appeared. It would be good to be airborne again, he'd never really liked the Mercedes.
     ::It will suffice::
     Knock Out nodded and extruded a minute laser-scalpel, pausing for a moment as Soundwave twitched. ::Do you want to take a break?::
     ::No:: Soundwave hesitated, then vented a hydraulic hiss. ::Thank you::
     Knock Out stared, optics widening, 'Cons never said thank you. Or please, come to that, unless they were being sarcastic. He smirked. ::You're welcome, commander. Let's see how quickly I can get you operational...::

There was blackness.
     A nanosecond later he was fully online, whimpering, flinching, cowering back with his arms raised defensively trying to protect his helm as the Prime loomed over him...
     Then Ratchet was there, at his back, arms reaching over his wings and soothingly wrapping his shoulders and torso, field pulsing with calm and safety, and Starstream came back to himself. Trembling, he slumped on the medical berth and rubbed shakily at his optics.
     ::What happened?::
     The medic glanced at Optimus then pulled the jet a little closer. ::We were hoping you could tell us...::
     ::You did not examine me?::
     ::Of course we did. But we found nothing. Certainly no systems glitches. And your memory files show nothing of any concern either:: He gestured to Wavefront and Nova, who were watching their creator anxiously. ::The sparklings said they 'lost' you for several seconds - that their bond with you simply flickered out. When it came back you were falling with Skyfire::
     Starstream reached out a shaking servo to his hatchlings, who hastened to him, each taking an arm. The jet 'soothed' them gently, glancing up shamefacedly at the Prime.
     ::I am sorry. For a moment I did not know who you were::
     ::It is of no concern, my friend. But we do need to understand what happened::
     Starstream thought for a moment, then shuddered. ::I... it might be best... if I 'show' you:: He hugged the sparklings tightly, then regarded them sombrely. ::But you two must leave::
     Both of them crossed their arms, their 'expressions' identical - what humans would probably call mulish. ::Don't want to, creator::
     Starstream silently pleaded with Prime, who gently lifted them away from the berth and hushed their indignant objections.
     "Your creator needs some time with Ratchet, and it would be better if we were to leave them both in peace. We want Starstream to be able to fly safely, don't we?"
     Twin 'yesses' had him nodding gravely. He 'smiled'.
     "Then let us go and see what your siblings are up to, shall we? I believe Starwind and Windchaser are at the range with Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. I think Prowl might be there too."
     Starstream watched as the Prime exited the lab, a hatchling on each shoulder - then turned to Ratchet, his entire frame quivering as he sank his head into his servos. The medic laid a comforting servo on his shoulder and unreeled a processor-diagnostic cable, jacking into a port hidden under the jet's helm.
     ::Just remember what it was you saw...::
     It hurt to relive it, and he was shaking hard by the time Ratchet unjacked. The medic pulled his servos away from his face and held them lightly, seating himself on the examination berth facing the jet.
     ::I had really hoped we would never have to do this, but it seems it's now necessary::
     Starstream eyed him miserably. ::This is about everyone thinking I am that 'Con, Starscream, isn't it? Am I him?::
     ::No. Not any more::
     ::But I was::
     ::You had better tell me everything...::
     Ratchet rejacked and shared his memory files of the last several millennia of war...

There were times, Ratchet thought ruefully, that he wished their species had the luxury of tears. He'd seen and sensed the emotional relief the activity allowed humans, and by the Pit Starstream needed that right now...
     ::He... I... killed for the pleasure of it...::
     Ratchet stroked the overheating metal of the jet's faceplate, sliding an arm across shuddering shoulder struts to try to comfort the distraught Seeker.
     ::How could he do that? He wasn't protecting anything. He wasn't fighting for his own life, or that of any sparklings::
     ::His sufferings made him irrational, Star. He did what he had to do to survive, and Megatron took advantage of that to mould him, to forge him into a weapon to be used::
     ::He's me...::
     ::No. You are the you that always should have been. Strong, intelligent, dedicated, a loving creator... Star, Optimus gave you another start, and a chance to make up for the mistakes Starscream made::
     ::I can never atone for all those deaths, all that destruction::
     ::You don't have to. You did not do it::
     The medic cupped both servos around the jet's face, forcing the cobalt blue optics to meet his own. :: You belong here, with us. You are family now. You always should have been::
     The jet's optics closed, intakes hitching in his distress. ::I'm sorry...::
     Ratchet held him close, stroking his back, waiting for him to internalise everything he had learned and come to his own conclusions. It was a worrying half an hour before he pulled himself wearily back from the medic, still trembling although not quite as violently, and gazed towards the exit.
     ::I think... I need to be alone for a while::
     Ratchet nodded sadly. ::Please don't try to fly too high - not without Skyfire or Starflare to catch you if you offline again::
     Starstream closed his optics and lowered his helm. ::I don't think I ever want to fly again::
     ::Now you're being silly. You're a Seeker. You need to reaffirm yourself. Just not by yourself, just yet::
     The jet nodded, too overwrought to argue, and slid from the berth. Ratchet watched him leave the lab, head low and wings drooping, and commed the Prime.
     ::Ratchet? Is there going to be a problem?::
     ::I don't think so. But I'd like to borrow Prowl for a while. I need to talk to him - and then I'd like him to talk to Star::
     ::You think that will help?::
     ::I believe so::
     ::Then I will send Prowl to you as soon as he has finished this round::

© JAT 04.09.12

The Reaper is, of course, Soundwave's alt form in Transformers: Prime (I think this version is quite beautiful). There is a bit of a difference in mass between the Reaper - at 4,901 lbs - and the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG (his alt mode in Dark of the Moon) - 3,563 lbs - but soddit, it works for me. And given the sizes of their root modes I'm sure they all weigh more than their equivalent earth car modes anyway...

Part 16 - Healing

Diego Garcia wasn't a big atoll. There weren't many places to hide, certainly not for a large sentient robotic being that transformed into a jet, and even if transformers weren't able to detect their own kind by their distinctive energy fields over long distances.
     It was easy for Prowl to find Starstream, despite the jet's depressed, suppressed field. Sitting on the ground amongst the trees on the lagoon-ward side of Rambler Bay, helm sunk in his servos, wings drooping almost to the ground, the jet was the picture of desolation.
     Prowl sighed and quietly 'called' to him. There was no reaction. Making his way through the trees, not trying to be quiet, the tactician reach Starstream's side before the jet realised he was there. His reaction - to fling himself backwards with a choked whimper, arms instinctively raised to protect himself - had Prowl stepping back a pace, servos raised, palms outwards.
     ::Gently, friend. I'm not going to hurt you::
     Shaking, Starstream slowly lowered his arms and warily reseated himself. Prowl nodded.
     ::May I join you?::
     The jet's gaze returned to the ground as he 'shrugged'. Taking that as an affirmative, Prowl seated himself. For long minutes there was silence.
     ::I suppose Ratchet asked you to find me::
     Prowl eyed his companion. ::Actually, no. It was my choice to be here::
     ::I would like to help::
     Starstream glanced up sharply.
     ::I don't want your pity::
     Prowl leaned back a little, relaxing tense cabling. ::That is just as well, as I'm not offering any::
     ::What, then?::
     ::We have experiences in common. We have both suffered. And we are both important to the... family here::
     ::I was a killer::
     ::So am I::
     Starstream's optics widened. He stared at the 'winger, and Prowl inclined his head.
     ::We were at war, Star. I have been at war for my entire existence. Now that the war is over, I am adrift. I need to redefine myself. It is not the easiest of things to do::
     The jet nodded pensively. ::And I need the same, now that I know what I was::
     ::We both have the opportunity to start again. Knowing what you - what we - once were is a way to make sure we do not become those beings again::
     ::But the harm I caused...:: Starstream shuddered, covering his face with his servos. ::How can I find absolution for that?::
     ::By making sure it never happens again. By working to improve our lives and the lives of our human hosts. We can't change our past, so we must shape our future:: Prowl slowly held out a servo. ::We can help each other. We should help each other::
     Starstream gazed at the servo, considering. He understood, from the files, from Ratchet, that he had spent too much time alone. He knew, in his spark, he needed the company of others, to function, to maintain stability. To be happy.
     His previous self and the Autobot had been enemies. That time was past. He reached for Prowl's servo, grasping strong digits with his own claws, careful not to cause any damage. The 'winger tightened his grip a little, and 'smiled'.
     ::Shall we be friends?::
     ::I think... I would like that::

Poppy eyed the unfamiliar face on the screen. This was Prowl, the one who'd looked after Bluestreak? They were both Praxian, but apart from the doorwings they bore very little resemblance to each other. Then again, Blue didn't look anything like 'Beat either.
     "Hello, Prowl - sir...."
     The tactician inclined his head. "Prowl will suffice, Ms Moss."
     "Poppy, please."
     "Poppy then. I am pleased to meet you. Thank you for tending to Bluestreak. I understand he is recovering well."
     "Would you like to speak to him? He's out with Phil at the moment but I can always call them back."
     "No, don't disturb them. It is you I need to speak with. I would like to organise a visit, if I may."
     "Of course! When would you like to come over?"
     He'd held up a hand. "It would not be just myself. Wavefront wishes to accompany me - and I believe it would be good if Starstream came too."
     "Oh..." Poppy frowned. "We don't really have provisions here for flyers..."
     "But we can build them." 'Beat moved to stand behind Poppy, raising a hand in greeting at the Praxian on the screen. "Hello sir."
     "Upbeat." Prowl nodded. "Dispense with the honorific, if you please. How long would it take?"
     'Beat was silent for a moment, comming Vault. "A fortnight, we think."
     "Then, if all are in agreement, we would plan to visit in three weeks."
     Poppy grinned. "Sounds great to me! Is there a specific reason?"
     "We would like to experience another part of your world. So far we only know the island."
     The consul nodded. "It will be great to meet you. I haven't seen Star or Ness for a while. In person, I mean. And Blue will enjoy the visit too."
     Prowl nodded. "Very well. Ramp will keep me advised as to progress on the construction, and I will contact you again when we are ready to leave."
     "How will you travel, sir? Sorry, Prowl." Though Poppy wasn't sure she could get used to that. The 'winger had a very authoritarian, severe air, even over the comm.
     "We will have Skyfire transport us on this occasion. I believe he will be able to land on the property, but will confirm that with Skyfire and Vault. If necessary we will use the base called Brize Norton. I understand that is not far from the Consulate."
     "It's the base we usually use."
     "Good. We will speak later."
     Poppy turned to 'Beat as the tactician's image vanished, her expression bemused.
     "Is he always like that?"
     "Grim and brusque? According to Bluestreak, yes."
     "Hm. That'll make his visit interesting..." She turned back to the screen as Ramp beeped to get her attention, uttering a little cry of delight as Muncher's visage appeared. "Muncher! How's it going?"
     "'Ullo Poppy. S'goin' great. We'm already producin', oxygen at least. Be a while yet 'fore we knows if the food plants're goin' t'be as good as we hope."
     "And you're OK?"
     "Oh aye. They'm a nice bunch. An' they've nearly finished the consulate section now."
     Poppy paused, frowning. "Consulate section?"
     "Aye. Din't anyone tell you?"
     Ramp interrupted with what sounded like a cough-sigh combination. "She wasn't supposed to know yet."
     Muncher slapped a servo over his face. "Ooops."
     Poppy huffed. "Well, since you've now mentioned it, you'd better tell me more."
     "The Prime made it a condition of our assistance with the creation of the lunar base that it include a small consulate section. He hopes that you will all spend a month there, in rotation, to ensure a fair and equitable civilian presence on your moon." Ramp chirred a chuckle. "He wants the consulate to be named Artemis."
     Poppy stared, mouth agape. "We'll... be spending time... on the moon?"
     "Yes. Unless you really don't want to."
     "When does it start and who's going first?"
     "In about six weeks and you'll be invited to be the first Lunar Consul. If you'd like to."
     "Just try and stop me!" Poppy grinned manically at 'Beat, who took a step backwards, servos raised.
     "I don't think anyone would dare..."
     The consul giggled for a minute, then took a deep breath and collected herself. "Right. I'll need a meeting with Beverley to discuss how to handle this. And I'll need to know what I should take, and what will be involved... And I'll need to let my opposite numbers know too. Jacinta should go second, I think. And Marguerite can wait 'til last..."
     "Um, Poppy, I think you should perhaps wait until Prime makes it official before you tell the others."
     She eyed the MGC for a moment then nodded reluctantly. "Yes, of course..." The grin reappeared. "But I'm going to the moon!"
     "Yeth, but right now you need to go to rethepthion. Your next intake have arrived." 'Spin had appeared at the rec room door and was tapping his digits a little impatiently against his torso. "And you should really be there to welcome them."
     "Ooops." Poppy laughed delightedly and rose to her feet. "I'll be right there."
     "And Beverly thayth that Thanderth needth to thpeak to you both ath well. He hath newth about Thally."
     "Oh - of course. Thank you, 'Spin. Can you tell them I'll be up to the office right after seeing the new intake welcomed."

Eric Sanders was what Poppy's mother would have called a 'proper gentleman'. Somewhere between forty-five and sixty-five, snowy-haired, tall and stocky, unfailingly courteous and respectful, he resembled a favourite grandfather rather than the piercingly sharp intellect he actually was. He was also very, very good at his job. Right now he was shaking his head, expression grave.
     "I appreciate that you know the young woman far better than I do, Consul, but the evidence is overwhelming, and unfortunately that is what the General is going to listen to. Of course he trusts you, but he is - as is quite correct given his position and the responsibility he carries - paranoid when it comes to security. And I have not been able to find any cause for suspecting that the information we've uncovered is anything other than completely genuine."
     Poppy shook her head, lips a thin, angry line. "I don't believe it."
     "If it is any consolation, I don't either, and I shall continue to do my best to uncover the truth. In the meantime, have you discovered anything yourselves?"
     Ramp had dedicated a significant sector of his processor to tracking down any transmissions that would help them, but to no avail. Poppy sighed. "No, alas, we haven't."
     Sanders nodded and closed his briefcase. "But you will keep trying? I know you have the most sophisticated technology in at least two worlds here. Surely something will make itself known in due course?"
     "You'll be the first to know."
     He stood, inclining his head in a small, courteous bow. "Thank you, Consul. I shall, of course, reciprocate."
     Beverly showed him out as Poppy turned back to Ramp.
     "Why can't we find out what happened?"
     The computer transformed and seated himself on the edge of the desk. "I can only believe that they - whoever 'they' are - are no longer using electronic communication, and unfortunately we have no way to intercept or examine non-electronic methods."
     "I can't believe that anyone, in this day and age, can manage to run anything without using a phone, at least."
     "And yet it appears they do. Or if they are using higher tech methods than pen and paper, they are doing so with such subtlety that we are missing it. Encryption would raise alarms, but if they communicate using a previously agreed code - well, how can we tell?"
     Poppy groaned. "This is so maddening..."
     "I understand, Poppy, but you should not let it interfere with your duties. Leave it with us and with Sanders. I am sure, between us all, we will uncover the truth. In the meantime, Sally is being well treated and made comfortable." He tilted his helm. "I check the security cameras there every few minutes. Oh, not to intrude, just to maintain surveillance. But Graham will keep her safe, you know that."
     "I do. I still worry."
     "Your concern and compassion do your species proud..."

Fascinated despite himself, Walker had watched, day after day, as Knock Out did.... things... to the junk that had once been the Decepticon communications officer, junk that had surprisingly quickly assumed a roughly humanoid shape. The medic had been hard at work by the time Walker had climbed into his camp bed late last night, and it looked as though he had taken no rest, now that the end was in sight. As the ex-officer arrived back this morning Knock Out was helping the rebuilt 'Con to stand.
     Soundwave was unsteady to start with - naturally, given his current frame was completely different to any that he had before. Lighter, leaner, his plating thinner and much easier to damage...
     ::I'm sorry. I just don't have the materials to make it any more protective, to fix everything else::
     Soundwave took an experimental couple of steps and nearly fell: Knock Out caught him, supporting him until he was able to steady himself.
     ::I was resigned to termination. This is far preferable, even with the compromises that you have been forced to make::
     Knock Out 'nodded' grimly, keeping his hold on the officer until he had gained a measure of balance. He still hovered while Soundwave forced himself to accustom to his new format, then stepped back a little.
     ::Do you want to risk transforming?::
     ::I have no choice:: But it was difficult, joints shuddering, metal grinding where the fit was not quite perfect, Soundwave hissing with pain as he forced his new frame to change. It took him several minutes, but finally the elegant little drone was hovering in the junkyard.
     Knock Out 'smiled', a hint of pride colouring his field. Not bad given the ridiculous lack of tools and materials he'd had to work with. He could tweak the worst of the badly-fitting plates to make transforming easier and less painful, but internally, everything was fine. Soundwave transformed back, Walker wincing as the grating of grinding metal nearly pierced his eardrums, and nodded at the medic.
     ::Satisfactory. We need to discuss where we go from here::
     And indeed, with Megatron and Starscream gone, the remnants of the Decepticon forces mostly terminated, and the Autobots the victors - the victors! - of the endless war, exactly where could they go...?

© JAT 08.09.12

Part 17 - Onwards and Upwards...

Starstream stood on the tarmac, Wavefront and Windchaser to either side of him, Ratchet, with his ever-present scanner deployed, in front of him. The jet was trembling: Wavefront clasped his servo.
     ::It will be all right, creator. You'll see::
     Ratchet glanced up, 'smiling'. ::Skyfire is now in position, and Starflare is ready to assist should it be necessary. Do not think of the memories - focus on the joy you have always taken in the power of flight::
     ::And on all the wonders of this solar system you'll be able to explore, once you're fully functional again:: Prowl strode to the group from the Lair, his field full of confidence. He paused before the Seeker, servos on the jet's shoulder struts. ::I know you can accomplish this, Star. Now you need to know it as well::
     Starstream vented, looking up into the sky. ::I know. I am just...::
     He lowered his gaze, optics shuttered. ::... afraid...::
     Wavefront tugged on his servo. ::But creator, if you're afraid to soar, how can you teach us?::
     The Seeker froze, tensing, glanced at both his sparklings in turn, then looked up to meet Prowl's optics. The tactician 'nodded'. ::He does have a point...::
     ::And you can't disappoint the bitlets, now, can you?:: Ratchet laid a servo against his face. ::You always were the best. You will be again::
     Starstream was silent for a moment, then gathered his courage and stepped away from the group. 'Smiling' back at them all, he raised a servo.
     ::I will see you soon::
     Engaging thrusters he rose from the ground. Ratchet watched as he ascended towards the high thin clouds, transforming into his sleek, powerful jet mode. And there will always be someone to catch you if you fall...

Starstream slowed a little as he approached Skyfire. The starcraft held himself eighty miles above the planet, waiting for the jet's arrival, then together they rose higher, Starstream tensed and afraid, Skyfire watchful and wary.
     The jet transformed, shuddering as the memories struck again, his processor filled with blinding images of destruction - but this time, forewarned, he forced himself past them, hovering unsteadily as he gathered them and locked them away in a guarded file. Most of them, anyway...
     Skyfire transformed and hovered at his side, ready to grab him if he fell or offlined or if anything else went wrong. But despite his shaking hard enough to loosen his plating, the jet held his position, field tight and determined, and after a few minutes the trembling eased.
     ::Star? How are you?::
     ::Functional. I can manage it now - I think::
     The starcraft 'grinned' hugely and transformed back. ::Then shall we soar?::
     Reassuming his jet form, Starstream followed his old colleague out and away from the atmosphere, wheeling gracefully in free space between the earth and the moon.

Four hours later they landed back on Diego Garcia, Skyfire overwhelmingly happy for his friend, Starstream relieved and exhausted. Prowl and Ratchet, and all the sparklings, were there to greet them. Windchaser flung himself at the jet, chirruping with joy.
     ::We watched you, creator! On the screen. It was beautiful! When can we go?::
     There was a moment's startled silence, then Ratchet patted the sparkling on the helm. ::When you have your alt mode, bitlet. You're too small and too... young, yet::
     The little Seeker 'pouted'. ::When, docbot?::
     When indeed? All the hatchlings were growing fast - except for Nova - and they really should be thinking about alt modes soon. ::I'll discuss it with your creator and we'll see::
     ::As soon as possible, bitlet::
     Cloudrunner 'giggled' then ducked his helm down low. Starstream 'chuckled' tiredly and stroked his wings,
     ::I think I need to recharge::
     Ratchet 'nodded'. ::Right after I run a full systems scan::
     The Seeker 'sighed' but complied, glancing over his shoulder at Skyfire as he turned to follow the medic. ::Thank you, my friend::
     The starcraft inclined his head. ::Any time, Star...::

Late afternoon, and Abigail had all her duties completed - for a couple of hours, at any rate. She hovered outside the door of the room where Aaron was attending a lecture on unparticle physics, waiting for him to appear and listening discreetly to the conversations of passing individuals. Not that she learned much that way, but just in case...
     Aaron exited the room, grinning broadly at the student accompanying him, then smiled and waved as he caught sight of Abigail. With a 'See you later!' at his colleague he joined the young woman, kissing her cheek.
     "Hello beautiful. Good day?"
     She nodded and took his hand. "How long can you take?"
     "Hour and a half. You?"
     "I need to be back in the kitchen in two."
     "Great! Fancy a walk?"
     Abigail sighed happily. "Oh yes. Be nice to stretch the legs, before I get back to slaving over a hot stove."
     Aaron chuckled. "I'll need to grab my jacket then."
     Abigail already had hers draped over her arm: it had been a surprisingly mild October so far but the cooler weather was finally making itself felt. The forecast was for rain later, and the wind was picking up in advance of the cold front moving in. It was still lovely in the grounds, though, and the trees' autumn colours were stunning this year.
     As they walked out through the main door Aaron wrapped his arm around Abigail's shoulders, snuggling her into him a little more closely as she slipped her own arm around his waist. A hundred yards from the house she pulled him to a stop and turned to look back. The work on the roof of the transformer wing was almost complete now.
     "What's it all for?"
     Aaron glanced at her in surprise. "You don't know?"
     "Been a bit busy learning the ropes. And we don't have much to do with the robots - except for Steamy and 'Spin."
     Aaron nodded. "Well, you know there are some flyer Autobots now?"
     "Yes - seen them on TV. And 'Spin has mentioned them,"
     "A couple are coming to visit, and they'll be staying there." He pointed. Although neither of them knew it, the structure on the roof bore similarities to Star's nest on the roof of the hangar on Diego Garcia, although the indoor part was much sturdier and warmly heated, completely closable and weatherproof and with two walls and the roof of transparent, solar collecting silicate. Soft padded berths had been provided, but the visitors would need to use the washing and feeding facilities in the main transformer wing, as constructing them on the roof would be too difficult and was, in any case, unnecessary at this stage. Abigail nodded thoughtfully.
     "Do they take people for rides?"
     "They can, I gather, but they probably won't."
     "That's a pity."
     Aaron shrugged. "It's understandable though."
     "So who's coming?"
     "Starstream, Wavefront and Prowl. Prowl's not a flyer though."
     "He's a car?"
     "I don't think he's chosen his vehicle mode yet. He's the Autobot's tactical expert. I haven't met him yet but I've heard Phil and Blue talking about him. Mind like the proverbial steel trap, apparently."
     Aaron laughed. "They're all scary when you stop to think about it! But yes, Prowl is supposed to be really suspicious and doesn't trust anyone."
     Ah. Abigail thought to herself. One to be wary of then... "How are they getting here?"
     "I don't know. Starstream will probably fly, and I think Wavefront might as well, although he might be a bit young... Although if Prowl is coming over in a C-17 then the... sparkling could ride with him." He grinned and rubbed his hands together. "Only another week."
     "It's exciting." Abigail hugged her lover. "I know I won't have much to do with them but it's still exciting."
     "It is rather special. I understand Starstream has taken the form of a new, experimental military jet, one no-one is supposed to know about yet. That'll be fun to see!"
     Abigail widened her eyes and beamed. "Oooh yes!" She frowned. "How do they do that?"
     "It's called transcanning. They can scan a complete blueprint of any vehicle in seconds, then transform into it. Except for running on energon, they're indistinguishable from the real thing."
     "But how do they... transcan?"
     Aaron shrugged. "Beats me. They all have the ability, though. I guess it's a combination of x-ray, EM field analysis, and... I really don't know. They don't talk about it. In fact, they won't talk about it. Though you can understand why. Imagine what humans could do with that sort of technology."
     Abigail shuddered. "Doesn't bear thinking about..." Though she would, later, while composing her report to The Club...

"You need a break."
     Poppy looked up from Ramp's screen and smiled at Phil - then glanced at the clock.
     "Oops. I lost track of time."
     "I can tell. Come on, let's get a coffee. Steamy's been experimenting with low-calorie cakes and is looking for guinea pigs."
     Poppy chuckled and rose to her feet, wincing, and Phil rubbed the small of her back, knowing from experience it would be sore after hours at her desk without a break. She sighed and pressed into the gentle pressure.
     "Nice. Thanks."
     "You're welcome." He wondered briefly if she'd ever agree to a proper, full-body massage, then wondered if he'd ever find the time to learn how to give one. Then shook his head. He wasn't supposed to be thinking of such things... "Come on. Let's try Steamy's goodies before they all vanish."

The kitchen was surprisingly quiet. Phil poured them both mugs of coffee and Steamy produced a plate of cakes and delicacies that, as he said, he'd 'hidden from the starving hordes of students so there would be some left for them to taste'.
     "This is nice." Poppy took a second forkful of the lightest, fluffiest, sticky lemon cake she'd ever had. "Will you include it on the regular menu?"
     "Of course, if you approve." The little transformer pointed to a dainty, multi-coloured butterfly cake. "This one helps lower cholesterol."
     Poppy stared, eyebrows raised. "Can you make the recipe available commercially?"
     "I could, but I'd prefer not to."
     The consul grinned. "Oh well, in that case..."
     Phil chuckled. "Want to open a health farm?"
     Steamy stared at him. "How can you farm health?"
     "No, I mean..." He squinted at the little cook. "You're having me on, aren't you?"
     Steamy folded his hands together - he'd had a small upgrade recently to enable him to do more of the actual work in the kitchen - and tilted his head. "Mr Phil, would I do such a thing?"
     Phil frowned suspiciously, then turned at Poppy's muffled snort. She swallowed her mouthful of cake and grinned.
     "They've learned."
     "We're doomed..." Phil 'thunked' his head on the edge of the kitchen table as Poppy giggled and patted his shoulder.
     "Yes, it's your actual fate worse than death..." She finished her coffee and leaned back in her seat, sighing. "I'd better get back to it. I'm expecting a call from Abla in half an hour. She wants to discuss the impending uprising in Libya and whether it would be appropriate to get our allies involved."
     "Isn't that more a local issue?"
     "Not anymore. And she says she's too close to the action, wants an outsider's input."
     Phil frowned. "So you need me to earwig?"
     Poppy shook her head. "Thanks for the offer, but I'd prefer to hear her out by myself to start with. I'll fill you in later, once I know if our intervention is a viable option."
     "OK." As Poppy stood, he touched her hand. "I was wondering... your birthday's coming up soon, isn't it? I'd like to take you out to dinner."
     She paused and gazed down at him, then smiled. "I think I'd like that. But let me check my diary, OK? I'll let you know at dinner."
     He watched as she walked away, heart lifting. Steamy was watching him closely.
     "You will make sure you take her somewhere that serves healthy food, won't you? And somewhere safe."
     Phil raised an eyebrow. "Of course, Steamy. You don't seriously think I'd put her at any risk, do you?"
     "No. But I like to be sure..."

The metal monsters were ignoring him and Walker was getting seriously pissed off. He stalked into the middle of the canvas-covered pit and glared up at the three, who were conversing unintelligibly way above his head.
     Barricade peered down at the human, faceplates shifting into his approximation of a scowl.
     "And we are not talking to you, fleshbag. Be silent."
     ::Can I kill it?:: Knock Out deployed his surgical saw, revving it threateningly. Barricade raised a servo.
     ::Not yet. It may still be useful::
     Soundwave folded long, thin arms and inclined his helm, blank faceplate reflecting the grimy surroundings. ::I cannot see how - but you have had more interaction with it than either of us::
     Walker was still seething. "Do you want my help? Or should I just tell the Autobots where you are?"
     Barricade squatted down to be faceplate to face with the human.
     "How stupid do you have to be to threaten beings that can squash you with the flick of a digit?"
     Walker crossed his arms over his chest, glowering back.
     "You think I haven't set up failsafes? I'm ex-NEST and ex-Club. Anything happens to me, Prime gets alerted to your presence and location."
     Barricade's engine growled. Knock Out's saw faltered.
     ::Can it do that?::
     ::Unfortunately yes::
     ::... there will come a day...::
     ::Yes. But until then, we have to humour it::
     Knock Out pulled the saw back in and seated himself on the ground, Soundwave following, awkwardly, a moment later.
     "So what do you want, fleshbag?"
     Walker smirked. "It seems to me you abominations are adrift. The rest of the 'Cons are dead or captured, or soon will be, your leader is gone, the Autobots have won - you're all that's left. Where you gonna go? What you gonna do? How are you going to survive?"
     That had been the main topic of conversation for the last three days. It would be possible to remain in alt mode, survive on terrestrial fuels, for a while at least, but it was not a long-term solution. They'd even considered surrendering to the hated Autobots - at least they'd be fed while in captivity. But Soundwave was not prepared to do something so drastic without exploring every other option first.
     Barricade snarled. "We always survive. If nothing else, we can simply find somewhere safe, enter stasis and outlive your entire species."
     That took Walker aback. He thought about it for a moment, then shrugged.
     "If that's the way you want to go, so be it."
     "We would rather not." Knock Out spoke reluctantly. The waking was bound to be painful and unpleasant and leave them weak and hungry, and that was if their hiding place wasn't discovered during stasis. Or the fleshbags didn't destroy their world in the meantime. The medic would much rather enjoy what the planet had to offer - as long as he could do so safely.
     Walker smirked. "Then we need a plan..."

© JAT 15.09.12

It seems reasonable to assume that Seekers would have different words for different kinds of flight. Here I'm using 'flight' to mean atmospheric low level flight, and 'soar' to mean high level and just-outside-the-atmosphere flight. I'll come up with something else to indicate interplanetary, interstellar and intergalactic flight as I need 'em!

Part 18 - Alarms and Expeditions

"Oh Poppy!" Sally burst into tears as she wrapped her arms around the consul and hung on for dear life. "I didn't do it! I'd never do such a thing. I haven't even spoken to my brother in years..."
     Poppy frowned over her shoulder to the MP standing at the door of the bare interrogation room. He raised his hands and shook his head: Poppy turned back to the cook.
     "Have you been... ill-treated?"
     Sally snuffled and scrubbed at her eyes. "N... no, nothing like that. It's just... no one will believe me!"
     Poppy slid an arm around the young woman's shoulders and led her to a chair, seating herself nearby and leaning forward to clasp cold, trembling hands.
     "Tell me what's happened."
     "They say they have proof that Owen - my brother - got me to give him confidential Consulate files that he sold to anti-alien groups and a construction company."
     Poppy blinked. "But you don't have access to anything like that."
     "That's what I told them! But they showed me the covers and they have your logo and signature and everything."
     "At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it sounds like you've been framed. But who on earth would do that? How? And why?"
     "I don't know..."
     A discreet cough came from the doorway and Poppy glanced over here shoulder. The MP tapped his watch, and Poppy glowered at him.
     "Another five minutes, if you please."
     "Not supposed to, ma'am..."
     "Tough. Take it up with Graham." Ignoring him, she turned back to Sally. "Is there anything you need?"
     "Only to get out of here... I'm going to have a criminal record after this, aren't I?" She bit back a sob.
     "I don't know how it works, but I'll do everything I can to make sure you don't."
     "Thank you..." Sally wiped her eyes and tried to smile. "So what's been happening?"
     Poppy grinned and, deliberately ignoring the increasingly agitated MP, spent the next ten minutes distracting the young cook with tales of the latest intake, Muncher's lunar jaunt and the preparations for Prowl and Starstream's visit...

::Are you sure you feel able to deal with this?::
     Starstream gazed up at Prime and 'nodded'. ::I can't stay here forever. I need to see the world, get used to being here. And Wavefront has been... agitating to see Poppy again:: He 'frowned' ::Though I would have preferred him to have his alt mode first::
     ::We will make it a priority when you return::
     ::And we will ask Ramp to find some images of suitable forms while we are at the Consulate::
     ::A good idea. He is very knowledgeable about this world's vehicles. Although I believe the form you have chosen is probably the most suitable, when Wavefront is a little more mature::
     Starstream glanced back at his eldest sparkling, who was standing with Prowl waiting for Skyfire. ::That may not be too far in the future...::
     And the sparkling's size was increasingly noticeably - almost daily. Ratchet had been scanning him regularly, and had come to the conclusion that simply living under earth's generous sun with no shortage of energon was the cause. The outermost layer of his plating was already developing a Seeker's solar-collector properties, his fuel tanks enlarging as he became more efficient at storing the energy so provided.
     Ratchet was beginning to wonder if he would develop into a starcraft. If Megatron or The Fallen was the other creator, it was quite feasible. And earth certainly had the energy needed to manage the increase in size safely...
     A muted roar of powerful engines halted his musings as Skyfire descended to the island. He and Starflare were currently engaged in clearing near-earth asteroids, a big job that was likely to take them at least another year, but a worthy enterprise and one that the humans simply could not do themselves. The two had already blasted to dust three that would have posed a serious risk to the planet in the near future had they been allowed to continue on their courses.
     The massive starcraft landed smoothly, not bothering to transform as he would be taking off again as soon as his passengers were aboard. This time Starstream had agreed to ride inside with the others, since this was Wavefront's first excursion and while the sparkling had begged to be allowed to fly, it really was too far. Although Skyfire had agreed to let Starstream and Wavefront out to fly together a little way during the journey.
     Starstream vented quietly and turned to his sparkling, who was now tugging on Prowl's servo, eager for the adventure to begin. ::I had best not keep them waiting::
     Prime laid a hand on his shoulder. ::Enjoy the experience, my friend. We will see you on your return::

Zee smiled complacently as Aitch handed over the latest report from Lieutenant Robbins on Diego Garcia. "I see all is going well?"
     "Indeed, sir. Stroke of genius having her get access to that Chatter computer as part of her duties."
     "Ah, well, we were lucky that it isn't too careful with the information it shares with the one at the consulate." He chuckled. "It's the equivalent of a dizzy blonde, really."
     "Certainly made our job easier." Aitch pointed to a long, highlighted paragraph on one of the report's early pages. "This gives the basic details of the work the lawnmower did to produce his enhanced plants. Formulae and all. Our own chemists - or ones we release this to - will be able to duplicate the results." He smirked. "And no credit needs to go to the robots."
     "Excellent. And Miss Randall? Is she proving useful?"
     Aitch sighed. "Not so much, I'm afraid. She's not been able to find anything scandalous or inflammatory at all. The worst that seems to be going on is Ms Moss's human guard, Phil Collier, seems to be absolutely smitten with her but the feeling doesn't seem to be reciprocated."
     Zee sniffed contemptuously. "We're not in Mills and Boon territory. If the man is too timid to make a move, more fool him. Although..." He frowned. "It makes him vulnerable, in case of any threat to the woman. Keep the info on file: we might find a use for it at a later date."
     "Of course, sir."
     "Very well. Leave this with me for now, and see if you can rustle up some chemists. Of all varieties. I'll need to decide whether we want this to get to the greedy ones, or whether a more altruistic gesture might serve us better. Schedule in a meeting for next Thursday. All department heads."
     Aitch saluted as he left the office. He already had a few names in mind...

::We're going to have to move at some point::
     ::No, really? And here I was thinking this is such a charming little place to stay::
     Barricade growled at the medic, who smirked back at him, then turned to Soundwave.
     ::Any suggestions?::
     ::Fact: there are human factions who would be glad to welcome us into their midst::
     Barricade's engine stalled momentarily, then he snarled, ::Bad enough we have to put up with one fleshbag - now you want us to join a whole group of them?::
     ::Fact: we cannot manage on our own, not yet. Fact: we need shelter and fuel that this creature cannot provide::
     ::I'd rather join the Autobots!::
     ::Fact: that is a viable option::
     Knock Out backed away as Barricade's bladewheels spun into view. Soundwave raised thin spindly servos.
     ::Fact: we are fugitives. Fact: Lord Megatron is terminated. We have no leader::
     Barricade couldn't argue with that. Knock Out inclined his helm.
     ::I loathe the idea of aligning with any humans - but realistically we really don't have a lot of choice. Three of us don't make an army. And yes, I know:: he raised a servo as Barricade made to object ::there are probably more of us out there, somewhere. We don't know where, or how many, or who, and at present any attempt to contact any of our compatriots will bring the Autobots running. If nothing else, Soundwave would be considered a prize::
     Barricade couldn't argue with that, either, much as he wanted to. Knock Out vented a sigh.
     ::So, our next action?::
     Soundwave gestured to Walker, who'd just arrived back from a trip to get supplies and was heading towards them, expression as grim as ever.
     ::Use what little we have::
     Barricade 'grinned' at Knock Out. ::He responds better to you than to me::
     Knock Out 'shuddered', then sank down to appear less threatening.
     "Agent Walker, might we have a moment of your time?"

Poppy woke early, and startled Livewire by springing out of bed before she'd even had her coffee.
     She grinned at the little transformer. "They're arriving today!"
     Ah. Yes, that would explain her excitement. Livewire chirred a laugh and commed Steamy to have something light and quick ready for their human's breakfast, as it seemed unlikely she'd sit still long enough - if at all - to eat anything substantial. There were times Poppy reminded them of the little human sparklings they'd see on TV...
     Phil met her as she almost skipped into the kitchen and pushed a mug of coffee into her hands, grinning as she giggled.
     "You're just a big kid aren't you?"
     She stuck out her tongue. He laughed.
     "Yep. Just as well no one else can see you."
     She blew a raspberry, then finished her coffee. "I spend most of my time being serious and sombre. I'm allowed a little leeway." She grinned. "Especially today."
     Phil nodded. "Did you know there's a whole crowd outside the gates, waiting to see them arrive?"
     "Really?" She frowned. "They aren't going to be a problem, are they?"
     "I doubt it, but we've got a squad from the base to keep order."
     "Oh good." She sighed happily. "I've been looking forward to this so much."
     "No really?" He saluted as Graham appeared at the door, then chuckled as Poppy swatted at him. "Come on. Steamy's made you a bagel with smoked salmon. Get that down you then we'll make sure everything's ready. Skyfire will be arriving in an hour."
     It had been decided that the starcraft would travel straight to the consulate: he would hover to deliver his passengers then head back to rejoin Starflare beyond the moon to continue with the asteroid-clearing operation. Five minutes before his arrival the whole complement of residents - intake and staff both - were on the portico looking upwards. Beyond the gates, and around the borders of the Consulate, and on the outskirts of the village - anywhere they could get any sort of view - waited what looked like thousands of people. And several contingents of press. And at least five helicopters hovering rather too close for safety, in Poppy's opinion. Though Highdive seemed to be keeping them pretty much under control.
     And then the massive shape appeared descending through the clouds, and the collective gasp blew autumn leaves from trees. Or so it seemed. A hundred feet or so up a large opening appeared in the side of Skyfire's plating and the figure of Starstream dropped out, Wavefront in his arms. He fell thirty feet or so before engaging thrusters, earning himself an 'ooooh!' from the crowd, then moved swiftly towards the consulate, landing gracefully on the drive. Poppy grinned at Wavefront, who was obediently now standing by his creator even though he was twitching with excitement and wanting to greet his human friend: but then all eyes and optics turned to the starcraft as he held perfectly still, engines purring, twenty-five feet above the ground.
     Prowl leapt from the opening, landing startlingly quietly for a metallic being, then straightened up and strode to the Consul. Standing before Poppy, he bowed courteously and held out a servo.
     "Consul Moss. Autobot second in command Prowl. At your service, I believe is the correct term."
     Poppy laid her hand on one of his digits and smiled. "Welcome, sir. Prowl. It's good to meet you."
     An almost human-sounding 'cough' came from the starcraft, and everyone turned to regard him.
     "If no-one minds, I shall head back."
     Poppy smiled. "Of course, Skyfire. I know you are busy. Thank you for bringing everyone here."
     "It was my pleasure. I shall return in two weeks to take them back."
     The starcraft rose steadily from the grounds and within half a minute was gone, back above the clouds. Poppy turned to Starstream - and found herself enthusiastically, and carefully, swept up into a hug.
     "Hello Poppy!"
     "Hello Ness." She chuckled as Wavefront carefully lowered her back to her feet and leaned down so they were face to faceplate. "You've grown again."
     He chirred his amusement. "I want to be big enough to take my alt form as soon as I can. Then I want to take you flying."
     Poppy's eyebrows rose - as did Phil's - and she glanced at Starstream. "What brought this on?"
     The jet inclined his helm. "You cared for him. He has formed an attachment to you."
     "Are you OK with that?"
     "It's... strange, but other humans have guardians. As long as you are both happy and he is well-treated, I do not mind."
     Boggling slightly at the thought, Poppy nodded. "I'd love it!"
     "Then we are all in accord."
     'Beat and Stronghold, who had been standing patiently at the back of the assembly, came forward as it started to rain. 'Beat gestured to the door.
     "Perhaps it's time to all go in now? Or would you prefer to check out your quarters, Starstream?"
     The jet looked up a the roof, then back at a door that had been designed with the Prime in mind. "Inside for now. If for no other reason that if Wavefront isn't allowed to explore we will get no peace."
     Laughing, humans and transformers made their way into the foyer. It was going to be an interesting fortnight.

Abigail smiled to herself as she watched the Cybertronians enter the house. She'd have a lot to report next time she met up with Mr Hawkins...

© JAT 25.09.2

Part 19 - Home Comforts 1

Phil rolled his eyes. "They're still here..."
     Poppy sighed and shrugged helplessly. "Can you blame them?"
     It had only been two days and she was already glad of the squad NEST had ordered to the Consulate to keep the place secure. The approach road to the grounds was packed with sightseers at all hours: they'd even been found sneaking through the woods that bordered the estate to the north. Any number of private helicopters and small aircraft were overflying the area all day, and someone had even tried to microplane in. (Highdive had chased that one away, which had earned him yet another bollocking from Graham.) Everyone was eager to see the new arrivals.
     Graham had insisted on a briefing before allowing anyone out of the house. His orders were simple: Starstream was not to assume his alt mode while here, and he and Wavefront were to stay within the Consulate grounds for the moment. Yes, they could fly - in fact he'd encouraged it, it would keep the sightseers happy - but only within the grounds. He had permission for them to fly further afield, but not until next week, and even then only within a fifty mile radius of the Consulate, and to and over Salisbury Plain. If they could both fly that far in their root modes. Prowl should choose an alt mode as soon as possible, then he would be permitted to travel more or less anywhere he wanted as long as he had 'Beat or Stronghold with him. Bluestreak objected that he'd been able to drive around just with his human when he'd arrived, at which Graham pointed out there'd been no great commotion or public interest when he'd got there, whereas the entire country, if not the world, now knew that the Consulate was host to Seekers and a new ground-based transformer. But, Graham had added as Blue hunched down, abashed, it would be a great idea if he and Prowl drove together, since he knew this part of the country quite well, now, and would know the most interesting places to show the tactician. Blue had perked up a little at that and nodded to Phil, who'd grinned back an affirmative.
     Starstream and Wavefront had easily accepted the conditions. They'd been delighted with their rooftop quarters too...

::Creator, can we make our nest like this when we get back?:: The sparkling was lying flopped on his back on a pile of giant cushions that supported his frame and wings perfectly. Starstream 'smiled' as he silvered the nest's outer covering, allowing them to see out but none of the curious humans to see in - sensitive optics could see several, perched in tall trees just outside the grounds with powerful optical instruments, and recording devices, trained on the structure.
     ::It would be pleasant. I will need to have the Prime authorise it, but I don't think he'll deny us::
     ::Mmmmmm..." Wavefront squirmed over onto his front and watched his creator activate their personal comms console: Jolt's face appeared on the screen. He gave them a friendly wave.
     ::Reporting in, Jolt. All is well. We have been made welcome and everyone is very friendly. I anticipate a happy and useful stay::
     ::Good. I'll relay that to the rest::
     ::And I'll check in again in two days::
     ::OK. Have fun!::
     Starstream inclined his helm, closed the connection, and turned to his sparkling. ::Do you wish to recharge? Or refuel?::
     Wavefront considered the question for a moment. It had been a long day. There'd been the flight inside Skyfire - and then that wondrous hour when the starcraft had slowed and let the jet and sparkling out, and the two had chased each other through the clouds and down almost to the cold jagged shimmering whiteness that Starstream said was snow on mountains. Then there'd been the arrival, and meeting all the new people - human and transformer - and those nice two grounders Upbeat and Bluestreak telling him all the things he could and really shouldn't do while he was here, because there were things that could hurt the humans. Then they'd explored the Consulate and he'd met lots more humans who were very pleased to see him and asked lots of questions - most of which, his creator had commed him, he shouldn't answer, not right now.
     Then the humans had joined them all in the rec room for a meal - and wasn't that interesting! - while they watched what Poppy called 'the six o'clock news' on the big screen. He was, he realised, suddenly in need of recharge, if only to allow his processor to defrag and file today's memories.
     Starstream 'smiled' as the sparkling sighed and settled more comfortably on the cushions. The jet gently stroked his helm
     ::Wise choice, little one. I'll be back shortly::
     As Starstream left the nest, 'Spin quietly entered to keep the little Seeker company until his creator came back.

The stars were calling. They were different here to those viewable from the island - well, some of them anyway. The air was different, the sounds were different - it was all invigorating. And meeting so many new beings had been... stressful, no matter how pleasant they were. He needed just a little time to himself.
     Aware of but ignoring the crowds of people still outside the gates, even now, after dark, Starstream engaged his thrusters and rose straight up into the cold cloudless sky. Well, it wasn't technically outside the grounds...
     He didn't go very high - perhaps four miles - but it was high enough to see the land laid out below him, the lighted streams of roads and clusters of habitations, the curve of the horizon. Hovering as the crisp air frosted his wings, he felt his systems settling, calming, tense cabling relaxing. It felt good.
     But it was probably not safe to stay here too long. He was aware of a human jet - NEST probably, keeping an eye on him as the humans would say - a mile or so north of his current position and didn't want to cause any problems. The brief excursion had served its purpose. He could go back now and recharge calmly.
     He heard, but ignored, the awed 'oooooh' that ran through the crowd as he landed back on the roof. 'Spin waved a servo as he slid open the entryway aperture and slipped into the warm, peaceful space. Wavefront was still peacefully recharging.
     ::Thank you, Sparkspinner. I didn't want him to online to a strange place with no-one here::
     ::My pleasure. I ran some scans while you were gone, and we'll speak tomorrow. I think some elemental additives to his energon might be beneficial::
     ::Thank you::
     'Spin 'nodded' as he stood. ::We'll see you both in the morning::

"So, what's the plan for today?" Phil handed Poppy her usual morning coffee and grinned. She yawned and took a swallow, smiling her thanks.
     "Prowl needs to choose his new alt mode, then I think he and you and Blue and Stronghold should go for a spin."
     "He should really have a human passenger."
     "True." Poppy frowned in thought. "We could always co-opt one of the students. Aaron maybe? He'd jump at the chance."
     Phil humphed noncommittally. He still didn't completely trust the lad. Poppy raised an eyebrow.
     "Well who would you want to go?"
     "You, preferably."
     She grinned. "That's sweet - but 'Beat might get jealous. And I really have too much to do here. And I did promise Ness we'd spend some time together."
     "You did, didn't you. Eh well. Better check with Prowl first though."
     "I already did, last night. He's perfectly happy with a student or a member of staff."
     "Oh all right then. Shall I tell Aaron or would you rather?"
     "You do it. I'm heading to the rec room to find out what Prowl's chosen..."

Poppy stared at the screen, mouth open.
     "Um, Prowl... that's not exactly inconspicuous..."
     The tactician inclined his helm, regarding her sombrely. He had the unnerving ability to make her feel like a naughty child brought up in front of a head teacher. "But I am not concerned with whether my alt mode is conspicuous or not, only that it be fast, efficient and inspire respect."
     Well, two out of three wasn't too bad. Although the car was more likely to inspire lust than respect.
     "And I find pleasure in the irony of the name."
     Poppy looked helplessly at 'Beat, who muttered, "The Nemesis is the name of the Decepticon flagship."
     On the screen was the image of the UK Nemesis, one of the sweetest, most sensual sportscars Poppy had ever seen. Fast - hitting 170 mph without effort - and electric. Quite a triumph of engineering. She almost wished she'd agreed to accompany him...
     "There's only ever been a handful of them made..."
     "Then it will be distinctive as well. Good. Where may I find one to transcan?"
     Poppy didn't have a clue. Luckily Ramp did, and within half an hour the little convoy - Phil and Aaron in Blue taking the lead, Prowl, still in Cybertronian alt mode, in the middle, and Stronghold and Graham bringing up the rear - headed off towards London.

Starstream and Wavefront arrived down a little later, the sparkling chirpy and excited, his creator calm and relaxed. Poppy grinned at them both as they took their morning energon in the rec room.
     "Sleep well?"
     Wavefront frowned at her. "We don't sleep, Poppy..."
     She chuckled. "I know. It's just something we humans say. To check if the other person is OK."
     "Oh. That's... nice."
     "You don't have anything equivalent?"
     Starstream inclined his head. "We can tell how we feel from our fields, Poppy. There is no need to speak."
     Oh, of course not... Poppy nodded. "We can sometimes tell how the other person is feeling from their body language. I suppose that's similar. Well, as close as we can get anyway."
     Wavefront folded his servos primly into his lap and regarded Poppy brightly. "What are we doing today?"
     "What would you like to do?"
     Glancing quickly back at his creator, the sparkling grinned. "Can we go for a walk?"
     "Around the grounds? Of course. Do you want me to come?"
     "Yes. I meant you and me go for a walk."
     "If Starstream says so."
     The jet waved a servo. "By all means. I need to speak with Sparkspinner for a while, so won't come with you."
     Wavefront rose to his feet, eager to explore: Poppy chuckled and stood. "We'd better get going then!"

Poppy took Wavefront on a tour of the grounds. He wasn't that interested in the greenhouses or vegetable gardens, but the pools fascinated him - especially the fish. He squatted down and tried to catch them, chirring laughter when they easily slid through his digits. Poppy watched him for a while, smiling. The similarities to a human child were striking. And borderline adorable.
     After a few minutes the sparkling sat back and eyed the human.
     "S'nice here."
     "I'm glad you like it."
     "Can I stay?"
     "Umm..." Poppy blinked, startled. "You've only been here a couple of days, sweetspark. You might not like it. And I don't know if your creator will agree. You're here for two weeks - let's see how you feel then, shall we? Then we can talk about it with Starstream."
     "OK Poppy." He stood and held out a servo. "Can we see more?"
     She hauled herself to her feet and took the servo, Wavefront's powerful clawed digits curling carefully around fragile flesh. "Let's go up to the copse. There's a good view of the house and gardens from there. It's everyone's favourite resting place."

Meanwhile Starstream, 'Spin and Ramp were in conference.
     ::It could go either way. His basic design is adaptable - flyer or starcraft. I've never known anything like it - then again, since none of us know anything about hatchlings and not much about Seekers, it may be a common thing amongst your people::
     Starstream vented a sigh. ::I don't know. All I knew when I first onlined was that I had hatchlings, but that was probably a spark memory rather than a processor one. Starscream probably knew everything, but since I don't have his memories...::
     'Spin laid a servo on his shoulder strut. ::Don't worry about it. We'd much rather have you than him::
     ::I'd much rather be me than him!:: Starstream shuddered, then resolutely brought his focus back to his eldest sparkling. ::Will it cause any problems?::
     ::Ratchet doesn't think so, but I've prepared those additives I spoke of. You can mix them with his energon. They'll increase protoform tensile strength while keeping the metal light and flexible:: 'Spin paused and regarded the jet. ::Actually, you could benefit from some yourself. I'll make extra::
     ::Thank you::
     'Spin waved a dismissive servo. ::Has the Prime mentioned any interplanetary missions to you yet?::
     ::No. I believe both he and Ratchet are waiting to see that I can control the memory fluxes before they'll consider it::
     'Spin 'nodded' ::Sensible::
     ::I agree. But I'm hoping to travel to the moon the next time Skyfire makes the trip::
     ::That will be to transport Poppy there, won't it?::
     ::Yes:: The jet 'sighed' ::Wavefront will want to go::
     Ramp 'chuckled'. ::Going to let him?::
     Starstream thought about it for a moment. ::It would be an interesting experience for him. If there are no objections from Ratchet or the Prime, I may allow it::
     ::We'll be sure not to tell him...:: Ramp paused for a moment, multiple optics glittering. ::Blue, Stronghold and Prowl are on their way back - ETA two hours::
     ::Let Poppy know. She'll want to be here to greet them...::

© JAT 29.09.12

THIS is the Nemesis. I want one. Really REALLY want one...

Part 20 - Home Comforts 2

Jacinta grinned widely at Wavefront.
     "Are there any more like you at home, sweetspark?"
     "Four!" the sparkling piped up brightly. Poppy, unable to decide whether to giggle, wince or curl up in embarrassment, slapped her hand against her forehead and glowered at the Australian Consul.
     "Behave, please. He's only a child."
     Jacinta faked innocence. "What? I was only wondering if one of the family would like to come visit. Wide open skies, warm weather - it would be fun."

It was Friday, and the visitors had been at Iacon House for a week. A very busy week, but a week that had also been a lot of fun. Poppy had hardly seen 'Beat: he and Blue had spent most of the time escorting Prowl around the country - literally. They'd all engaged what 'Beat had called holodrivers - holograms that made it look as though they had human drivers - since neither Poppy nor Phil had the time to accompany them and Aaron couldn't go without one of them, and driven up to Scotland, then diverted over to Wales on the way back. Apparently Prowl had been intent on learning to handle the different terrains that he might encounter on earth, and had insisted on exploring them in both modes. Which his companions had no problem with, although 'Beat had been muttering 'never again' on their return. From what Poppy could gather, slipping and sliding down a fair number of yards on their climb up Ben Nevis had put him off mountains for life - or at least for a couple of centuries.
     But Prowl declared himself pleased with the experience, so that was OK. Privately, Poppy was startled that he hadn't complained about the horribly muddy and scratched state he'd come back in, compared to the gorgeous pristine state in which he'd left, new alt mode purring almost silently, sun gleaming on his black-with-white-accents sleek, sensuous curves - but a shower, refuel and recharge later and you'd never known he'd been gone. Obviously he was one of those incredibly pragmatic characters she'd always admired...
     Starstream and Wavefront, on the other hand, had been happy to stay within their specified bounds. Starstream split his time between intense conversations with Ramp and 'Spin and accidentally terrorising the troops on Salisbury Plain (until they got used to his appearance, anyway), while Wavefront had barely moved from Poppy's side. Which was gratifying, but became awkward when members from the newly instigated UK Extra-Terrestrial Monitoring Commission paid a surprise visit.
     It was almost impossible to get the sparkling to shut up...
     Fortunately, the officials had found his attention and curiosity flattering, and had even been a little more forthcoming than might otherwise have been the case - Poppy was annoyed to discover that plans were afoot to change the current UK-European agreement on the sharing of alien technology in favour of a couple of countries the current government wanted to 'sweeten' for political and financial reasons. Without a distinct hint being let slip in conversation with Wavefront, she wouldn't have known anything about it until negotiations were well underway. As it was, she could now take the matter up officially.
     And today it was time for the usual Consul meeting...

Starstream sat behind his hatchling, both clawed servos on small shoulder struts, remaining quiet while the Consuls admired and greeted Wavefront. The sparkling was perfectly happy with the attention, smiling and waving as each woman introduced herself. He even asked relevant questions as each Consul stated their location.
     Poppy wondered briefly if Starstream, or Ratchet or the Prime, had tutored him - then mentally shook her head. It all seemed very spontaneous. And although she remembered they could learn by simply downloading the information directly into their processors, she was pretty sure it wasn't possible to download attitude or temperament in the same way. Quite simply, Wavefront was naturally curious, friendly and vocal, and everyone responded to him as though he were a cute human child.
     Well, obviously not everyone, but near as damn it.
     He was currently speaking - in Japanese - to Kiku, who was quite blatantly squeeing (to use a very apt colloquialism popular a few years back) silently at him. Cable slipped out of the breast pocket of Poppy's shirt, climbed to her shoulder and quietly translated for her.
     "He's expressing his enjoyment of old monster movies: Livewire introduced him to them a few nights ago after you had gone to bed..."
     Poppy made a determined effort to stop thinking of him as a human child who 1) should have been in bed by then and 2) wasn't old enough to watch that sort of thing.
     "He likes Mothra, because it's a bit like an organic Seeker. Kiku is agreeing with him."
     Wavefront giggled and would have continued, but Poppy laid a hand on his arm.
     "Ness, sweetspark, it's time for me to have a word now."
     "Oh. I'm sorry, Poppy. It's just so interesting."
     "I know, and it's all right. You can stay and listen if you like. We aren't going to be very long." If only because of the hour in everyone's time-zones: it was almost three a.m. in Kyoto and four in the morning in Melbourne, not ideal times for a conference. And the introductions to the two Seekers had already taken up most of their allotted time. But Poppy was determined to advise her counterparts of the recent accidental disclosure of her government's less than transparent dealings with Iacon House, and to warn them to be aware that it might also be happening in their own countries.
     The mood sobered immediately - none of the women were under any illusions as to what their own governments might do to gain technological supremacy. Ramp had already reported back to Diego Garcia and informed them all that the Prime would be holding a meeting with his own officers first, then shortly afterward with the global heads of state. They'd be advised of the results and any action they would need to take as soon as possible.
     Poppy nodded, wondering if this had anything to do with Sally's supposed 'espionage'. She'd contact Sanders as soon as she could to let him know about developments.
     Jacinta lingered as everyone said their farewells, waiting for a private word with Poppy once the Seekers had left the rec room.
     "I was serious, you know. About him having a brother, I mean. It would be fantastic to have a Seeker here. We've got an awful lot of territory and while Valiant is great, being able to get around by air would be better. The craft our friends have provided is good as far as it goes, but I still have to drive to and from it and it still needs a pilot, just in case of emergencies."
     Poppy nodded understandingly. "There are three other Seekers, but I think Starwind is already taken. He sticks to the twins like glue. I can see them becoming a proper operational unit in a few years time: he's already good with a variety of weapons. But Cloudrunner and Windchaser are still free. Of the two Cloudrunner is very shy, but Windchaser is a lot more outgoing. He's also the youngest - the least developed of them. But I'll certainly advise the Prime of your interest. Of course, ultimately it comes down to what they themselves want. We can't dictate that. And I think Starstream might want a say in it too!"
     "Yes, of course. But if you could make sure my interest is recorded... I'll keep my fingers crossed."
     Chuckling, Poppy nodded and closed the connection. Ramp transformed and sat on the edge of the console, legs dangling as he eyed her narrowly.
     "The Prime won't allow any of his people to be used, you know."
     "Yes, I'm fully aware of that, and I wouldn't dream of taking advantage. But if they like the idea and if Starstream and Prime approve and if there are no problems with it, it would be fantastic to partner flyers. It's fun enough in Highdive - I can only imagine how wonderful it would be in a jet. Or whatever else they end up as."
     Ramp nodded sombrely. "Wavefront is keen, and he has a certain amount of sway over his siblings. You will all need to be careful not to be too enthusiastic or persuasive, at least while they are still developing."
     "Thanks. I'll remember. And I'll make sure the others know too. We've no intention of jeopardising our relationship with your people..."

Abigail was in the secondary part of the cooking space around the corner from the main section, quietly finishing off a last few chores and getting ready for the morning, when Wavefront entered the kitchen and joined Phil at the main table. She paused in her work, unnoticed as the Seeker hunkered down to be at the same height as the lieutenant and excitedly began to tell him all about the meeting. Phil nodded as he drank his last coffee of the day, smiling at the little Seeker's enthusiasm. Abigail held herself still and silent, listening intently, her keen mind memorising everything they were saying.
     The Consuls were worried about governmental interference in their work? The Australian Consul wanted a Seeker of her own? Oh, this was excellent. Mr Hawkins would be very pleased indeed. She might even get a bonus!

Barricade was pacing - not that he could go very far, enclosed as all three of them were in the shipping container. Knock Out eyed him tiredly, then glanced at the corner where Soundwave rested, visor blank and the comms expert himself most likely in stasis. No help there. He turned back to Barricade.
     ::I know you don't like this. None of us like this. It's... humiliating. And uncomfortable. But it's also the easiest way for us to travel overseas::
     Barricade snarled incoherently and carried on pacing. Knock Out shuttered his optics for a moment in frustration.
     ::Three more days. That's all. Three more days before we dock in England. Then the True Human Brotherhood will collect us from the port and we can start planning what to do next::
     ::True Human Brotherhood - what a load of slag!::
     ::A load of slag which will shelter us and provide us with energon while they plot how to drive our kind offworld. I'm not stupid, Barricade. I do know what we're letting ourselves in for. That's why, for the moment, we downplay our abilities and act like good little Autobots until we're ready to move::
     ::And then what?::
     ::I don't know!:: Knock Out took a deep invent to stop his systems overheating, calming himself. ::We need somewhere safe to regroup. Find out how many more of us there are. Decide our future. We can't do that stuck out in the wilderness. These fleshbags have resources we need. Once Soundwave jacks into their comms systems and we have a secure base, we can make them work for us::
     Barricade paused, considering, then grunted an affirmative.
     ::I want Prime's spark::
     ::Yes, well we'd all like that. It's not going to happen unless we're organised, though, so let's take this one step at a time::
     Barricade growled and resumed his pacing...

© JAT 06.10.12

Part 21 - Home Comforts 3

"You're absolutely certain she likes steak?" Phil kept his voice low, and Cable, 'sighing' mentally, chirred an affirmative.
     "It's still her favourite meal, sir. Phil. She hasn't changed her mind."
     "And this place has good reviews?"
     "Ramp says so..."
     It was the 9th of November and Phil was wondering if he'd made the right decision. He'd conspired with Beverley to make sure the calendar for the 11th - Poppy's birthday - was kept as clear as possible, and had booked the table at Winchester's Porterhouse steakhouse a month and a half ago, before he'd even checked that she'd like to go for a meal. He wasn't quite sure why he was panicking... no, it wasn't panicking, don't be daft. He was just concerned that everything should go well... but it had been a very long time since he'd been so nervous.
     He made his way down to the kitchen, where Graham, seconded to the Consulate while the transformer visitors were there, gave him a grin and a mug.
     "Going to propose?"
     Phil nearly spat out his coffee. "What!? No, of course not!"
     "Why not?"
     "Because... you know why not. And anyway, it's none of your business!"
     Graham chuckled and shook his head condescendingly. "If you say so. You should discuss it though."
     Phil invited the Wing Commander to go forth and multiply, then determinedly ignored him, seating himself and asking the disapproving Steamy for a bacon butty with fruity sauce.
     "Does she know yet?"
     Phil glared at his superior officer. "No, it's a secret."
     Graham nodded. "I'll make sure no-one says anything then. What have you got her?"
     The lieutenant sighed and took a bite of his sandwich. "I haven't yet. I don't know what to get her. I'm heading out to see if inspiration strikes."
     Graham's eyes twinkled. "Could always buy her a ring..."
     Phil growled, finished his breakfast and stalked out of the house to find Blue. He'd arranged the morning off to go hunting for gifts...

It was Knock Out's turn to stay on watch and he was not enjoying it...
     The True Human Brotherhood had turned out to be a very mixed group, funded by three of the richest industrialists in the world, and thus possessed of a staggering amount and variety of resources. The Brotherhood's base was an old steelworks on the banks of a large river to the north of the country, which, while looking derelict from the outside, had been completely converted on the inside into a technological marvel. Well, what the fleshbags thought of as one anyway.
     They'd prepared well for their alien visitors - each of the 'Cons had their own comfortable berth, ample supplies of energon - and there was even a wash-room, with a luxurious assortment of solvents, waxes and lubricants provided.
     Of course, as Soundwave was able to confirm the first time he jacked into their comms, it was only to keep the transformers 'sweet', as the fleshbag term went, so that they'd hold down their end of the deal. Which was, after all the double talk and convoluted politicking, to spill all the information they had about the Autobots, their officers, strategies, strengths and weaknesses, so that they could be brought under human control.
     "And then what happens to us?" Barricade had growled at a man known only as Black, the nominal leader of the group. The human had smiled. Barricade didn't know it, but it made Black look like a shark.
     "You'll remain as our honoured guests. Overseers to the Autobots - after all, they're your people, you should have control of them."
     Barricade had nodded, satisfied for the moment. Knock Out and Soundwave were less happy. The ease with which the humans had taken out a good number of 'Con warriors in Chicago proved that the short-lived, inferior little parasites were not to be underestimated. The group hated aliens. There was nothing to stop them changing their minds and removing or enslaving their guests once they'd achieved their objectives.
     And there were an awful lot more of them than there were transformers...
     So the three had organised shifts, so that one of them would remain on watch at all times while the others recharged. Knock Out used the time to quietly research human anatomy and pathology, reckoning that if they were going to be stuck here for any length of time, he may as well use it to find out as much as he could about the enemy.
     Soundwave simply remained jacked into the comms, almost becoming a part of the system, only resting when it was absolutely necessary. He was currently cautiously shadowing the Autobot's comms system, able to listen to the less vital, and therefore only lightly encrypted, transmissions from Chatter; Ramp was far more secure and security-conscious, and despite all his discreet efforts the 'Con had been unable to access anything from that end.
     Knock Out paused beside the console Soundwave had claimed as his own, and watched the humans go about whatever it was they were doing. There were around a hundred of them, half of whom stayed on the base; they had their own berths on the third floor of the massive building. Most of them were still wary of their visitors, quite rightly in Knock Out's opinion, and keeping watch. The 'Con medic waved a friendly servo at them - and immediately found five weapons with laser sights aimed in his direction. He 'sighed' and turned his back on them, eyeing his colleague.
     ::Paranoid fleshbags, aren't they?::
     ::Do you blame them?::
     ::Not really. Pity we can't... 'play' with them. I've found several organic internal systems I'd like to explore more closely::
     Soundwave vented silently. ::When we are less dependent on them for our welfare...::
     ::I'll look forward to it. Anything interesting on the airwaves?::
     ::The Moss human will be away from her consulate in two days time. There is to be some sort of celebration in her honour::
     ::So that sad, traitorous excuse for a consulate will be without its protector?::
     ::Negative. She will be relatively unprotected, however::
     ::Hm...:: Knock Out drummed his digits quietly on the edge of the console. ::That opens up possibilities. Do we know where she's going?::
     ::Affirmative:: Soundwave called up a map highlighting Iacon House, the restaurant, and the routes between the two. Knock Out smiled slowly.
     ::Give me the details and I'll have a word with Black...::

Phil arrived back despondent and seated himself in the kitchen, Blue hunkering down at his back with a servo resting consolingly on his shoulder.
     Graham handed him a mug of tea. "No joy?"
     Phil huffed his exasperation. "I can't find anything she'd like."
     "And we did look all over the place. I tried to help but I haven't known Ms Moss all that long, not long enough to know the sort of things she'd like..."
     Phil patted Blue's digits, interrupting before the transformer could reach full momentum. "But you tried, Blue, and I appreciate it."
     "Why don't you ask 'Beat? Or 'Spin? They both know Poppy well - as well as a transformer can, anyway."
     Phil nodded. "That's actually a very good idea."
     "I do have them, occasionally." Graham grinned and pushed himself to his feet. "There's still time. If you want tomorrow off as well that'd be fine."
     "Thanks, sir. I'm probably going to need it."

"For Poppy's birthday, eh?" 'Beat inclined his helm. "Is it a special human one? 21st or 50th or something like that?"
     "No, nothing like that. But I'd like to get her something nice. Something unusual."
     "How about an apple?"
     Phil stared at the MGC for a moment. "An apple?"
     "Yes. A heritage apple tree."
     Well he hadn't expected that, but on reflection it was a lovely idea. Poppy did like apples, and was quietly rather proud of her gardens - even if other people and Muncher did all the work in them. And she loved her holly tree. "That's inspired."
     "Thank you."
     "So how do we go about it?"
     'Beat went quiet for a moment, accessing the net, then vented quietly. "It's really the wrong time of year. Most nurseries supply them from December. But I suppose it's not that far away, should be able to swing it. I reckon we can get Beverley to employ her PA skills, nobody dares argue with her. What sort of apple do you want?"
     "Sweet. And it should be pickable as close to her birthday as possible."
     "There are a few. D'Arcey Spice, Ballard Beauty, Dawn, Prince Edward..."
     "Dawn? There's an apple called Dawn?"
     "Yup. Medium sized, pink flesh, sweet flavour, pickable from late October."
     "That sounds perfect!"
     "If you organise it with Beverly, I'll give Blue the directions. You'll have to collect it. That'll mean a run up to Norfolk."
     "No problem. Blue has been itching for a long fast run for a few days now."
     "Well that was easy."
     Phil laughed and turned to re-enter the house, calling back over his shoulder, "OK, now go on to prove black is white..."
     'Beat stared after him for a second or two before the reference clicked. His engine revved a chuckle as he commed the Porsche.

"That's a lovely idea!" Beverley was already looking up the nursery phone number as Phil kept watch to make sure Poppy didn't decide to drop into the office unexpectedly; she was currently in the rec room with Starstream and Wavefront, but there was no guarantee she'd stay there... "But I think you should get at least two."
     "Two trees?"
     Beverley nodded. "Maybe even three."
     "Three different ones, perhaps..." Phil took another look at the online catalogue while Beverley made a coffee. "OK. Dawn is pickable late October, Queenby's Glory early September, and Discovery is middle of August. That gives her a steady supply of fresh apples all the way through the autumn. Will that be OK, do you think?"
     "I think it's perfect." Beverley dimpled at him. "I'll call them, if you'd like to hang on."
     "Sure." He settled on the transformer-sized chair and kept his attention on the door while the PA made the arrangements. It didn't take long.
     "Right." Beverly finished the call with a satisfied flourish and retrieved the map she'd printed out. "They'll be ready for you at 2.30 tomorrow afternoon."
     "Thanks Beverley, you're a treasure."
     "I know." She smirked at him, and he chuckled.
     "See you at dinner."

Abigail found out about the planned meal almost by accident when Brenda mentioned to Laura that Ms Moss and the lieutenant wouldn't be around for dinner on the 11th as Mr Phil was taking their Poppy out for her birthday. Pausing in paring the Bramley apples for dinner, Abigail smiled at them.
     "Ooh, nice! Where are they going?"
     "Winchester. Porterhouse steakhouse."
     Abigail nodded. "I know it - Aaron took me for lunch there once. Lovely food."
     "Great atmosphere too - she'll love it." Brenda grinned. "And you never know, he might pop the question!"
     Laura chuckled and shook her head. "Nah, don't think so. He's shy and she's clueless."
     Abigail bit back a snicker - that really did describe the relationship very well.
     "Well it's about time she settled down, and she could do a lot worse. He's a bit of all right is our Mr Phil."
     As the conversation turned to men and marriage in general, Abigail went back to her preparation, looking forward to contacting Dinky Pie - Mr Hawkins - in the Australian brony chatroom later.

© JAT 14.10.12

This is the Porterhouse steakhouse... [drool]

AN: I discovered something earlier in the week that quite surprised me. It seems that in America, 'quite' before an adjective means 'very, extremely' (calling someone 'quite pretty' effectively means calling them gorgeous). Over here, however, 'quite' plus adjective means almost the opposite. 'Quite pretty' is half-hearted at best, sort of "Well, she's pretty enough I suppose if you can't find anything better, beggars can't be choosers". It can be quite insulting!
     As a reply to something someone else has said, it basically indicates agreement, as in 'quite so'.
     Just something any American readers might like to bear in mind!

Part 22 - Home Comforts 4

"I think we're lost."
     Phil rubbed a hand across his eyes and sighed.
     "I think so too."
     It had all gone so well up to now. They'd headed off early, got onto the M3, had fun negotiating the M25 and joined the M11 to the north of London. Phil had ruthlessly quashed his guilt as Blue opened up and raced along the motorway at just over 200 mph, Ramp effortlessly blinding speed cameras to allow his colleague a little fun...
     They'd left the motorway at Cambridge, Blue fairly radiating contentment, purring along happily after his work out, and they'd driven along roads that gradually grew more rural until they'd ended up here, in Little Snoring.
     The pub, the Green Man, would be opening in half an hour and Phil decided he'd ask for directions there. In the meantime - well, there were worse places to get lost. He'd check out the airfield. It was private now, but he could hear the growl of plane engines, so it was obviously in use...

"West Raynham Park? Aye, I knows it." The buxom bottle-blonde barmaid gave Phil a cheeky grin as she handed him a cup of coffee. "Give us a minute an' I'll draw you a map."
     Phil watched as she sketched on a serviette - and added her name and phone number. He hurriedly finished his coffee, wincing as it burned his tongue.
     "There y'go, luv." The barmaid handed him the piece of paper with a wink. "I'm free this evenin', if you're coming back this way..."
     Phil managed a mirthless grin, thanked her, and hastened out of the pub and into Bluestreak - who seemed to be frowning.
     "Phil? What happened? The temperature of your plating is much higher than usual. And it's gone pink on your faceplates."
     He huffed. "It's called embarrassment, Blue. It's nothing to worry about."
     "You sure you aren't getting ill or something?"
     Phil chuckled. "Yes, I'm sure. Come on, I know the way now..."

He was too early, of course, but the assistant was persuaded to have the three trees ready to go by one p.m. Phil eyed them, frowning, then turned to the young man.
     "They're a bit bigger than I was expecting."
     "How are you transporting them?"
     "Well, I brought the car, but I'm not sure they'll fit."
     The nurseryman eyed the Porsche and shook his head. "Not a chance, mate."
     Phil shoved a hand through his hair. "But I have to take them today. They're for a birthday gift."
     "Well, I suppose you could hitch on a trailer. Shouldn't damage the car. Much. You'll have to go slow though."
     "Can you provide a trailer?"
     "Yep. Have to charge you for it though. And how will you get it back?"
     "I can arrange that." He'd second a NEST vehicle and have a squaddie drive it back on Friday. Dragging his wallet out of his pocket he eyed the nurseryman enquiringly: the figure quoted would, he thought, have been enough to outright buy the trailer, but he wasn't going to argue. It would be a long, sedate drive back if he wanted to arrive with the trees undamaged and he wanted to get going as soon as possible.
     At least Blue didn't object to the indignity...

Ramp made a point of automatically skimming the internet several times a day to seek out any references to the Consulates or their inhabitants - it was a simple way to stay advised of any potential problems. Now he paused, then backtracked a little, following a thread that he'd either missed earlier or that had just appeared. It was on one of the humans' more popular social networking sites, and was really just a name. But it was an interesting name, especially given that their surveillance cameras had picked up several humans who always seemed to be present around the consulate's boundaries.
     ProwlsMissus. The 'Missus' part was a colloquialism for the honorific that implied that a female was mated - married, as the humans put it - to a partner, usually male. The Prowl part referred to their own Prowl, if the photographs accompanying the account were anything to go by. And they were photographs of the real thing, some of them a little fuzzy and some of them taken at a distance, of his root mode and alt mode both, obviously taken from outside the gates.
     Hm. Well, it looked like yet another human foible - they seemed to have an endless supply of them. And it probably meant nothing, but he'd keep tabs on it anyway. You never could tell...
     In the meantime, he would continue helping Beverley to organise the agenda for the month that Poppy would be spending on the moon. The consul, understandably, didn't want anything vital to be scheduled for while she was away.

Knock Out had been sure Black and Walker were going to come to blows: the ex-NEST officer had been forced to come into the country 'under the radar' as he put it - illegally, in other words - and reached the THB's headquarters a week after the 'Cons had arrived.
     And he took an instant dislike to their leader. Though Knock Out wasn't exactly surprised: Walker seemed to hate everyone.
     "I'm taking over the mission."
     "No you're not."
     "Listen, you fucking moron, I have a score to settle with her - and with him. You give me the mission, or you can forget about them" a casual gesture towards Knock Out and Barricade "helping you."
     Personally Knock Out didn't care which fleshbags were involved, as long as he got to have some fun, but he supposed, grudgingly, that he trusted Walker more than these new ones. At least Walker's duplicity was honest and open.
     Black frowned at the transformers, and the medic inclined his helm. "He does have a point. And we've... worked together before."
     Black sneered, then turned back to Walker. "I'll have to get it authorised."
     "Yes, you do that."
     As Black made his way to his office to contact his superiors, Walker approached the 'Cons, muttering imprecations under his breath. Knock Out leaned back against the wall and folded his arms over his torso. "You made it, then?"
     "Yeah obviously, Captain fuckin' Obvious."
     The medic smirked down at him. The human was rather the worse for wear. "Nice trip?"
     Walker raised a fist, but, realising just in time if he hit the 'Con he'd come off worst, lowered it again. "Been suckin' up to the scumbags?"
     "If you mean, have we been treated with respect here, that's an affirmative."
     "Might have guessed..."
     "You should try it. It can work wonders..." He glanced in the direction of the office as Black came back out: the human has a sour expression on his face.
     "OK, they say you have command. Pick who you want to take with you - I have the dossiers on my system. You can use my office for the next hour."
     "Big of you. But I don't need an army. We'll have these two" indicating Knock Out and Barricade "me, and a couple of others. This'll be easy. They'll keep it low key, there'll only be the two of them in one of their cars and maybe a second vehicle as an escort. Even if both vehicles are 'Bots they won't be soldiers."
     "You hope. Have you seen the news lately? There are two new ones, a sniper, and the other one is some sort of super-computer-minded tactical expert. If either of them is along there could be trouble."
     "Sniper's only good at a distance. In close Barricade has the advantage. And while he prefers not to, Knock Out is damn good in a fight as well." Black still looked unsure, and Walker growled angrily. "You ever done this before?"
     The other grimaced and shook his head, and Walker laughed bitterly. "Then leave it to the professionals." He turned to eye the 'Cons. "Be ready to move out in two hours. I wanna see the lie of the land before we take action."

"You got them OK?" 'Beat nodded to Phil as he entered the kitchen: the lieutenant smiled.
     "Yep. I've hidden them behind the larger greenhouse. Could you help me bring them out in the morning?"
     "Of course."
     "Thanks." He rubbed his hands together, blowing on chilled fingers, and Steamy immediately chittered at him, pushing a mug of steaming coffee in his direction.
     "Two ticks and I'll have dinner ready for you, Mr Phil."
     Phil chuckled and seated himself; the smell in the kitchen was very appetising. He glanced towards the door as Blue looked in, and waved.
     "Off to recharge?"
     "Not tired yet. Some energon would be nice though. I just wanted to thank you for the run - it was good."
     "Glad you enjoyed it. I did too - you are a wonderful ride. Sorry we got lost though."
     Blue waved a servo dismissively. "It doesn't matter. It was interesting to see new countryside. And the trailer wasn't too uncomfortable."
     "Yes, sorry about that too."
     Blue tilted his helm and glanced at 'Beat. "Ready to refuel?"
     The MGC nodded, and the two left for the rec room together as Steamy served up a large bowl of hearty oxtail stew with fresh crusty bread. Just what Phil needed after today.

Starstream was outside of the rooftop nest, gazing up at the stars, ignoring the chill wind. Poppy didn't plan on venturing up here very often - the Seekers liked their privacy, after all - but they would be returning to Diego Garcia in a few days, and she wanted to speak to the jet privately. She shivered and pulled her jacket more closely around her as she looked up at him. He returned her gaze, helm inclined enquiringly, and she smiled.
     "I wanted to ask about Wavefront. He's still saying he wants to live here."
     "I know. And I am not averse to it. But he is a little too young yet. And he will need his alternative mode first."
     Poppy nodded thoughtfully. "How long is that likely to take?"
     "Until he is fully mature? We can't be certain. Ratchet believes it will be a minimum of ten of your years, however."
     "Mm." Poppy frowned. "That's not too long, I suppose. I'll still be young enough to enjoy it."
     Starstream peered more closely at her. "I don't understand."
     She smiled, a little sadly. "We don't live as long as you, and as we get older our bodies tend to... wear out a bit."
     The jet went absolutely silent for a moment or two, then seems to slump, venting harshly. "I had not considered... I understand your lifecycle, but somehow - I did not think it would apply to you."
     She patted his leg. "It happens to us all, Star. We have about eighty years, a bit more if we're lucky, and then we die. Terminate."
     "That is... unfortunate."
     Poppy sighed. "The worst thing is knowing all the things I won't get to see. How your story is going to continue, what's going to happen to you. Everything that's going to happen after I'm gone. Not that I'm not grateful for everything I have." She added hastily. "I've had more than anyone has any right to hope for, let alone expect. But I'm greedy. I want it all."
     Starstream very gently laid a claw on her shoulder. "That's not greedy, Poppy. As far as I can tell, that is part of your human nature. And if I could I would make it so that you could live as long as us. But I don't know of any way it would be possible. I will ask Ratchet though. His experience of other species is vast. He may know of a way."
     Poppy stared at him. "You mean it might just conceivably be possible?"
     "I don't know. And I don't wish you to be distressed or disappointed... I should not have said anything..."
     She chuckled. "I'll try to forget you mentioned it."
     But the realisation that he had... well, forever, possibly, while if she was lucky she might have another sixty or so years was both disorientating and depressing. What must it be like to be, effectively, immortal?
     They sat in silence for a little while, both gazing up at the stars - stars that he had all the time there was to reach, while they would be forever denied to her.
     Or maybe not. After all, Cybertronian technology was changing the face of the world even now. Who knew what Ratchet might be able to come up with?

JAT 26.10.12

Belated apologies, I should have said last chapter. Lutra suggested the apple trees. And also advised me dinky di is Australian slang for correct and proper, which makes the choice of nick for Aitch/Hawkins a little ironic.
     And yes, Little Snoring is a real place. It's just down the road from Great Snoring, not far from Fakenham. Little Snoring is actually the larger village. I love British place names!
     ProwlsMissus courtesy of Vivienne Grainger

Part 23 - Birthday

The 11th dawned crisp and clear, with a haze of frost over the leaves. Poppy woke to the sound of Annie's Song on the radio and the smell of freshly-made hot Belgian chocolate with tiny vanilla marshmallows.
     "Mmmmmmm...." She stretched, smiling at Livewire, who was perched on the bedside cabinet with a large (for a human) envelope in his hands.
     "Happy creation day Poppy."
     "Thank you." She pushed herself a little more upright and reached for the mug of chocolate and the envelope. Inside was a flat, thin piece of plastic... at least, it looked like plastic. There was a tiny touch pad at one corner: glancing at Livewire, who nodded, she pressed it carefully.
     An exquisitely detailed 3D hologram of her transformers flickered into life above the plastic. She laid it flat and watched, sipping her chocolate, as each of them wished her Happy Birthday or Happy Creation Day or Happy Sparking Day, according to personal preference. At the end they all sang what she assumed was 'Happy birthday to you' - the melody (if you could call it that) sounded vaguely familiar, but the words were in Cybertronian. Which meant the song went on for five minutes...
     She laughed delightedly and grinned at Livewire, knowing he was transmitting her reactions to the rest of them. "Thank you! That was... astonishing."
     "'Beat thought you might like it, to go with the History."
     "It's a lovely memento of you all. I shall treasure it." She frowned at it. "The battery isn't going to run out, is it?"
     "It runs on a self-contained power cell. Just leave it in the sun for half an hour and it'll keep going for three years."
     Poppy blinked. She'd have to speak to 'Beat later, find out if this was something new they'd been working on without telling her - which was unlikely - or basic Cybertronian tech they simply hadn't thought to mention.
     "That's good!"
     "We're glad you're pleased." Livewire settled back down. "There are more things in the kitchen, and Steamy is making you 'birthday breakfast'."
     "I'd better get up then!"

Fifteen minutes later she was seated at the table with Phil, the kitchen staff, Beverley and all the transformers - including Starstream and Wavefront - crammed into the large room. It was a tight fit, and she could sense the jet already feeling claustrophobic, so hastened to open the pile of parcels before Steamy became too engrossed with making whatever surprise meal he had thought up.
     She realised after the first three parcels that her fellow Consuls seemed to have all opted for the same theme - native minerals. Syuzanna had sent a piece of natural Moldavite, while Kiku had chosen jade carved into the likeness of an oriental dragon. There was jade from Calfuray too, in the shape of a sinuous jaguar. Saroj's gift made Poppy chuckle: it was a small bronze statuette more or less in the form of a transformer, with sapphires for eyes that glowed when a candle was lit inside. Nea's was a large piece of amber with a small spider inside it, Abla had sent topaz crystals in matrix, and Jacinta's gift was a piece of natural opal, beautifully coloured and polished. Only Marguerite was different, although her hamper of expensive Swiss delicacies was certainly not to be sneezed at! She'd have to call them all later and let them know how much she appreciated their thoughtfulness.
     Beverley's gift was a large book full of art deco designs that Poppy had had her eyes on for a while but never quite managed to order. She beamed her thanks at her PA, who smiled back.
     "I think Sinewave might like to have a look later, too."
     And indeed, the artist was eyeing the book with bright and curious optics. Poppy handed it over for him to have a look. She wouldn't be surprised to find the style incorporated into future projects...
     "This is from us, Poppy." Sinewave placed a large package in front of her. Poppy glanced up at the faces watching her and grinned, then carefully peeled back the... it looked like metal but felt like velvet... material covering the...
     Her eyes widened. It was... well, obviously it was a decoration. Three poppies on long graceful stems - only these poppies were made of crystal and metal and the colours fluctuated, in irregular intervals, from a red so deep it was almost black to the colour of a drop of blood in a bottle of water. And they moved, quivering slightly in a non-existent breeze, making the faintest sweet chiming sound as the petals brushed delicately against each other.
     Vault leaned forwards. "Is it all right? We researched poppies before we made it. We think we understand the symbology, how poppies represent Gaia's blood, sleep and dreams and sacrifice and rebirth and Armistice Day... We tried to incorporate everything we could find into it..."
     Poppy could feel tears threatening and wiped at her eyes. "It's beautiful. Thank you."
     'Spin inclined his head. "It doethnt really therve any purpothe..."
     "Lovely things don't need to." She smiled around at them all. "You are all very precious, did you know that? I love you all."
     She lowered her gaze back to the sculpture and ran her fingers over the flowers, entranced by the way the heat of her skin made the intensity of the colours change and the pitch of the sound rise slightly. "I'll keep it with me always."
     Phil laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and she smiled up at him before beaming around at her transformers.
     "Best birthday ever. Thank you, all of you."
     "You're welcome, Poppy." 'Beat laid a slim folder in front of her. "And here's a bit to add to the History." He glanced over his shoulder at Starstream. "On Seekers and their culture."
     "Oooh, thank you! I shall read that with great interest." She turned to smile at the jet, but he was already easing his way out of the room. "Thank you, Starstream!"
     He waved a servo and was gone. Poppy turned back, to find Steamy placing a plate before her - two wafer thin crêpes filled with flaked smoked salmon and fluffy scrambled eggs. The little transformer beamed at her.
     "Here you go. Tasty and very good for you!"
     "You're spoiling me!"
     Steamy tilted his head, optics bright. "Of course."
     Phil chuckled. "And after you've eaten, I have something for you, but we'll need to go outside..."

"They're wonderful. Thank you." Poppy stretched up to kiss his cheek then stepped back to admire the apple trees Phil had spent the last half an hour planting for her. They now resided close to her favourite pool, where she would be able - hopefully - to pick and eat them while she sat on the new bench - Graham's gift.
     Phil grinned and saluted. "Glad you like them."
     "You'll have to taste them when they're ready..."
     "I'll look forward to it." He hesitated for a moment, then ushered her back towards the house. "I've booked a table for dinner tonight, as a surprise."
     "For us?"
     "Well, yes." Who did she think it was for? "Is that OK?"
     "It's a lovely idea. Where are we going?"
     "Winchester's Porterhouse."
     "Nice." She frowned. "Does that mean I'll have to dress up?"
     "Uh, only if you want to..."
     "Oh good. I'd prefer smart casual, if you don't mind." She screwed up her nose. "Never was much of a one for dressing up."
     He chuckled. "You look lovely no matter what you wear."
     He coloured as he realised what he'd said, and she giggled. "Why thank you kind sir."
     He managed a grin. "We'll need to leave around 6.30. I had Beverley make sure your afternoon is free."
     "Oh, thanks! That'll help. Who's driving?"
     "Shall we take Blue, for a change?"
     "If he won't mind being parked up for a couple of hours."
     "Already cleared it with him."
     "Then I'll check it's OK with 'Beat, but otherwise - great!"
     He followed her into the house, making for the kitchen as she headed off to her office. "Then I'll see you later!"

'Beat - and Graham - had raised objections to their going alone, and Phil had finally surrendered and accepted an escort of Graham and Stronghold, as long as they stayed at a discreet distance. Graham had grinned broadly and slapped his shoulder.
     "Don't worry - we've no intention of cramping your style."
     Poppy was waiting in the foyer when Phil arrived. He smiled: as promised she'd gone for smart casual in comfortable black trousers and a loose, silky royal blue shirt, and her usual black winter wrap.
     "You look great!"
     "Thanks - it's comfortable for eating in." She grinned, gaze running over his attire. "You don't look so bad yourself."
     "Ah, this old thing?" Although he knew the black jeans and shirt and cream sweater looked good on him. Poppy seemed to think so too...
     Poppy giggled again. "We'd better get going."
     "Just waiting on Graham."
     'Beat appeared from the rec room as Graham made his way down the stairs from the human wing, and peered down at Poppy intently before turning to Phil.
     "You'll look after her, won't you?"
     "With my life."
     Poppy tched irritably and slapped lightly at the MGC's leg. "'Beat, please. We're going all of five miles down the road, if that! And Stronghold will be right behind us."
     'Beat thought it was probably not a sensible idea to let her know he'd already threatened the Defender with no company for a month if he allowed anything to happen to either of the humans, so backed off a little.
     "Just please let us know when you leave the restaurant."
     "Oh, if you insist." She took Phil's offered arm and waved back at the MGC. "Be good while we're gone!"

Parking was never particularly easy in Winchester, but they managed to find a space not too far away, and fortunately it wasn't raining. The were greeted and seated pleasantly and a short while later, after their mixed shared platter starter, were tucking into asparagus with truffle oil, creamy mash, sautéed mushrooms and sirloin steak tender enough to cut with a fork...
     Food too good for the distraction of talking. They ate in a contented silence, relishing the peace and pleasure and enjoying their bottle of Chilean organic Merlot. As Poppy laid down her fork on her empty plate with a happy sigh she smiled at her companion.
     "That was probably the best steak I've ever had in my life."
     Phil grinned. "Glad you enjoyed it. Have to admit it was rather good."
     "Mmmm." She rested her elbow on the table, her chin on her hand, and gazed at him. "This was a wonderful idea."
     She looked beautiful in the soft light. Taking a metaphorical deep breath he reached across the table and tentatively rested his hand against hers, asking for permission and ready to draw back if it wasn't given. She hesitated for a second or two, then turned her hand over and curled her fingers around his palm.
     The eyed each other in silence for a few moments.
     "Was everything all right?"
     Poppy pulled her hand back gently and smiled up at the waiter (Phil silently cursing the young man to hell and back for his timing). "It was lovely, thanks."
     "Would you like to see the dessert menu?"
     "That's OK - I've already decided, a Bailey's cheesecake. And I'd like a liqueur coffee - a Royal, please."
     "Certainly. And for you, sir?"
     "The apple pie, please. And a Grappa."
     "I will be back in a moment."
     Poppy looked at Phil as the waiter headed off, then giggled.
     "Timing, huh?"
     Phil sighed, then smiled. "Could have been better."
     Poppy inclined her head. "I think we should do this again. Not here, necessarily, but maybe next week?"
     "I'd like that."
     "Me too..."

"Did you have a good time?" Blue had thoughtfully started his engine and set the heating going before they arrived back and climbed in - the evening was turning very cold. Phil patted his steering wheel.
     "It was great! Fantastic food and lovely company."
     Poppy slapped his shoulder. "Flatterer."
     "But it's true!" He turned to look at her as she put on her seat belt. "I really enjoy your company."
     She eyed him for a second or two, then gently touched his cheek.
     "You're one of my favourite people, you know."
     Not entirely sure whether that was a good thing or just a mundane thing, Phil was saved deciding when Stronghold sounded his horn quietly. Blue jerked slightly.
     "We should get going. The Wing Commander is hungry."
     Poppy glanced over her shoulder: the Defender was right behind them. "Didn't he get anything to eat?"
     "A bag of chips. Stronghold says it wasn't enough."
     Chuckling, Phil laid his hands loosely on the wheel and let Blue take control. "No, it wouldn't be. OK then, Bluestreak. Let's get home."

The night was clear and cold, the stars bright above them. As they approached the wood that bordered the estate a flash of deep red passed them, and Phil whistled.
     "Aston Martin! A classic. You don't see them much these days."
     Poppy nodded and yawned, feeling a little sleepy after the wine and liqueur. "Nice..."
     The trees made an arch over the country road, cutting off the view of the stars, and Poppy relaxed back. Phil took her hand.
     "Poppy..." Too-brilliant headlights in his rear-view mirror had him covering his eyes. "What the hell...?"
     The next second a large black vehicle rammed full force into Stronghold's side, shoving the Defender over, off the road and into a solid treetrunk. Blue slammed on his breaks as a dark red towering figure suddenly appeared in front of them.
     Poppy bit back a scream as the transformer - it couldn't be anything else - lifted Blue's front wheels from the road.
     "You must get out!" There was an edge of panic to Bluestreak's voice as he retracted the seatbelts and opened his doors. "I can't do anything with you inside me!"
     Scrambling out, Phil managed to catch Poppy before she dropped onto her knees, and dragged her towards the trees. Blue was half-way through transforming: Stronghold had already dumped Graham - who was now racing to join them, gun drawn - and was battling the thoroughly lethal looking unfamiliar black transformer.
     "What the fuck is going on? Who are they?" Graham could just hear Phil over the sounds of grinding, crashing metal, and shrugged.
     "Never seen them before. Assume they're 'Cons. Stronghold got a message off to the house - we'll have reinforcements in a moment..."
     He went suddenly silent as Walker knocked him unconscious from behind. Phil shoved Poppy behind him and snarled at the ex-lieutenant.
     "Might have known you'd show up again."
     Walker's grin was more a grimace.
     "Hello again, pretty boy." He flicked Poppy a glance. "Out with your slut?"
     Poppy bit back her fear and smiled at him. "You're just jealous you don't have the equipment any more."
     His gun came up, aimed straight at her face. "Same story again, slut. I just need you alive. They didn't say anything about undamaged."
     Phil made to move: Walker's other hand came up, the knife resting against the lieutenant's throat. "Ah ah. They'd prefer you alive too."
     He moved until he had a clear view of the fight: Stronghold had been damaged by the earlier collision and was barely holding his own, while Blue was taking a beating from the red 'Con. Then Poppy's heart lifted: from the direction of the house she could hear engines, including the sound of jet thrusters. She sneered at Walker.
     "Back up's on its way. You may as well give up."
     "Like fuck. Barricade! Knock Out! We're done. Get these onboard and retreat."
     Taking advantage of the miniscule moment of distraction, Phil wrenched Walker's hands outwards, then twisted and shoved Poppy as hard as he could with his knee.
     She only hesitated a split second, knowing that she was a liability right now, then ran as fast as she could in the direction of the house. Behind her she heard the distinctive sounds of transformation, then a muffled shout, then the sound of revving engines heading away. She stopped and looked back.
     Stronghold was on the ground, holding together broken pieces of plating over his midsection, which was pumping energon at a frightening rate: Blue took one look at him then transformed himself and raced after the 'Cons.
     Rather, he tried to. Mid-transformation he reversed the process and dropped, gasping, to his knees. Poppy ran to him as 'Beat, Prowl, 'Spin and Starstream arrived.
     "Blue? What's wrong?" She looked around frantically. "And where are Phil and Matthew?"
     "... took... them..."
     Prowl dropped to one knee. ::Which direction?::
     ::Through the wood, sir. That way::
     Glancing back at 'Beat and 'Spin, Prowl ordered them to tend to the injured as he transformed and tore off in pursuit, Starstream shadowing him from above as best he could. 'Spin immediately dropped down to tend to Stronghold: Blue limped over to Poppy, who was standing, distraught and disbelieving, staring into the wood.
     She swiped at the tears running down her face and swallowed hard.
     "Please stay in contact with Prowl. Tell me what's happening." She knew her voice was shaking almost as much as her body, but ignored it. "We must contact Prime."
     "I'll take you back to the house." 'Beat transformed and opened his door. Poppy caught 'Spin's optics as she climbed in.
     "Do what you can. I'll make sure Castle and Highdive come to help."

A mile and a half a mile away, hidden inside a dilapidated barn, Walker listened to the fading sounds of jet and car engines. Their wrists and ankles cruelly tightly bound, the battered Phil and Graham were tumbled into the back seat of Barricade's alt mode, Graham slowly coming back to consciousness, Phil desperately fearful for Poppy. Walker looked through the window and grinned.
     "Payback is such a bitch..."

© JAT 05.11.12

can't imagine there is anyone who doesn't know Annie's Song, but just in case such a person is reading this, there's an excellent version here...

Up to you if you want to imagine it's Phil to Poppy.

Part 24 - In which Many Things Happen, not all of them bad...

The speeding Castle and Highdive roared past and above Poppy as 'Beat raced back to the house: by the time they got there Cable had informed her Skyfire was on his way from Diego Garcia with Ratchet, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker.
     Tight with fear, Poppy stumbled out of 'Beat and into the house. Everyone had gathered in the foyer, all eager to help. Beverley hastened forwards, wrapping an arm around the consul's trembling shoulders.
     "Come and sit down."
     Poppy shook her head, trying to fight down her dread and the tears that were close to falling. "No. I need to find out what's happening."
     "We have everything thet up in the rec room." 'Spin gestured towards the entrance. "And the Prime ith on the line." He turned to Castle and Bluestreak, who were all but carrying the near-stasis Stronghold. ::Get him into the treatment room::
     As the grounder transformers headed towards the main part of their wing, Poppy hurried into the massive rec room, dropping her bag and wrap as she went. Inside, the Prime's grave face filled the screen.
     "Poppy - are you hurt?"
     "No, I'm fine. But they got Phil and Matthew." She clenched her fists helplessly. "How did they know? Nobody outside the consulate knew where we were going!"
     "Do you know who they were?"
     Poppy thought for a moment, reliving the event.
     "Walker called them Knockout and Barricade."
     There was an agitated stir amongst the Cybertronians, and Prime leaned forwards, optics narrowing.
     "Yes. Big black thug of a thing. The other one was red and... not so violent."
     Prime glanced to one side, obviously communicating with someone else in the control centre on Diego Garcia. "We know of them. And Walker was with them?"
     "He seemed to be the one in charge."
     "Hm." Prime paused for a moment as Prowl commed in.
     "We cannot find them."
     Poppy bit her lip. "But you must be able to find them! They can't have gone far. Can't you trace their fields - or detect their energon signature?"
     "I am sorry, Ms Moss. We can find no trace of either. We'll widen the search, but without a trace to follow..."
     "Please... just do your best."
     "Of course." The tactician signed off and Poppy looked back at Prime.
     "What next, sir?"
     "Skyfire will be with you within the hour. When he arrives, Ratchet will tend to Stronghold and Bluestreak, and Sunstreaker and Sideswipe will assist Prowl. This is really not Starstream's area of expertise, but he will hold himself in readiness in case he is needed. In the meantime we must discover how they found out about your trip. If we have a spy in the consulate we need to know about it."
     "They were all fully vetted."
     "I am aware of that. The question remains, however."
     "Guests don't have access, and Ramp wouldn't let them near anything confidential anyway." She smiled mirthlessly. "And he considers everything confidential."
     The Prime nodded. "Which means that if there is a leak, it must be one of the household staff."
     A cold chill joined the stress and fear filling Poppy. "The only people with access are me, Phil, Matthew - and Beverley."
     The PA paled, her mouth opening. "But...! Poppy, I would never..."
     "It was none of you." Ramp's voice was resolute, and Poppy nodded with a hint of relief. Ramp was never wrong.
     Swallowing nervously, Beverley leaned forwards. "Then who? And how?"
     "If it's not the intake or the executive staff... that only leaves the household staff."
     "But they don't have access to our system."
     "No - but they have ears..."
     "What do you mean?"
     "We trust our staff, right? So we don't try to keep secrets - not about simple domestic, family stuff. Anyone could have overheard Phil, and I bet he discussed the idea with Steamy."
     "Kitchen staff then?"
     It was almost a relief to have something to focus on. Poppy nodded.
     "And it just so happens we recently took on a new member of staff - one Phil had his doubts about..."
     "Abigail." Poppy rose to her feet. "She'll be off duty. Is she in?"
     Ramp checked the security cameras while they were talking. "She left at eight. Said she was meeting friends in town."
     "Any sign of her on the cameras in Winchester?"
     It took a few seconds, then: "Yes. At the station. She boarded a train for London."
     Poppy's lips thinned. "Someone get Aaron." As Beverley hastened to the door, Poppy gripped the edge of the monitor console before her. "Ramp, any news from Prowl?"
     "Nothing yet... Skyfire is half an hour away."
     "Good. Can you..."
     Ramp interrupted. "Got a trace."
     "Someone's been trying to access our systems... and have gained access to Chatter."
     Poppy tensed. "Who? And how?"
     "Yes, I would like to know that too." Prime had stayed silent while they were talking, but now interrupted, optics directed towards Chatter.
     There was a brief silence, then several strands of Cybertronian being spoken all at once. Poppy clapped her hands over her ears, until Ramp turned down the volume.
     "What the hell is going on?"
     "It seems that Chatter was not fully cognizant of the need for secrecy in communications between us all. Obviously his years in a cave have made him sloppy."
     "How much has he let slip?"
     "We're trying to determine that. In the meantime, I was able to follow the intrusion partway back to source. It's in this country, towards the north, and I believe it was engineered by Soundwave."
     All noise stopped as Prime turned his attention back to the screen.
     "Soundwave? I believed he was terminated."
     "Apparently not, sir."
     "That changes matters. He was always a most proficient officer."
     "And I think I can find their base, Prime." Lights were flickering over Ramp's surface, digits moving too fast for Poppy to see. "Now that we know the rough location, I can chart power usage and comms nodes to narrow it down even further. This must be a large operation: their energy requirements must consequently be high"
     Poppy leaned forward, trying not to grab onto the thread of hope his words raised. "How long will that take?"
     "Should have it done by the time Skyfire gets here."
     Poppy felt faint with relief, then stiffened as Cable muttered in her ear, "Aaron is in the lounge with Beverley."
     "I have to go and question Aaron. Please let me know if there are any developments, no matter how small." She nodded to the face on the screen. "Thank you, Prime."
     He lowered his helm. "Let us hope we can resolve the situation quickly and without harm."

"That was almost too easy." Knock Out, back in root mode, was lounging against the side of the large HGV currently heading north on the M3 at a sedate pace. Opposite and to his right Barricade was doing much the same, except for the two humans he held, one in each servo.
     "Can I squash 'em?"
     Knock Out vented a sigh and slapped at his colleague. "No. The fleshbags want a little fun with them first, and then Walker wants to use them as hostages. Or something."
     Barricade grunted and tossed both men into the air, catching them ungently on their way down. "Pity."
     "You could always ask him if you could play, later, when they've outlived their usefulness."
     "Might just do that..." Barricade tossed them again, ignoring the gasps of pain. Phil managed to twist his head and look up into the 'Con's optics.
     "We'll be a lot more valuable to you undamaged."
     "I don't care."
     "But Walker probably will." Phil swallowed the blood in his mouth. "If nothing else, he'll want payback for what happened when we last met."
     Barricade appeared to consider this, then dropped both humans onto the bottom of the lorry. "Yeah, I guess he will at that."
     Phil landed on his side, bruising what he suspected might be a fractured arm. Graham was still groggy: Phil hoped desperately that he wasn't concussed. Rolling to take the pressure off his injuries, he looked up at Knock Out. The Aston Martin seemed marginally less vicious and considerably more intelligent than his black companion. "Where are we going?"
     "You don't need to know that."
     "Humour me?"
     Oh well, it had been worth a try...
     The two transformers conversed in their native language, and after a while Phil mentally switched off. As the hours went by he found himself - despite the pain and stress - drifting into an uneasy sleep...

"Ms Moss? What's going on?" Aaron looked anxious but not guilty, Poppy noted idly as she seated herself. She eyed the young man sternly.
     "Where is Abigail?"
     "She said she was going to meet some friends in town. She has tomorrow morning off, so said she'd be late back."
     "Town meaning Winchester, not London."
     "Well, yes. I mean, her mother's in London - I think - but... why are you asking?"
     "She was seen getting on a train for London."
     "But that's daft. She'd be pushed to get back in time for work tomorrow..."
     Beverley put her head around the door, expression grave. "Her room's empty. All her clothes are gone."
     "Damn." Poppy shook her head, then turned back to Aaron, who was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. "Has she said anything about leaving, recently?"
     "No, nothing! She seemed perfectly happy here."
     "No personal problems?"
     "Between us? No. And she didn't mention anything... Ms Moss, please, what's happened?"
     "Did you know where I was going tonight?"
     Aaron blinked. "Uh, no. Didn't even know you were going out." He hunched forward. "Please tell me what's wrong!"
     "Lieutenant Collier and the Wing Commander were attacked and abducted tonight, on our way back from Winchester."
     He paled, hands clenching on the arms of the chair. "Oh god..."
     Poppy nodded tightly, her fear slowly turning to anger. "We were ambushed by unfamiliar transformers."
     He stared at her for a moment. "Are you hurt?"
     "No, I'm fine... Aaron, do you know anything about this at all? Has anyone said anything, in passing, or maybe something that you overheard, about strange transformers?"
     He frowned in thought, but shook his head. "I'm sorry - nothing."
     "Very well. Thank you. I'll let you get back to whatever you were doing."
     "But... can I help at all?"
     "At this point, no. Though if you do hear anything, or see anyone acting, suspicious, I'd appreciate your letting us know."
     "Of course..." He nodded and pushed himself upright, heading back to his room. Poppy turned her head as a familiar roaring sound came from outside.
     "That will be Skyfire..."
     She and Beverley hastened out to greet the starcraft, who hovered just long enough for Ratchet to exit before heading off north, Beverley watched him go, then pouted at Poppy.
     "He could have said hello!"
     Poppy looked up at Ratchet as they all hurried back towards the house.
     "Where is he going, sir?"
     "Ramp advised us what he's found. Skyfire will pick up Prowl, then fly him and the twins to the locations Ramp has pinpointed as possible targets."
     Beverley glanced at Poppy. "The twins?"
     "Sideswipe and Sunstreaker."
     "Ah. The mad frontliners."
     Poppy frowned. "Who called them that?"
     "Stronghold, I think. He sounded impressed when he said it."
     "The four of them should be more than enough to handle three 'Cons." Ratchet paused for a moment at the entrance to the transformer wing. "I'll have Ramp relay any news - about anything: 'Spin is concerned about Stronghold, and the sooner I survey the damage the sooner I'll know how long it will take to repair."
     As the medic strode for the treatment room, Poppy turned to the PA.
     "I'm going to have a drink. A proper one. There's not a lot we can do now except wait..."

© JAT 11.11.12

HGV - Heavy Goods Vehicle.

Part 25 - Obsession

"You OK sir?"
     Graham dragged his head up and gazed blearily at the lieutenant.
     "I'll live." He gingerly rubbed at the back of his neck and winced. "Where are we?"
     Phil eased his arm into a slightly less uncomfortable position: whoever had captured them at least had a medic on base, and the fracture had been confirmed and his forearm splinted. "No idea. Walker took my watch, so I don't even know how long the trip took. Felt like hours."
     Graham eyed their surroundings. It was a holding cell of sorts, a metal box with no windows and just one - locked - door with a narrow grille for air above it. Two basic beds, a small washbasin and a metal toilet in the corner. No way out except the door and nothing that could be used as a weapon. Their coats, boots and Phil's belt had been removed - it went without saying Graham's gun was gone, as were their keys. The Wing Commander regarded his companion and sighed.
     "Have you seen anyone since we got here?"
     Phil shook his head. It had still been dark when they'd arrived, although he thought there'd been that stillness that usually preceded the dawn. Graham was practically unconscious again, and they'd both had heavy-duty blindfolds pulled over their heads before they were dragged out of the vehicle. Phil had been aware of the sound of many muted voices and a variety of machinery, the hum of electronics, and the smell of humans - sweat, aftershave - and under that a hint of ozone and oil. The sounds were echoing slightly, which argued for a large building, and it was comfortably warm. And then they'd been divested of anything useful, untied, Phil's arm splinted, the blindfolds removed and both of them pushed into the cell.
     They'd not been fed yet, and Phil was beginning to feel hungry. Which meant it had to have been at least eight hours since they'd been captured. Which meant it must be around five thirty in the morning.
     Poppy would be frantic. He stood and began to pace, Graham watching him woozily from one of the beds. After a few turns he tried hammering on the door and yelling for attention - which was, however, not forthcoming. After three more attempts he gave up and sat down on the other bed.
     "Any ideas?"
     Graham groaned and rubbed his eyes.
     "We're still alive, so they want us for something. Hostage, blackmail, bargaining chips... we'll find out later. In the meantime we know Iacon House is protected, and Poppy will have contacted NEST. Ramp will be working his magic. All we can do right now is try to get some rest so we're ready when we get a chance to escape."
     Phil nodded. It wouldn't be the easiest of things to do, but Graham was right. He shifted to lie on the bed and consciously relaxed, trying, without much success, to clear his thoughts...

     Poppy's head jerked up from where she'd been dozing slumped over her desk.
     "Whuh...?" She blinked for a moment or two then dragged a hand across her eyes. "Beverley?"
     The PA patted her shoulder and slid a mug of coffee into her numb hands. Poppy took a sip, shivering when she realised how cold she felt. "Whas time?"
     "It's six thirty. I'd let you sleep on but you're going to be too stiff if you stay there."
     "Why...?" Last night's events suddenly lurched into her memory and she turned towards Ramp. "Anyth..."
     "Yes." the computer interrupted. "They have searched two of the six potential locations and found nothing. They're proceeding to the next."
     "Has anyone contacted us yet? Any ransom demands?"
     "Not yet." He paused as Ratchet appeared in the doorway. Poppy beckoned the medic in.
     "How's Stronghold?"
     "Recovering. He'll be fine in a couple of days, once those welds have had time to settle and strengthen. Sparkspinner can take over from here. However, I want to make a suggestion." He paused, and Poppy nodded. "I want to have all NEST personnel and consulate staff fitted with tracking devices in future."
     Poppy frowned. "Couldn't they be found and removed?"
     "What I am proposing is in the form of a nanotech film that bonds with your skeletal structure. It can, for example, be inserted on the inner side of your spine or pelvis. It would be indistinguishable from the bone but impossible to remove without surgical removal of the affected osseous tissue."
     Poppy rubbed her forehead. "I don't know... sounds intrusive..."
     "Physically, no. And the benefits are that we would know where everyone is at any time. We would know, for example, where your two officers are."
     Well, that was the ideal way to persuade her it was a good idea. She sighed.
     "We'll have to discuss it when this is over. In principle it sounds great, but I can't agree it by myself. Would Optimus agree to it?"
     Ratchet spread his servos. "We all already have it, although it doesn't work quite so well for us, since we're metallic to start with."
     Poppy nodded. "Would it hurt or be uncomfortable? Are there any side effects?"
     "Well, it might confuse some of your human medical instruments, but since we're already replacing them with more efficient and accurate devices that would only be a short term problem."
     "OK. We'll think about it. That's a provisional 'yes'. I'll get the full details once this crisis is over." She finished her coffee and rubbed at her arms, still feeling cold. A shower and change of clothing was definitely in order. "Are you heading back to the island?"
     "Yes. I've already organised a C-17 from your nearest base. Skyfire will stay here until we have found the humans."
     She managed a smile.
     "Thank you, Ratchet. Please will you thank the Prime for me too? I really appreciate all your help."
     "You're welcome. Have Ramp comm me if you need anything else."
     Beverley laid a hand on Poppy's shoulder as Ratchet headed off. "You need a break - and some breakfast."
     The consul shook her head. "I'll grab a shower, but I'm not hungry." Which was true - if anything, she felt sick with worry. Beverley scowled at her.
     "You have to have something. You need to keep your strength up."
     Ramp opened a comm channel and Steamy's voice scolded her from one of the speakers.
     "Ms Jones is right, Poppy. What will we do if you faint in the middle of a rescue operation?"
     Poppy managed a grim chuckle. She had to accept it, between Beverley and Steamy she'd be nagged half to death if she didn't do as she was ordered. She pushed herself stiffly to her feet. "OK. Give me twenty minutes to shower and I'll eat something. Scrambled eggs or something light like that."

Aaron hadn't been able to sleep. He's spent the night twisting restlessly in his bed, trying to remember every conversation he'd had with Abigail, desperately trying to remember if he'd ever let slip anything confidential. Not that he knew all that much, he still wasn't one of the 'inner circle', but all the same, he did have access to a lot more now he was teaching, and he knew he had a habit of rabbiting on without thinking carefully about what he was saying... Towards dawn he gave up trying to sleep, got up, and left the house, thinking a walk in the crisp cold air might help clear his head.
     He scrunched over frosty silver-rimed grass, heading towards Itchen Abbas - a familiar route and one he found conducive to cogitation. What was unfamiliar was the little white tent in the field just across the road from the main entrance to the Consulate. He halted and stared at it for a moment, then jumped as a head poked out.
     "Oh, hello. Are you from Iacon House?"
     "Um.... yeah...?"
     The head was followed by a plump body as a young woman squirmed her way out of the tent. Her beaming face was topped by a mop of red curls: one gloved hand waved at him.
     "Hi. I'm Rowan."
     "Uhhhh... hi Rowan. What are you doing here?"
     "Waiting for Prowl."
     Aaron stared, wondering if he'd heard correctly.
     "I'm sorry, I thought you said you were waiting for Prowl?"
     She giggled and nodded. "Yeah. He's gorgeous. Do you know if he'll come out today?"
     Loopy. Completely nuts. Aaron wondered if he should ring the police - then decided he'd better just let Poppy know there was a weirdo parked outside the gate. He shook his head then backed away, turning to retrace his steps with some alacrity as the young woman's face fell. "Aww. Well, tell him I'm here, will ya?"
     "I'll see what I can do..." he called back over his shoulder.
     Inside the house he went straight to Poppy's office. She was still in the shower, but Beverley glanced up from where she was monitoring Ramp's comms with Prowl and smiled.
     "Good morning, Aaron..."
     "Ms Jones, there's a complete nutcase camped outside, over the road."
     "That'll be ProwlsMissus." Ramp interjected smoothly. Both Beverley and Aaron stared at him. He shrugged. "That's what the human calls herself. It appears she's become enamoured of Prowl. I understand such things can happen amongst organics."
     "And you didn't think to tell us?!"
     "I didn't think it was of sufficient importance. The human herself is harmless. She posts odd fantasies and stories about herself - and Prowl - on human social network sites, but they are so obviously outrageous in nature no-one is going to take them as truth. Even if they were competently written, which they most patently are not."
     "Ramp, it's known as stalking, and it's... unhealthy at best." Beverley drummed her fingers on the desk. "We'd better let Poppy know. We can always have the police move her on. Or get Social Services involved, if she seems to be a danger to herself."
     "She's in one of those little tents, the sort you let kiddies camp out in, in the garden. It's not designed for any type of real weather. And it's bloody cold out there already." Aaron shivered dramatically to make his point.
     Beverley shoved her hands through her hair. "As if we didn't have enough to worry about..."
     "I suppose... we couldn't let Prowl talk to her himself, could we? When he gets back. I mean, that would be enough to put me off!"
     "Unfortunately stalkers don't work that way... But it's an interesting idea. To try first, I mean. I'll tell Poppy and see what she thinks. For now..." Beverley closed her eyes in exasperation. "I'd like to say we'll take her out something hot to eat and drink but I really don't want to encourage her."
     "She seemed well enough. Bundled up in lots of warm clothes anyway."
     "In that case... She can wait. Though I'll tell the security detail to keep an eye on her. Don't want her gaining access to the grounds." She smiled. "Thank you Aaron. That's most helpful."
     Feeling a little better about himself, the young man headed back to his room. Perhaps now he could grab a couple of hours' sleep.

"Let me see if I've got this straight. You had second thoughts after telling us about the birthday dinner date and decided to leave the consulate because you were afraid you might be implicated in anything that happened afterwards. Did it not occur to you that by running away you immediately implicate yourself?"
     Abigail cowered in the chair in front of Zee's desk, fighting back tears. Mr Hawkins had not been pleased to see her, nor sympathetic to her fears, and as for his boss... The man was terrifying.
     "I'm sorry... I didn't think..."
     Zee glanced at Aitch. "This is what we get for using amateurs."
     Aitch shrugged, hands raised to his sides. "We go with what we have. We do know there was an incident: our spy on Diego Garcia reported that the flyer took off soon after nine-thirty our time with the green medic and those two new ones, the soldiers, heading for the consulate. Only we now have no way of knowing what the incident was." He glowered at Abigail, who began to cry. Zee snorted derisively and gestured to a convenient flunkey.
     "Get her out of here."
     "Where shall I take her, sir?"
     "I don't know and I don't care. Just... get rid of her."
     As a wailing Abigail was escorted out of the building, Zee gestured Aitch to the vacated seat.
     "What now?"
     "We'll see if our Diego Garcia contact can glean any further intel. In the meantime, have everyone monitor comms. We may pick up something..."

[All following dialogue is in Cybertronian, transliterated into English for the convenience of those who don't speak alien.]

::Frag this. How much fragging longer is it going to take?:: Sunstreaker was not happy. Sideswipe swatted at his shoulder strut.
     ::Cool down. We're going as quickly as we can::
     ::If we didn't have to be so fragging careful not to hurt any of the fleshbags it'd go a lot fragging faster::
     Prowl 'glared' at him. ::Enough. We will carry out this mission in accordance with NEST guidelines. There will be no harm done to the humans and damage to any non-human being or structure will be kept to the minimum. Am I clear?::
     Sunstreaker's faceplates assumed what bore a striking similarity to a sneer, but he backed down. ::Yes. Sir::
     ::We are approaching the fourth location:: Skyfire's deep, soothing 'voice' swept over them. ::With luck, this will be the place...::

© JAT 17.11.12

Part 26 - Captive Audience

::Autobots forty miles away::
     Knock Out glanced at Soundwave. ::So close already? How have they found us? Isn't Shockwave's cloak operating correctly?::
     ::Cloak working perfectly. Ramp extremely skilled and lateral thinker - tracing nodes of concentrated energy use to determine base::
     ::He always was...::
     ::So what do we do to avoid detection?::
     ::Close down everything?::
     Knock Out eyed Barricade wearily. Sometimes the brute could be incredibly stupid. ::What a good way to alert them to something odd happening! Let's try it, shall we? See how quickly they can get here?::
     Barricade snarled. ::So what do you suggest, rust-for-processor?::
     ::Well, first we tell the humans they're on their way. Then we'd better tell them the base is probably next on the list to investigate and find out what contingency plans they have. And lastly, call me that again and I'll have Soundwave replace your processor with a human playstation::
     The soldier's engine growled, but he kept any further comments to himself. Knock Out called for Walker and explained the situation.
     "Fuck it. How soon will they be here?"
     "We can't be certain. They're investigating another location at the moment. But Skyfire is providing transport, and he can be here in minutes."
     "Why didn't you warn us?"
     Knock Out frowned. "I am warning you."
     "Earlier I mean."
     "Because we didn't know. We aren't exactly privy to what the Autobots are doing. What do you have planned for such eventualities?"
     "You three leave with me and the prisoners. The rest will cover for us. When we get the all clear we'll come back."
     Knock Out gestured to Soundwave. "I can see an Aston Martin and a Ford Focus escaping attention but I think a Reaper might stand out a bit."
     Walker drummed his fingers against the wall, then yelled for Black. One hurried conversation later and Soundwave was being ushered down into a lead-shielded underground hanger originally used for storing radioactive material, and Phil and Graham, back in cuffs and blindfolds, were being shoved into Barricade's back seat and driven at some speed away from the base.

Cloaked and invisible to human eyes, Skyfire hovered above the old steelworks, close enough to the flat ground of the original lorry park to allow the NEST soldiers to leap out after the transformers. Lieutenant Carter motioned his small squad forwards, trusting Prowl to keep the twins in line: Sunstreaker made them all nervous.
     The building was humming with life, and Carter frowned. Their intel had said the old works was now a base for the Trust for Humanity and Alien Brotherhood, a fairly recent independent group of amateurs whose stated aim was to keep an eye on relations between humans and Cybertronians. Funded by someone generally considered to have more money than sense, it wasn't recognised by any government department, and was generally considered harmless if a bit eccentric. Most people thought it was probably some sort of tax dodging scheme.
     Carter was less sanguine. The place was, according to both Ramp and Skyfire, drawing one hell of a lot of power. However, they had to take a cautious approach in accordance with the new guidelines unless there was a real possibility of a threat to life, property, or the public. And unfortunately, here, he couldn't claim that there was. He sighed, made sure his gun was holstered securely, motioned for his men to stay back, and strode up to the front entrance.

Ellen Roberts worked for the Trust because she truly believed that humans and aliens should live and work together in a spirit of universal brotherhood. She smiled as Carter entered - then her face fell as she observed the combat uniform and gun. Her demeanour stiffened noticeably.
     "Can I help you?"
     Carter offered his most charming smile. "Hello ma'am. I'm not here to scare you, but we're registering a faint but possibly dangerous level of radioactivity on the grounds. I'm afraid I'll have to ask everyone to evacuate while we investigate."
     Ellen's eyes widened as her hand went to her mouth.
     "Oh my! Is it dangerous?"
     "That's what my team's here to find out."
     "We've got about a hundred people here at the moment..."
     "Treat it as a fire drill. It shouldn't take us too long to confirm whether there's cause for concern or not."
     "All right. Bear with me, I'll have to call Mr Black..." She turned away, tapping the intercom and speaking into an old fashioned mike, summoning her boss to the foyer. Moments later Carter watched the man approach, automatically assessing the tall spare figure and deciding there was something very faintly off about him. Ellen murmured to Black, obviously repeating what Carter had told her: the man's expression was sombre when he turned to the officer.
     "I see. That's very worrying."
     Carter raised a hand. "It may be nothing, sir. Just residue from an old manufacturing process. But we're supposed to make sure - for the safety of everyone working here."
     "Yes, yes, quite. Though we did have the place thoroughly surveyed before we moved in..."
     "I appreciate that sir, but sometimes these things only come to light later."
     "Yes, you're quite right. Very well. Ellen, please sound the alarm."
     Seconds later the fire alarm blared through the facility, and moments after that a steady stream of people exited the building. Ellen retrieved a clipboard and, smiling apologetically, left to check that everyone had made their way out.
     "Do you need me to help?" Black seemed, thought Carter, very reluctant to leave. The lieutenant shook his head.
     "Best leave it to us, sir. We're trained to deal with these matters."
     "But you have no protective clothing..."
     At that moment Sideswipe skated in, squealing to a halt with a flourish, and saluted Carter.
     "Reporting for duty, sir."
     Carter smiled, as much at the front-liner pretending to be subservient as at Black's stunned expression.
     "Everyone's out?"
     "The fire wardens say so."
     "Then let's bring the team in..."

The squad made swift work of physically checking the building. Prowl lost no time in jacking into the server, Ramp untraceably piggybacking into the system and downloading everything he could find - including several large heavily encrypted files that would require a little more time and work to crack. After a few minutes the tactician turned to Carter, his faceplates as expressionless as ever.
     "They were here. They were driven away in Barricade two hours ago. Knock Out and Walker are with them."
     Carter humphed. "And Soundwave?"
     "Was here. There's no record of him leaving, but I cannot detect his presence. Which does not preclude it, but if we wish to leave these humans unaware of our real purpose here we should leave him undisturbed. Ramp can now shadow the system - we will learn more if we let them think they remain undiscovered."
     Which was logical, if annoying. "Any idea where Walker's gone?"
     "Traffic cams recorded them heading towards a city called Newcastle, but after a few miles they left the motorway and vanished from the grid along the backroads. But there's a ninety-one percent probability that they will return here once we have left."
     "So do we keep the place under surveillance?"
     "Ramp is now doing so."
     "I meant under human surveillance."
     "That would be more obvious - and could be dangerous for the humans."
     "What about our officers then?"
     Prowl glanced at the lieutenant. "They are alive. They are being kept alive for a purpose. It behoves us to find out that purpose. They would be more useful here than at the Consulate."
     Carter stared. The logic was irrefutable, but the coldness with which it was stated... Prowl inclined his head.
     "Do you not agree?"
     Reluctantly, Carter nodded.
     "Is there any way we can let them know, though?"
     "Contingency plan." He raised a servo. "Cable has volunteered."
     The little transformer unfolded from the cabling at the tactician's wrist and waved a tiny servo at the lieutenant. "Was volunteered, more like. But I'm happy to help."
     "Will you be able to get messages to and fro?"
     "Maybe. Don't know. Depends if Soundwave is monitoring."
     Carter sighed. "Well, do your best... We'd better let Mr Black and company know their building's safe and they can all come back in."

Walker eyed the two officers, grinning mirthlessly, right fist clenching and unclenching.
     "How does it feel, all trussed up and at my mercy?"
     Phil rolled his eyes. "Like facing a cartoon villain. You always did like the sound of your own voice."
     The red 'Con made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle, and Walker glowered over his shoulder.
     "Shut the fuck up."
     "Make me." Knock Out leaned back against the barn's inner wall (which creaked ominously under his weight), folded his arms and tilted his helm, the very picture of insouciance. "The Brotherhood thinks it needs these two to accomplish its ends. Black will not be happy if you damage them."
     Phil stared at the transformer disbelievingly. They had a 'Con defending them? Not that he was complaining. Walker was vicious at the best of time and now, with his... injury... he was showing signs of becoming unhinged. There would be no telling what he was now capable of doing, and Phil very much wanted to get back to Poppy with all his body parts intact.
     Fortunately Soundwave contacted Knock Out before Walker could make a move.
     "Ah - there's the all clear. We can go back now."
      "'Bout fragging time." Barricade stopped pacing and transformed back to alt mode, swinging his doors open as Walker shoved the officers into the back and climbed into the driver's seat. Knock Out huffed and followed. It would be good to get back to the showers. These backroads and muddy fields were playing havoc with his plating's finish...

"So you're telling me the Decepticon communications expert, their medic and a soldier have joined with a human organisation and are operating right under our noses? And you're leaving them to carry on?" Morshower's face on the screen did not look very happy. The Prime nodded.
     "For the moment. I'm sure you'll agree, general, it is far better to know where they are than to force them into hiding again. One of us is now inside the building and will make contact with our officers. And we now have electronic access to their intranet, enough to keep us advised of their strategy and operations."
     "I still don't like it..."
     "I agree it is not ideal. However, it will serve us well in the short term. We will reassess the situation when we know what the organisations wants with Lieutenant Collier and the Wing Commander."
     "Keep me advised."
     "Of course." As the screen cleared the Prime turned to Ratchet. ::How was Poppy?::
     ::Stressed, elevated blood pressure, worried, angry, frightened - everything you'd expect::
     ::Mm. We may need to consider making Prowl leader of the UK force instead of the USA::
     ::Is that wise?::
     ::Before this, I would have said no. His skills - and his ability to keep Sunstreaker and Sideswipe under control - would be of more use in the larger country. But Soundwave, Knock Out and Barricade present a real danger, and with them in the UK, we need a strong task force. It will be a while before Bluestreak is ready to resume full operational status::
     ::Even with Stronghold, Castle and Upbeat as support?::
     ::Even so::
     ::So we're sending Prowl and the twins to the UK?::
     ::No, just Prowl. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker will join Ironhide in the States as originally planned::
     ::I wish there were more of us::
     ::We all wish that. But more will come. We just need to be patient and do what we can while awaiting their arrival:: He vented quietly and turned to Chatter, who was squirming anxiously. ::Now, my friend, we had best find out how much information you have allowed our enemies to receive so that we may gauge the damage limitation procedures that will be needed...::

Poppy listened to Lieutenant Carter's report, understanding why there were no immediate plans to rescue Phil and Matthew but hating the very idea of leaving them in such a perilous situation. At least Cable was there. If the worst came to the worst the little transformer would find a way out and call for help, and in the meantime, if he could safely get messages in and out he would. Though he couldn't promise.
     She twitched as a hand came to rest on her shoulder and a large mug of hot chocolate was put in front of her.
     "How are you holding up?"
     Poppy smiled wearily and mirthlessly at the PA.
     "I'll live."
     "I'm sure they're all right."
     "Well, yes, they probably are, but I don't know that."
     "Do you want to take a break? Get out of the house for a while?"
     "Not really. With Cable gone I can't keep a check on what's happening..."
     "Take 'Beat. He'll stay in constant contact with us here and can get you back in a hurry if anything comes up." She sighed as Poppy hesitated. "You really need it, Poppy. Please."
     The consul rubbed at her eyes.
     "OK. Just for an hour though."
     Beverley patted her shoulder. "That's fine. I'm sure we'll cope..."

© JAT 03.12.12.

Part 27 - Time Out

     Phil snapped awake to see a masked figure holding a tray standing at the door. Behind him was another, this one armed with a L85 rifle held competently in his hands. Phil pushed himself warily to a sitting position and reached out to tap Graham on the shoulder. The Wing Commander groaned and stirred, rubbing at his eyes then blinking at his fellow officer. Phil gestured to the door.
     "Looks like they remembered we need to eat."
     "Oh good..." Grunting, Graham hauled himself up to sit on the bunk and eyed the two men unenthusiastically. "Any chance of a shower after dinner?"
     "Be grateful for what you've got."
     Graham glanced at Phil. "Sounds like a 'no' to me."
     Phil wrinkled his nose. They were both used to roughing it - they'd been in the military long enough in some very unpleasant engagements to be able to survive without anything more than starvation rations and water - but over the last couple of years Phil, especially, had come to thoroughly enjoy his much more comfortable and civilised way of life at the Consulate. Eh well, couldn't be helped. "So what's for dinner? Or is it lunch? Breakfast?"
     The tray was plunked down on the end of Graham's bed and both masked men left without speaking, locking the door behind them. Graham grumped and eyed the tray. Looked like some sort of stew or thick soup, in large bowls, with slices of bread and butter. It smelt OK, which was encouraging. He reached for a bowl, then paused as the tray moved.
     Seconds later a small silver form wormed its way out from under the tray and transformed into Cable. Both officers stared, then Phil swiftly moved to sit on the berth so Cable was hidden from the door, pulling the blanket up to form a partial screen for the little transformer. They couldn't be sure that the cell wasn't under some sort of audio or visual surveillance...
     Cable transformed back into a mobile phone, and seconds later a message appeared on the screen.
     'all no U R here. OK? not hrt?'
     Graham glanced at Phil and smiled. "How's the arm feeling?"
     Phil grinned. "Not too bad. Pain's bearable. How's the head?"
     "Seems OK. No after effects so I think we can exclude concussion."
     "Well that's good. Wonder how everyone is back home?"
     Cable obligingly produced a new message.
     'all OK. worrid. no resQ yet.'
     That wasn't so good. Phil traced a Y on Cable's screen. Moments later the transformer came back with:
     'need 2 no wt they want U 4. cn U stay here 4 now?'
     Graham groaned silently.
     "I suppose we'll just have to put up with it for now. At least they're feeding us."
     'wll tel P l8r if I cn. stll chcking evrythng here.'
     "That's good." Phil nodded. "Of course, with Walker here that might not last."
     'noted' appeared on Cable's screen, then 'camra abve dor'
     "That's all we need... I suppose we'll have to try to keep him sweet."
     "What a lovely prospect... Wonder when they're going to tell us what they want us for..."
     'wll tll U wen we no'
     "Hope it's before Xmas. I was looking forward to dinner at the consulate." Graham gestured at the bowls of stew. "Speaking of which, it's getting cold. Tuck in."
     Under the cover of them reaching for bowls, spoons - Phil rolled his eyes: of course no forks or anything that could be used as a weapon - and bread, Cable assumed a long thin snake-like format and slid under the berth, blending in with the metal of the frame. Graham and Phil gazed at each other. When this was all over they'd have to ask the little transformer just how he did that...

"Thank you, Poppy." Sally clung on to the consul's hands, her eyes brimming. Poppy managed a smile.
     "I'm so sorry you had to go through all that. But welcome back. We all missed you."
     "I'm so glad to be back." She looked down at the tug on her trousers, to find Steamy gazing up at her, and bent down to pick him up. Cuddling him she nuzzled his helm. "I missed you all so much."
     "Hullo, Sally. Ready to get back to work?"
     Poppy chuckled. "Give the poor girl a minute, Steamy!"
     But Sally shook her head. "No, he's right, I need to get back to work as soon as I can. If I can just have a few minutes to wash and change I'll be right back."
     Poppy took Steamy as the young cook headed off to her room. The transformer vented a small satisfied sigh.
     "I like her much more than I liked Abigail."
     "You never said anything."
     "Because I had no reasons. I don't want to be unfair. But I'm ever so glad she's back." He wriggled, and Poppy put him down. "We must make a feast to celebrate!"
     Poppy nodded, although her heart wasn't in it. "See what you can come up with. We haven't had..."
     "Poppy - sorry to interrupt but there's a call from the General." Beverley called through the intercom.
     "I'll be right there." Waving to the assembled kitchen staff she headed for her office. General Morshower's grim face looked back at her from the screen.
     "Ms Moss. Hope you're holding up well." Poppy nodded, but before she could respond properly the General went on, "I'm sorry to have to tell you this but it's been agreed to bring forward the inauguration of the lunar consulate."
     "Bring forw... But General, we're in the middle of a crisis here!"
     "And that's part of the reason. You'll be safer on the moon."
     Poppy stared at him, mouth agape. "You have got to be joking..."
     "I'm afraid not."
     "Who's authorised this?"
     "Myself, my advisers - and Optimus Prime."
     "But Phil and Graham... I can't leave while they're still in enemy hands!"
     "The danger is that you might end up a casualty too. I'm sorry, I know it's a wrench, but it's been decided."
     Poppy planted her fists on her hips, lips thinned as she glowered at him.
     "And I don't get any say in the matter?"
     "Not when it's a matter of national - international - security."
     And that set alarm bells off in her head. "What aren't you telling me?"
     He frowned - and was that the slightest touch of guilt in his eyes? "It's classified."
     "General, I have Ramp on my side. Classified means nothing to him."
     The officer eyed her for a moment, then grunted. "We've intercepted plans of a kidnap attempt. The details are sketchy, but the intel is sound."
     Poppy groaned and rubbed at her forehead. "Can't I just have protection here?"
     "I'm sorry, but right now we're spread too thin."
     She knew that was true. "How long will I have to - no, don't tell me. 'Til the threat has been eradicated."
     She sighed - then felt her heart sink. She'd be on the moon over Yule. A quarter of a million miles away from everything and everyone she knew. She swallowed around the lump in her throat. "When do I leave?"
     "Tonight. Skyfire will come for you. Upbeat, Stronghold and Bluestreak will travel with you and act as your guardians while you're there, and you can take any of the others you'd like to go with you. Within reason. Ramp must stay on earth."
     She nodded dolefully. Well, this explained why 'Beat had persuaded her out of leaving the consulate grounds when Beverley had tried to get her to take a break a couple of days ago - and why Starstream was still here even though Wavefront had - protesting all the way - been taken back to Diego Garcia with Ratchet. She would now not be allowed to go anywhere or do anything without a fully armed guard until the threat was neutralised.
     She'd be willing to bet Chatter had something to do with it.
     Moshower's expression had softened - well, as much as it could anyway. "I am sorry about this, Ms Moss. If we had a choice..."
     "I understand. Just promise me you'll look after everyone else - and try to get Phil and Graham back as soon as possible."
     "Will do. And we'll stay in constant contact."
     "Thank you, General." As he nodded and the screen went blank, Poppy turned to Beverley. "And I was really looking forward to the visit too. I was going to ask if Phil could come along..."
     The PA laid a hand on the consul's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Poppy."
     Poppy sighed and rubbed her eyes. "Right. I'd better get packed I suppose."
     "Like a hand?"
     "Yes please. Perhaps you can help me decide what I should take to wear on the moon..."

Three hours later Poppy stood with the three cars in root mode outside the Consulate. She'd wondered, after Morshower signed off, why Stronghold had been included: the Defender was still recovering from his injuries, but 'Spin had explained that the moon's lighter gravity would speed up his recovery. Packing had only taken half an hour: the rest of the time had been taken up in giving Beverley detailed instructions as to where and what the assorted Yule presents were for the various guests and staff who'd be in attendance over the holiday season, wishing her fellow consuls a happy Yule and a great start to the New Year, and saying goodbye to everyone. Beverley squeezed her shoulder as the deepening roar of Skyfire's engines sounded in the distance.
     "Try to enjoy it, Poppy. You're doing something no-one has ever done before."
     Poppy sighed. "I know. I just thought I'd have someone there to share it with me."
     "I wish I could come with you. I mean, I know I'm not Phil, but..."
     Poppy managed a chuckle. "Thanks. Maybe next time."
     Livewire tugged on her hand. "He's here."
     And the starcraft uncloaked, hatch opening and ramp extending. 'Beat picked up Poppy's luggage: the consul gave her PA one last hug before following Stronghold into Skyfire.
     She watched the house, then the country, grow smaller as they ascended steadily through the atmosphere, eyes wide as she saw the curve of the planet become more pronounced. Yes, the situation at home was worrying, if not positively scary - but she couldn't fight the thrill she felt as the earth receded behind them and the moon grew larger ahead. Not the circumstances she'd have preferred, but what an adventure!
     She felt excited. She tried very hard not to feel guilty about it...

© JAT 14.12.12

Part 28 - Erratic

"Ullo Poppy! S'good t'see ya."
     The consul grinned and hugged Muncher. After the last few hours it was very good to see a familiar and homely faceplate...

It had been interesting - and tiring. The trip only took four hours: Skyfire was fast and comfortable, and the sheer awe of being in space kept her enthralled. But once they'd landed and the induction process had started, she found herself struggling to remember all the details.
     And there were a lot of them. Life in low gravity was substantially different to life on earth. There were safety checks and protocols that had to be gone through before she even got out of bed, and it was stressed, over and over and ad infinitum that outside was deadly and she was not to even think about going out without donning the lightweight pressure suit and helmet and oxygen tank - all sleek and flexible and comfortable, courtesy of Wheeljack - and taking someone with her. Preferably Stronghold, whose weapons had been upgraded on his arrival to be effective in a low gravity, neglible-atmosphere environment.
     Ordinarily Poppy would have rolled her eyes and told them yes, she wasn't stupid, she was aware of what was outside the base, but it had suddenly hit her half way through the lecture/demonstration that she was now a quarter of a million miles away from home and everything she knew, with no way back until Skyfire or Starflare came to collect her, and the enormity left her feeling unusually intimidated. She nodded and said yes where appropriate, and the techies turned to Livewire and repeated everything before making him promise he'd stick to her like the proverbial glue and make sure she stayed safe.
     Then they'd led her through the gleaming silver and white sterility of the 'working' part of the base, as they put it, and into the lunar consulate.
     It was like stepping into yet another world. Obviously designed to make civilians feel more at home, it was arranged into five spacious modules leading off a central reception area furnished with carpeting and sofas, and a low table. To the right was an office, next to that a bedroom, then what was probably a bathroom (there was a long list of instructions on the partially opened door), then two rooms that looked like more sleeping accommodation... Ah, yes, normally the consul here would have at least her PA and possibly another person with her. No kitchen, of course: meals were prepared in the mess in the main part of the base, but there was no reason why the consul couldn't have meals here if she wanted. The walls were coloured a pleasant ivory and teal and there were a couple of fair sized windows, one of which looked out towards the greenhouse. The lighting was soft and coloured to more or less resemble earthly sunlight, and the place smelt faintly of lavender.
     Poppy turned and smiled at the techies.
     "This is wonderful! Thank you."
     Andrews, the systems analyst, nodded gravely.
     "We've tried to make it as comfortable as we can. If you need anything, have Livewire comm us. We normally eat together: the next meal is scheduled for two hours time, but if you need anything in the meantime, just have a word with Grant, here." He gestured towards a young woman who'd been introduced as 'our indispensable assistant', who grinned at her. "Otherwise - well, we'll leave you to settle in. Feel free to wander: anything dangerous, like ongoing experiments, will be clearly labelled or behind locked doors, but if you could try not to disrupt anything we'd appreciate it."
     Poppy nodded: the last thing she wanted to was cause them any problems. It would not be good for morale in such an enclosed space. "I'll be careful."
     "Excellent." Andrews rubbed his hands together and glanced towards the exit. "Right, well, we're get back to work then."
     It only took a few minutes to unpack - she'd brought the minimum with her, and they'd provided form-fitting royal blue and white jumpsuits for standard wear around the base - then Poppy headed out to explore, figuring she'd feel less lonely if she stayed active. And the first place she headed for was the greenhouse.

"Come an' 'ave a look 'round."
     Poppy, with Livewire trotting lopingly at her side like a well-behaved Chihuahua, took Muncher's extended servo and allowed him to guide her into the large space, privately grateful he was there. Livewire had told her that the floor had magnetic strips in it all the way through the base so the transformers, at least, could keep their footing in the low gravity. She simply allowed Muncher to manoeuvre her around instead of trying to do it herself - which was actually quite fun, she decided.
     The greenhouse was massive, the thick silicate walls currently polarised to protect the humans working there. The fruits on the spindly bushes were huge and alien - at least until Muncher pointed out which were the tomatoes, oranges and grapes. "We'm experimentin' with apples next. An' us've got beans an' cabbage over at the back, an' th' maize is improvin'. I'm studyin' to see if us can keep chickens."
     Poppy stared at him, then giggled. The thought of chickens on the moon was kind of amusing, although she could see the benefit. Eggs, the occasional roast bird, and free manure. Though they'd have to import feed. She couldn't see the administrators allowing them to let insects loose here.
     At least, she couldn't until a bee bumbled past. She gaped, then turned to Muncher.
     "You're joking!"
     He rumbled a laugh. "Yep. They'm mechanical. Us've gotta use summin to pollinate."
     "It works..."
     She spent a very happy couple of hours, Muncher proudly showing her everything he'd initiated in his time at the base. They were currently producing all the oxygen the base needed plus a little extra, the edible plants were proving very successful and a welcome addition to the basic provisions, and he'd even made space for a few flowers. The crocuses weren't doing all that well yet, but he would persevere...
     He glanced at her as her stomach rumbled. "Heh. Best get you t'dinner..."
     He guided her through the base to the mess, where the sixteen staff members of this three-monthly shift had assembled for what looked like large rolls filled with mostly unidentifiable but tasty-smelling foodstuffs. They all waved a welcome, and Grant came over to show her to the dispensers and help her select her own meal. The variety surprised her: proteins were very realistic tasting chicken, ham or salmon, with slices of moon-grown tomatoes and cucumber, while the rolls provided the carbohydrates. All in all perfectly wholesome and healthy...
     She listened to the others, mostly, picking up the occasional topic she recognised her and there. Grant tried to tell her about their latest projects - but Poppy was beginning to tire and much of it was incomprehensible. She tried to hide her yawn, but Grant paused and chuckled.
     "Sorry. I do go on a bit. If you're tired, perhaps you should take a nap? Or even a sleep - we don't keep specific earth time here unless we want to. I tend to work to a twelve hour on, seven hour off - for sleep and recreation - schedule myself. Sounds a bit odd but it works quite well." She grimaced. "Course, getting back to normal earth time at the end of the shift is a bit of a pain, but we manage."
     "How often are your shifts?"
     "Three months on, three months off is planned."
     Poppy nodded, then yawned again, and Grant pulled her to her feet.
     "Come on. Don't want you getting worn out on your first day!"
     It was perhaps fortunate that she was too tired to stay awake for long once she'd slid into the bed - the fitted cover was slightly stretchy to allow movement but not loose enough for her to bounce or fall off if she tried to shift too fast in her sleep - because whoever had designed the consulate had provided a window that looked directly towards the gleaming sphere of earth, very far away and lonely above the lunar horizon.

'P now on moon'
     Phil stared at Cable's screen, then glanced at Graham, fiercely resisting the expletive he wanted to utter. Graham shrugged.
     "Well, Poppy's safe."
     Phil would have argued, but then considered it for a moment. His superior was right - Poppy couldn't be in a safer place.
     But he would very much rather she was safe with him. He grumped and nodded.
     "I suppose so..." He rubbed his eyes. "I'm getting really pissed off with this. They should either let us go or... do something!"
     Graham stretched, then slumped. They hadn't been allowed out of the cell since they'd arrived back after the NEST visit - not even to shower. It had been a week and a half now, and they'd have to start exercising soon if they were to stay in anything like optimal condition. That wasn't going to make the lack of washing facilities any more pleasant.
     Cable vibrated silently under Phil's hand: the lieutenant glanced down.
     'want resQ?'
     Oh yes, they wanted to be rescued. They wanted that a lot. But so far the group hadn't made any demands: the officers still didn't know why they were here... Graham shook his head.
     "They'll tell us when they're ready. In the meantime - we'll survive."
     "Yeah." grumbled Phil. "But we won't enjoy it."

Walker was pacing angrily - but then, thought Knock Out, he did everything angrily. The fleshbag epitomised angry.
     Then again, the THB were taking their time deciding what they were going to do with the two officers. With the news that the consul was now on the moon and out of everyone's reach, their first idea - to use the officers as a distraction and kidnap her - was no longer tenable. Not that Knock Out thought it was much of an idea to start with. Walker wanted to just kill them, but Black was completely against that idea. Too soft, in Walker's opinion.
     Yet he admitted that alive, they made good bargaining chips...
     Walker stopped pacing, his expression determined. Knock Out vented silently. That was probably not a good thing. Probably became definitely when the fleshbag turned to him and grinned.
     "Right. We're taking them."
     "We're what?"
     "We're leaving and taking them with us."
     "We've already established that Soundwave's alt mode does not lend itself to subterfuge."
     "Then he can stay here. You and Barricade come with me." He was already in motion, grabbing weapons from their hiding places and affixing them to various articles of his gear. Knock Out watched him bemusedly.
     "Where will we go?"
     "Leave that to me."
     "I would rather not."
     Walker aimed a Browning semi-automatic at him. The Aston Martin waved a servo dismissively.
     "Oh please. You really think you can threaten me?"
     Walker slowly reholstered the pistol and frowned at the transformer.
     "There's an abandoned mine five miles to the north. It's deep enough and just radioactive enough to scramble any surveillance, and close enough to this place that no-one will think to look there. And there's room for Soundwave too."
     "Any infrastructure? Power supply? Fuel?"
     Walker smiled coldly. "Oh yes. I haven't been wasting my time, you know."
     "You had this planned?"
     "Contingency. You never know when plan B will be needed. Have Soundwave ready to override the cameras at three am and we'll move out then."

© JAT 24.12.12.

Part 29 - Unresolved

Cable found it easy to sneak out of the base, now Soundwave was no longer there and monitoring everything, even if it did take him longer than he wanted. Fretting, the little transformer found himself a sheltered place and sent out the call.
     ::Cable?:: 'Spin paused in his lecture on the microengineering of unstable elements for a microsecond as the smallest transformer commed him. ::What's wrong?::

Beverley looked up, frowning, as 'Spin charged into her office. "Walker hath moved Phil and the Wing Commander - 'abducted' them. Cable wath left behind. He didn't have enough time to tranthform and hide on them. He doethn't know where they went."
     "Oh hell..." She hesitated for only a moment before turning to Ramp, who had already contacted Diego Garcia, Brize Norton and General Morshower and enlarged his monitor screen to allow representatives of all three to be seen.
     "Ms Jones, you look distressed. What has happened?"
     Beverley tried to smile at the Prime, but he had grown so adept at reading human expressions it did no good. As Morshower's aide and Lt Bowers, the Consulate's liaison at Brize Norton, appeared Ramp quickly brought everyone up to date with recent events.
     The aide - Davis, Beverley thought his name was - nodded and said he'd report to the general, but that this was really a local matter: unless the UK contingent really needed them, US NEST would simply monitor the situation. And on that note, they would require frequent updates.
     Biting down her distaste for the flippant dismissal and brusque order, Beverley nodded tightly and turned to Catherine Bowers as Davis closed his end. The lieutenant smiled sympathetically.
     "Ramp's sent me everything that's been done so far. I think at this stage it might be as well to get back to the site and see if we can find any trace of them. I'll get over there as soon as possible. Is Prowl available?"
     "I can get him here in an hour."
     "Great. If you could do that, please. We'll discuss our next move when I arrive."
     As she signed off Beverley turned to Optimus. The Prime nodded.
     "I am sorry you are so troubled, Ms Jones. Is there any way we can help?"
     She wanted to say yes, but in all honesty there was nothing anyone on Diego Garcia could do that couldn't be done at least as well and without the travel delay by their own personnel. She shook her head.
     "Thank you, sir, but no. Ramp will keep you advised."
     "We would appreciate it. Know that we will do anything in our power to assist if it is needed."
     "Thank you. At the moment I think Prowl and the twins are our best bet."

As the screen went blank the Prime turned to Ratchet.
     ::There are now two organisations in the UK that threaten us and our human colleagues::
     The medic vented a sigh and hoisted Nova a little higher up his frame.
     ::How many does that make, worldwide?::
     ::That we know of? Three hundred and fifty three. Of those, seventy represent a genuine threat. Thirty nine of those are in the northern United States, twenty are in that area the humans call the Middle East, and the rest are scattered across the Russian mainland::
     ::Can we keep our people safe?::
     ::It appears not::
     Ratchet hugged his sparkling protectively. ::No matter where we go or what we do we cause problems...::
     Optimus laid a servo on his shoulder. ::On the positive side, while they are plotting against us, they aren't killing each other::
     Ratchet snorted. ::I do not find that much of a consolation::
     ::I know, old friend. And yet, abandoning them now would cause more harm than good::
     ::Are you sure of that? Would everyone really not be better off if we left?::
     ::It is something to consider for the future. At present, we have become too important to their overall wellbeing for us to leave::
     Which Ratchet knew to be true, at least as far as the current agricultural and energy-production projects were concerned. None were at a stage where they could be left wholly unsupervised.
     ::I suppose so. But it rankles, Optimus. We should have our own planet, somewhere we can be ourselves, rather than being allowed to stay here at the humans' sufferance::
     Prime laid a heavy servo on his shoulder.
     ::Somewhere we can recreate our own civilisation::
     ::We will, Ratchet. We will. Just let us assemble a few more of our own and we will make the endeavour::
     ::Where? Where will we go?::
     ::The most suitable planet is Mars::
     Which was ironic, thought the medic. The planet named for the human god of war could become the planet where we find peace at last...

Prowl, with Catherine Bowers in his driving seat but not daring to actually touch anything other than the steering wheel, had headed off to retrieve Cable as soon as the Nemesis could get to Brize Norton. At the same time Starflare had diverted from NEO clearance to collect Bluestreak from the Moon, it having been agreed by Prime and Morshower that Poppy would be safe enough with just 'Beat and Stronghold, given how many other Transformers there were currently at the base, while Blue would be of much more use on earth now that Phil and Graham were missing.
     Bowers was one of those rare humans who didn't feel the need to fill the silence with noise, which Prowl found very soothing. Cruising at a steady 180 miles per hour - it had taken some persuasion but special dispensation had been granted to transformers to break the speed limit under certain circumstances - it only took a couple of hours to reach the THB headquarters. Cable scuttled out from his hiding-place as Prowl pulled up at the edge of the transport park, the little transformer leaping in as the door opened.
     "Report." Prowl's voice was clipped and emotionless. Cable glanced at the human.
     "The humans needs to be party to the intel."
     Cable settled himself in the passenger seat and plugged into Prowl's comms port as the car drove back out onto the main road and waited in a layby to decide - or be advised - where to go next.
     "Walker took them with no warning. All three 'Con's went with him. They left no trail, and as far as I've been able to tell, haven't tried to contact anyone so far. Though since they're operating on their own that's not so surprising. I'm sorry, it was forty minutes before I could get out of the complex to comm you without risking alerting anyone."
     "So we don't know where they went." Bowers had called up a map of the area and was scrutinising anywhere that might be used as a retreat. There were a number of mines in the area that she thought were well worth investigating. She tapped the video array and glanced at Cable. "We need a couple of search teams."
     "Bluestreak will be back later today. I'll have Starflare transport him, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker to the vicinity." Prowl shifted slightly as he commed the order. "In the meantime, we ought to set up a command post."
     Bowers frowned. "Are we sure they're here?"
     "It's most likely. According to NEST records there has been unusual activity here in the last couple of years, not enough to raise the alarm, but enough to warrant keeping an eye out, as they put it." He brightened one specific area of the map. "Here. The lower workings proved to be mildly radioactive, and the mine was abandoned."
     "Radioactive?" Bowers frowned worriedly. "That's not good."
     "It causes us no problems."
     "Maybe not, Prowl, but it's very dangerous for humans. Can have some very nasty effects."
     In the time it took her to say it he'd skimmed everything online about radiation poisoning. "I see. Then it behoves us to find them with all due despatch. But perhaps you should keep your distance."
     "I'll stay away from the mine itself but I need to be here. Any operation involving NEST has to have a human rep in attendance."
     "Very well. But you will need to wear protective gear."
     "I'll get it organised."
     "Good." Prowl paused, listening to his comm. "We have orders not to try anything on our own. We are to wait for reinforcements. The three 'Cons are considered to be very dangerous and I understand Walker himself is unstable. A stealth operation may be our best option. For that we will probably need more human operatives. We will assess the situation when everyone is here."
     "And in the meantime we wait?"
     She could almost feel the nod. "We wait."

Graham shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. The cell was dark, cold and dank, the walls dripping. "We're going to need more blankets or something."
     Walker leered at them then waved a hand around the little cave. "Get used to it. This is all you're getting."
     He pulled the makeshift but substantial door to with a clang and locked and bolted it. As his footsteps faded away both officers tried to shift the door. They failed, much as expected. In the dim light of an overhead naked electric bulb they inspected their new quarters. Not that there was much to see. Roughly rectangular, hacked out of the rock, a rough but very solid door that didn't fit properly, letting in air. Two metal cots with the thinnest of mattresses, a thin hard pillow and one blanket each. There was a bucket, with a pile of slightly damp newspaper on the floor beside it, against one wall.
     And that was it. Graham grinned mirthlessly.
     "On reflection, I'd prefer the Ritz..."
     Phil groaned and nodded. "Well, let's do what we can to make it less unbearable."
     They shoved the cots together - taking advantage of their shared body heat and giving them two blankets instead of one each - then sat in silence, wondering what they could possibly do next...

Poppy was actually enjoying her time on the moon, even given her constant worry about Phil and Graham - and everyone at Iacon House. She spoke almost daily with her fellow consuls, all of whom were breathless to know how she was coping, what they should plan for when it was their term, how she got on with everyone... It certainly soothed the homesickness. And there was something rather nice about being able to look down on the home planet - not in a superior way but almost... motherly. She felt like some sort of maternal observer, gazing down on the planet she loved and served. And she got quite a kick out of being able to see everywhere. It made reading the reports of transformer activity around the world so much more fun. Hound and Trailbreaker were currently in Russia, focussing on protecting the amur tigers of Sikhote-Alin: with a little help from Ramp she was actually able to find the area and zoom in, feeling a thrill that their allies were making a difference to the planet.
     It was wonderful.
     And when Yule came, Stronghold and 'Beat took her outside, lifting her up five feet above the surface and boosting her forwards in an approximation of flight. If she hadn't been so worried about Phil, and Graham, who were both still missing it would have been just perfect...

© JAT 31.12.12

Part 30 - Saved

Phil couldn't stop shivering. And although he was trying not to show it, Graham knew he was not feeling at all well. Hell, neither of them were in the best of health, but the Wing Commander suspected this might be something more serious. Phil had been nauseous for three days now, and was becoming dehydrated.
     Graham wasn't feeling that great himself.
     Surely they should have been 'retrieved' by now...?
     Walker opened the door, slamming it against the wall, rifle held casually in his hands, and leered at the two men.
     "You're about to make yourselves useful. Get up."
     "We're ill, you bastard."
     Walker snorted. "Probably. Radiation's getting to you."
     Phil forced his head up to stare blearily at the ex-NEST officer. "What...?"
     "Radiation. S'why the mine was shut down. Too much radon." He smirked and raised the rifle. "Say byebye to daddyhood and get on your feet."

This is taking too long... Bowers was pacing worriedly. The twins and Blue had searched all the easily accessible mines, including two that were too radioactive for humans to safely enter, but to no avail. Now they were left with the more difficult, and more dangerous, options.
     She had suggested that perhaps their officers were in a smaller mine altogether, one where transformers wouldn't fit, but Prowl had firmly negated that line of thought.
     "They will all be together. We must assume it is in one of the deeper mines - which will mean they run the risk of radiation poisoning."
     "We have to find them!" Bowers could only imagine Poppy's reaction if either man was seriously hurt. Prowl froze for a moment, then pulled up a large scale map of an area a couple of miles to the north.
     "I believe they are here." One slender, claw-tipped metal digit tapped lightly against something that looked like the entrance to the deepest mine yet. Bowers eyed it doubtfully.
     "You think so?"
     In answer he flashed up a satellite image of the area - which showed a small human figure entering a structure in the hillside.
     "It has just been commed to me. It was taken last night. I believe that is Walker."
     Bower was checking the specs for the mine, feeling suddenly cold. It had been abandoned as dangerously radioactive fifty years ago: strictly speaking it should have been filled in to render it safe, but, as usual, other priorities took... priority.
     It depended how close they'd been kept to the radioactive source, of course, but even at the surface... Phil and Graham had been missing for six days - by now they could both be really ill. Or dying.
     "We have to move right away."
     "We will." Prowl hesitated for a moment. "Will you contact your people? We'll need a medic with skills in treating radiation sickness on hand."
     "Right away..." Bowers grabbed for her radio as Prowl commed his colleagues. Within ten minutes they were ready to move.

Smith knocked perfunctorily on the door and entered without waiting for an invitation. Black frowned up at him.
     "What do you th..."
     "They've gone."
     "Who's gone?"
     "The nut and the robots."
     Smith shrugged helplessly. "Must've gone during the night. They've taken the two soldiers with them."
     "... damn..." Black rubbed between his eyes, thinking for a moment. There went their winning hand...
     "Call a meeting. All department heads. Ten minutes."
     Smith dived back out of the door. Black hesitated for a moment, then lifted the 'special' phone, dialling James Zender's number from memory.

In an office in a nondescript block in London Zee scowled as his phone - the one on the secure line - buzzed. Dammit, this had better not be more bad news...
     "Zender? Black. Our birds have flown the coop."
     Zee took a very deep breath, then listened as Black explained the situation.
     "So where are they?"
     "Frankly, right now, we have no idea. The flying one could be anywhere - given his skills in comms, surveillance and subterfuge, for all we know he could be in orbit, hiding his presence from everyone and everything. The other two - they're cars. While the red one is flashy and not exactly subtle, they're not called transformers for nothing. Change of colour, change of mode, they'd both be unnoticeable. As for Walker - well, to be honest, he's more trouble than he's worth. Not happy about the officers though."
     "No, neither am I, not after all the trouble it took to capture them. What steps are you taking to get them back?"
     "That's why I'm calling. I've scheduled a meeting for ten minutes - can we rely on your cooperation if it's needed? In the interests of our mutual benefit, of course."
     Zee smiled to himself. The THB had resources The Club simply couldn't command, while he had access to people in power who wouldn't dream of touching Black's group.
     "Oh, certainly. We know Walker, of course. We can probably find him for you, knowing his habits and mental state quite well. I'll have some of my people fly up there within the hour."
     "Thank you. And what may we do for you in return?"
     "I would suggest we... join forces. Combine our knowledge and resources. The aliens are becoming more of a threat as more arrive: I don't think any of us can afford to remain isolated any more."
     Black hesitated. "I'll need to discuss it..."
     "Oh come on, Black." Zee interrupted. "You and I both know you're the driving force. They'll do what you tell 'em."
     There's was a hint of a chuckle in Black's voice. "Of course. But it makes life easier if they believe they're being included." A brief pause. "We understand each other. And I believe it is a good idea. Will you relocate here?"
     "We'll discuss it when I arrive."
     "You're coming yourself?"
     "I think under the circumstances it's fitting, don't you?"
     "I'll make sure I have the Earl Grey ready..."

::What's the situation?:: Sideswipe could be almost silent when he wanted to be. Fortunately nothing surprised Prowl, who had felt the echoes of his field from half a mile away. The upgrades to his sensor wings were working extremely well.
     ::'Cons are three hundred feet down, we believe - the furthest their size will allow in these small tunnels. The fleshb... humans may be deeper: there are areas as far down as a thousand feet that are easily capable of being made into cells. However, the further down, the greater the exposure to damaging radiation. Damaging to organics:: he clarified before Sunstreaker could complain. ::We have to assume they know we're here and will take appropriate measures. It remains to be seen what those are. Our mission here is to rescue the humans - no-one forget that::
     Leaving Bowers behind still talking into her mic, the four transformers armed themselves and made their way into the mine.
     There was only one tunnel large enough to allow them access, which made the whole job easier. It wasn't long before Prowl was picking up the three 'Con signals a few hundred yards ahead. He gestured to Bluestreak, then to the twins, who moved to the front and readied their weapons. Moving as lightly as possible they entered into a large cave, dimly lit by a couple of overhead bulbs - not that the transformers needed the light to see - and were confronted by Barricade and Knock Out, holding Graham and Phil as shields. Gleaming, viciously-sharp claws were positioned at the humans' throats.
     "One move and they're scrap."
     Sideswipe and Sunstreaker held their positions, with Bluestreak some distance back, and Prowl lowered his weapon and strode into the main part of the cave.
     "There are over seven billion humans on the planet. Why should we be concerned about the fate of these two?"
     "Because they're NEST personnel, and one of them is the Consul's toy boy." Walker sauntered into view from behind Knock Out, rifle slung and nasty little smirk on his face. "And you're Autobots. You don't kill humans."
     Prowl inclined his helm. "We have not officially allied with them. Yet."
     "Doesn't matter." Walker's tone was off-hand. "You'd upset Optimus if you got them killed, and I know what you metal monstrosities think about your precious leader."
     Prowl was about to reply, but Bluestreak walked past him, rifle subsumed back into his frame.
     ::Get back, Blue...::
     But the young sniper didn't pause until he was a couple of yards from the group.
     Knock Out frowned.
     "Why? Why what?"
     "Why are you doing this? What do you get out of it? Megatron is terminated. Your faction no longer exists. You are alone on a planet where the natives hate you. Why are you making things worse for yourselves?"
     Knock Out's servo lowered a little - not far enough to ensure Phil's safety, but enough to show hesitation. Barricade's grip tightened as he snarled, "We're Decepticons. What else are we supposed to do?"
     "Abandon your faction. Go neutral. Or join us."
     Knock Out rolled his optics. "Oh, of course. I can just see your precious Prime allowing that!"
     "There are already neutrals here, assimilating with the humans. There'd be a quarantine period, of course, but... Look at it this way. Would you rather be hunted, forced to hide, to steal what you need to survive, or live in the light." He smiled. "Come and join us. We have high-grade..."
     Graham nearly choked. 'Come to the dark side - we have cookies' indeed... He gasped as Barricade's claws drew blood.
     But Knock Out seemed to be listening. Bluestreak regarded him sombrely.
     "It's a better life, you know. Plenty of energon, no need to hide, companionship, a place to call home... It's good. It's not Cybertron, but it's pretty much what we claimed to be fighting for. Equality, and an end to suffering."
     To Prowl's and the twins' surprise, the medic lowered his servo, though he still kept one on Phil's shoulder.
     "And we let them go and you shoot us?"
     "No." Prowl lowered his own weapon. "We will not."
     "But you'll require us to go with you."
     The twins tensed, and Prowl knew he should answer in the affirmative, but Blue spoke up before he could reply.
     "It would be wise if you did. Unfortunately the humans know you now, and they've proved themselves quite adept at both finding and destroying you. With us, in our 'custody', you'd be safe." He grinned. "Of course, if you like living in caves and being ordered around by a traitor to his own kind..." He paused for a moment as Walker shot him, the bullet ricocheting off his plating and nearly hitting Knock Out. Ignoring the human's cursing, he held out a servo. "And no more fighting. Unless you want to, of course. Ironhide's keeping up a defence force." He peered past the two cars, into the dimness of the cave, where Soundwave's frame could be seen stirring. "And we always need communications."
     ::It can't be that easy... can it?:: Knock Out privately commed Soundwave. The communications expert was silent for a long moment.
     ::Possibly. Although there are human organisations who would use our abilities against their own kind, we would make ourselves even more of a target by joining them. Logic dictates our best option may be to comply::
     ::Seriously? Millions of years of fighting and we're now joining the Autobots?::
     ::We should certainly consider it::
     ::Never!:: Barricade snarled through the comms. Knock Out's engine rumbled.
     ::Suicide really isn't on my 'to do' list. Let's ask for asylum and time to consider::
     Soundwave agreed, and walked forwards silently to stand beside the Aston Martin, ignoring the apoplectically yelling Walker. Prowl eyed Barricade, who - very reluctantly - released Graham. As the two NEST officers stumbled forwards Walker began shooting, only to find the rifle shot out of his hands by a single well-placed projectile. He stared at Bluestreak in shock. The sniper tilted his head.
     "I've had a little more practise than you..."

An hour later they were all outside the mine, Phil and Graham being hurried into the waiting ambulance and rushed off to the nearest hospital for basic care before being moved to a specialist unit. The three 'Cons, guarded by the twins and Bluestreak, were waiting for Skyfire to arrive to pick them up, it having been decided that would be the easiest way to get everyone to Diego Garcia.
     Prowl and Bowers were both in contact with the Consulate, the former reporting in detail to the Prime via Ramp, the human telling Beverley what had happened. The PA was bemused.
     "I can't believe it could be that easy."
     The lieutenant shook her head. "Me neither. I anticipate problems. But for the moment it's all good."
     "... how are Phil and Matthew?"
     Bowers sighed. "They look bloody awful. But we won't know the damage 'til they've been assessed."
     "I'll tell Poppy."
     "You don't want to wait until we know more?"
     "No. She needs to know he's safe. Well, out of their hands, anyway."
     "You know her better than me. I'll leave that in your hands."
     "Thanks. And Walker?"
     Bowers snarled. "Would you believe the bastard got away again? Slipped down one of the side tunnels while our lot was escorting everyone out."
     "... he's got more lives than a cat."
     "No doubt we'll pick him up again at some point. I've alerted NEST: they're sending a search team."
     "Good. I'll feel happier when he's out of the picture."
     Bowers managed a dry chuckle. "You and me both." She nodded as Prowl gestured to her. "Gotta go. I'll see you in a few hours."
     Closing the connection she hurried to the Nemesis. He gazed down at her solemnly.
     "Skyfire will be here in two hours. I plan to stay here until our new 'friends' are safely on board. If you wish to return to the Consulate before then, you will need to arrange transport."
     She shook her head.
     "That's OK, sir. I'll wait." She didn't dare admit she was fascinated by the new transformers and wanted to observe them for a little longer. Prowl nodded.
     "Very well."
     Bowers settled herself to wait.

"Oh thank the powers that be..." Poppy suddenly felt as though she was floating, and it had nothing to do with the moon's lighter gravity. On the other end of the connection Beverley's smile dimmed a little.
     "They've both been affected by the radon, though. We don't know how bad the damage is yet, but they came out of the mine under their own power, and we both know how tough and determined they are."
     Poppy nodded. "You'll let me know the moment you hear anything?"
     "Of course." Beverley eyed her boss. "How are you?"
     "Bored. It's all very well being in contact with everyone whenever I want, and everyone has been very good here, but it's not the same. I miss home. I miss the garden. I miss everyone."
     "Any news on when they'll let you come back?"
     "Apparently, once Optimus is satisfied the three 'Cons aren't a danger any more." She sighed. "That won't be 'til after xmas. But I might be home for New Year."
     "We'll keep our fingers crossed."

James Zender faced Oliver Black over a bone-china cup of fragrant Earl Grey and smiled slowly.
     "So, tell me what you learned while the robots were in your possession..."

© JAT 16.01.13

Here ends New World. The story will continue in New World 2.