Appliances proved to be surprisingly popular, and a number of people asked if there would be a sequel. This is it...
Part 1 - Changes
"What?!" Poppy stared down at the chess board, scowling, then raised her head to glower at the slender silver figure sitting opposite. "Bugger. I'm never going to get the hang of this."
Chillvern raised his hands apologetically.
"It takes practise, Poppy, that's all."
Easy enough for him to say, given he could download the details of every game ever played in microseconds. She was beginning to regret ever asking him to teach her...
In the year and a half since the Cybertronian refugees had first appeared in her life, Poppy had seen a few changes. After that scary business in Egypt - and the accompanying revelation of the transformers' presence on earth - she'd found herself mothering a few more of the creatures. So many, in fact, that she'd had to move to a house on the outskirts of the city, a rather nice old five-bedroomed place with high ceilings and a big garden. Paid for by NEST, of course, since there was no way she could have afforded such a place on her salary. Much of the garden was shaded by large trees: humanity might know about the transformers now but that didn't mean they went out of their way to make themselves conspicuous, and while there was no problem inside the house, her friends really liked being out of doors in their natural, robotic forms. Under the trees they were shielded from all eyes, in the summer and autumn at least. Even though she didn't think her house would be under any kind of satellite scrutiny, there was always Google earth, and the occasional plane or police helicopter overflying the area...
She stayed mostly at home now, teleworking for her old company while still able to keep an eye on her charges. As semi-official-but-under-the-radar robot-sitter - NEST had unofficially appointed her to the post of 'consultant' - she was able to claim some expenses from the organisation. Not that she needed to, much, but it was nice to know she could call on them in case of any problems. She sometimes missed her old workmates, but that was what the internet was for.
She'd also had to buy another fridge, as Chill much preferred to stay in his natural form. The others were happy to stick to their appliance functions - 'Spin had declared 'there wath NO WAY he'd trutht her clotheth to any human devithe' - when needed, but for food storage she really didn't have a choice. To be honest she was a lot happier having a fridge that couldn't talk back to her, anyway. And Chill had turned out to be quite a nice person, modest, intelligent and companionable.
Even if he did keep beating her at chess.
"It's lunchtime, Poppy!" Steamy peeked around the door and blinked at her. "What d'you fancy today?"
She waved at him.
"Oh, you choose. Surprise me!"
"Perhaps I should go and assist." Chill inclined his head, and Poppy nodded. Steamy's 'paws' weren't really designed for food preparation, and it was something Chill seemed to enjoy.
"OK. I should go and check on the others anyway. Back in half an hour."
At the far end of the garden, in the dappled shade of what was effectively a complete copse of trees, a disparate bunch of aliens was sprawled on the grass and moss. Poppy smiled affectionately as they waved and called out quiet greetings as she approached. Muncher, her newest arrival whose alternative mode was the large ride-on mower now proving extremely helpful in keeping the extensive lawn under control, offered her a courtly little bow. Of all of them, he was the largest, towering over her by at least three feet, and she'd been a little wary of him. Those extremely sharp blades didn't help his overall dangerous appearance either. She suspected Chill and 'Spin had been tutoring him in earth customs, since he'd taken to doing everything he could to put her at ease. He gave her as much of a smile as his face could manage as she seated herself on the bench under the oak.
"How's it all going?"
As usual, 'Spin answered for them all.
"It'th great! We like thith plathe a lot."
"Good. I'm sorry I can't take you all out, though..."
"Oh, it'th no problem. We're happy to be able to come out here. The retht - well, TeeVee and Ramp thow uth what your world ith like. We have more freedom here than we had on Thybertron, at the end."
Ramp, Poppy's computer transformer, nodded.
Poppy was tempted, again, to ask what their home world was like, but as ever she hesitated. Whenever they mentioned the planet, it was always with a hint of melancholy, of loss, and she didn't want to upset them.
"Is there anything you need?"
"No. We're fine here for the afternoon. Unleth there'th thomething you need uth to do?"
"Not until this evening."
"OK..." 'Spin paused, gazing towards the house. "There'th thomeone coming..."
Ramp raised two of his hands to quell the momentary buzz of alarm.
"It's Graham." His antennae twitched. "And he's brought a friend..."
Intrigued, Poppy headed back to the house. Parked under the handsome larch on the small drive at the front was Agent Graham's off-roader - and what looked like a classic Mini. A white Mini, with a Union Jack painted on its roof. It would have been perfectly at home in Carnaby Street in the 1960s. And Graham was talking to it.
Poppy stopped and stared, not sure whether she was feeling horrified or pleased. She'd seen confidential NEST footage of the larger transformers in action in Egypt - Graham had said he believed she should know a little more about them, since she was looking after so many - and had been hugely impressed by the cars. Especially that silver one - Sideswipe, she thought the name was. Not that she was any sort of car buff, but he'd been quite something. Though it may just have been the swords... And Graham had said that more refugees had arrived, many of them large enough to take on vehicular alternative modes, so there was a possibility that she might be able to have her own, once the new arrivals had been inducted.
But a Mini?
Just as well she didn't suffer from claustrophobia.
Graham waved at her, then gestured towards the house's garage. The Mini obligingly drove into the building: the humans followed slowly, and just as they reached the door there was that strange but enthralling sound Poppy knew meant the car was transforming. It was, understandably, considerably louder than the noise her other charges made.
"Poppy, this is Upbeat." Graham indicated the creature now hunched over slightly inside the garage. "He will be your guardian for the foreseeable future. Upbeat, this is Poppy Moss, our resident autobot caretaker and consultant."
The transformer waved a large hand.
"'Ullo Poppy. Good t'meet you." Poppy stared, then automatically waved back. The accent was pure Liverpudlian. And while the transformer had a relatively humanoid face, it held the most doleful expression she'd ever seen. On anything. "Me designation's Upbeat, but you c'n call me Ringo. If y'like."
She glanced at Graham, who was desperately trying not to laugh. Wonderful. She was now the proud... ward? of an autobot reject from the Beatles.
Then the funny side hit her and she giggled. What the hell, her life was weird anyway, what was one more absurdity...
"Welcome, Upbeat. Ringo. Um... can I think about which I prefer?"
"Thanks... Is there anything you need?"
"Nope." He looked around the garage, which was a fair size, and nodded. "Comfy."
"You don't have to stay in here. Most of the others are in the garden." She pointed. "Just follow the trees."
"Awright, ta." He resumed car mode, drove to the start of the avenue of trees that led to the copse, transformed back and hurried off to join the others. Poppy turned to Graham, shaking her head.
"Can I ask for a refund?"
The officer laughed.
"Hey, he's a classic. People pay good money for a car like that."
"Good for them. I must confess I was hoping for something a little more... modern, myself."
"Well, we can try asking him to upgrade, but he rather likes that mode..."
"Eh, I'm sure I'll survive. I've been laughed at before." She grinned and gestured to the house. "Steamy will probably have lunch ready by now. Like to join me?"
"I'd be delighted..."
"So, how're things going?"
"Fairly well." Graham took a last forkful of the prawn-stuffed peppers Chillvern and Steamy had served up, chewed appreciatively and swallowed, washing it down with a mouthful of sparkling water. "There are still people who are... resistant to their presence, but that's not likely to change. There are always going to be those who don't want to share the planet with anyone, let alone aliens. Generally, though, the reactions have been pretty positive, especially after Egypt. I'd still maintain a low profile though, if I were you. Just in case."
"Oh, I've no intention of making waves!" She grinned as Chill took away their plates and put a bowl of fruit on the table. "It's not like I had a huge number of friends anyway: this life suits me. I always was a bit of a hermit."
Graham nodded. "We know. We had you thoroughly checked out before asking for your assistance."
Poppy blinked, her smile fading.
"So, if I hadn't checked out, I would have lost them all?"
"I'm afraid so. But it didn't happen, so don't let it bother you."
It would though, she knew. But Graham was still speaking.
"If - and it's a big if - I can arrange it, would you like to meet some of the others?"
Poppy's mouth dropped open.
"What, like Optimus and Ironhide? What a stupid question!"
"I'm not promising anything. But make sure your passport's up to date."
The officer had left soon after, and Poppy practically skipped down the garden to join the others. Upbeat had obviously settled in easily, and appeared to be regaling the others with all the latest news. Not that she could understand Cybertronian, but the others were listening intently and occasionally asking questions, so it was a logical assumption to make. 'Spin waved at her.
"Can we come too?"
"What? Oh..." she sometimes forgot their enhanced hearing and Ramp's automatic close-monitoring of the house and everything that went on inside it. "It's not anything like definite. And I don't know. I could ask next time we speak..."
"It would be wonderful." 'Spin's voice was wistful. "None of uth have ever met the Prime. Even Upbeat'th only theen him from a dithtanthe." The washing machine glanced at the Mini. "He wath too nervouth to thpeak to him."
"Well, I'll ask. No promises though."
"Thank me if it happens." She grinned at TeeVee. "That film you all wanted to watch is starting in half an hour. Coming in?"
TeeVee reverted back to TV mode and switched himself on. "No need. We'll watch it out here."
"Then I'll see you later."
Part 2 - Hurt
"I'll be a couple of hours. Don't get up to anything naughty while I'm gone!"
"Ath if we would!" 'Spin made a sound remarkably like a disdainful sniff, and Poppy giggled. He was remarkably easy to tease.
Upbeat (she hadn't been able to make herself call him Ringo. She may not be a Beatles fan, but there could only ever be one Ringo as far as she was concerned) was waiting for her outside, engine thrumming quietly. Poppy had been very nervous the first time she'd sat in the driver's seat (which had, alarmingly, shifted to accommodate her, becoming extremely comfortable in the process): not only did it feel most peculiar to be inside a sentient machine, but also, as she'd be the first to admit, she was hardly the best driver in the world. In fact, she'd not even been behind the wheel of a car since that accident four years ago.
'Beat had done his best, in his mournful voice, to reassure her that if she wanted she didn't even need to touch the wheel: all she needed to do was direct him and he'd do the driving. Which felt even weirder, but in practice worked really well. Though she did keep her hands on the wheel, just in case anyone happened to glance in. She was supposed to be keeping a low profile. The last thing she needed was the police stopping her for dangerous driving.
The nearest supermarket - the one that boasted 'every little helps' - was a good six miles away, but its advantage over the local shops was its anonymity and the fact it carried everything she needed under one roof. And it was nice for 'Beat to get out every now and then. She knew he recorded the trip, and played it back later for the others over TeeVee. Not exactly ideal, but at least it let them join in her life a little, even if only at second hand. She really wished she could take some of them shopping with her, but that really wasn't possible. Yet, anyway.
It was a pleasant drive in early autumn sunshine, the leaves just beginning to change colour. 'Beat drove sedately along the narrow roads, ignoring the jeers from a group of teenagers in a somewhat decrepit Volvo that tried to roar past them and which they passed half a mile further down the road, pulled off to the side with smoke coming from under the bonnet. Poppy smiled and waved as they drove past, giggling at the scowls from the erstwhile passengers.
The car park was fairly full, and 'Beat pulled into a space some distance from the supermarket. Poppy patted his dashboard as she opened the door.
"I might be a while. It looks busy, and I've a lot to get."
"S'awright, Poppy. I'll be here." He switched on the radio and found a 'golden oldies' channel. Poppy sometimes thought he might be overdoing the retro thing, but it seemed to make him happy, so she didn't comment.
The supermarket was full of wrinklies - must be pension day she thought - which slowed things down considerably, but which gave her the opportunity to search out bargains, BOGOFs and any interesting or special products. There was a new eco-friendly laundry liquid 'Spin had asked her to keep an eye out for, and in the fresh produce aisle a new selection of locally-grown organic vegetables. Steamy insisted on her buying organically-grown or bred wherever possible, and she had to admit it did taste very good. The prices seemed to be coming down too, always a bonus...
An hour later she stopped the laden trolley beside 'Beat's boot - and leaned over his roof, frowning: there were a series of wide, vicious scratches across the Union Jack. Glancing round to check no-one was within hearing distance, she laid a hand on the windshield.
"'Beat? What happened?"
The Mini shuddered minutely.
"Some louts with a broken bottle. Tried t'smash me windows too."
Poppy peered at the... was it glass? She tried not to take anything for granted anymore... and found tiny chips in the driver's side window.
"The bastards! Did you see which way they went?"
"Nah. They split up."
"It wasn't that bunch from the Volvo, was it?"
"Nope. Never seen this lot before."
She ran her fingers gently over the scratches.
"Well, we can get it repainted..." She paused: 'Beat had shuddered again. "What? It wouldn't take long."
She stared at him, then noticed other shoppers approaching with their trolleys, and opened the boot to pile her bags inside. Once finished and the trolley pushed into a storage bay, she climbed in and 'Beat started his engine. Poppy waited until they pulled out onto the road before asking,
"What do you mean, it's not paint?"
"It's me... you'd call it skin. Part o' me body."
"You mean... Oh ouch! 'Beat, I'm sorry. Does it hurt?" She frowned. "Can you actually feel pain."
The Mini snorted.
"Course we do! Got sensors all through us. Like your nerves."
"Oh..." That was a not-particularly-welcome revelation. "So how can we fix your roof?"
"Got no medics over here. Just 'ave to heal by itself."
"Yeah. Nanites'll take care of it. Be awright in a couple o' days."
"Is there anything I can do to help? Should we... cover it up, or something?"
"Nah. But sitting in sun'll help."
"Then you'll have to stay outside the garage for a bit."
"Fine by me!"
She frowned to herself, realising suddenly that she really didn't know very much about them. She'd assumed that they were just sentient robots - basically hunks of metal with intelligence. But thinking about it, there had to be more to them than that. The way they moved, their abilities, the way Chill chopped vegetables, careful not to let the knife too close to his own digits... And that must be why Muncher had winced, that time a sharp stone hidden in the grass had bounced off his side while he was mowing.
Bloody hell, they were closer to human than she'd thought. She'd have to speak to Graham, find out if there was anything she could do in case of accidents or damage...
The Volvo was still there on the way back, but now there was a police car stopped in front of it. To Poppy's surprise 'Beat flinched and speeded up a little, only slowing back to his usual rate once they were around a corner and out of sight.
"What was that for?"
The Mini hesitated, then muttered, "Bad mem'ries."
Poppy was itching to ask, but given he was hurt, thought it best not to make things worse...
As luck would have it, Graham was waiting for her when she got back, which usually meant another transformer or two for her to take under her wing. She let 'Beat park up in full sunlight and climbed out, waving to the officer. Graham gestured to the open hatch of his Defender: inside were two transformers in their natural mode, one small, one considerably larger. Poppy grinned.
"Hello. I'm Poppy."
The two glanced at Graham, who nodded and beckoned to them.
"It's all right, she's going to look after you." He turned to Poppy. "They're a little twitchy. Had a near run in with Barricade. One of the Decepticons." He added at her blank look.
"Oh, you poor things!" She held her hands out. "Come on inside and we'll get you settled. And you can meet the rest - they're a really nice bunch."
Ushering them into the house, she glanced back over her shoulder.
"Could you hang on a minute? There's something I need to ask you."
Graham nodded and followed her into the house.
Chill and 'Spin had been their usual charming and friendly selves, and the two newcomers - Cable, whose alternate form was a portable DVD player, rather to Poppy's delight, and Grunt, who transformed into, of all things, a multigym (oh wonderful. Poppy thought to herself. Bad enough with 'Spin, Steamy and Chill keeping tabs on my diet, now I'm going to be nagged to death to exercise as well!) - were welcomed and taken through into the main lounge to meet the rest. Poppy switched on the kettle for coffee, and Graham seated himself at the kitchen table, expression attentive.
"So, what did you want to ask?"
Poppy poured boiling water over instant coffee and handed a mug to the officer.
"Upbeat's been... hurt. Damaged. Injured. Not sure what to call it..."
Graham tensed and leaned forward, frowning.
Poppy explained the events at the supermarket. Graham drummed his fingers on the table, then obviously came to a decision.
"Is Ramp online?"
"Should be." Poppy led the way to her little office, where Ramp, ever attentive to Poppy's needs, had just finished transforming into his computer mode. Graham gazed at the monitor.
"Connect me to base, please."
Seconds later a face appeared on the screen. The man grinned at Graham, then his eyes met Poppy's and he saluted.
"Ma'am. You must be Ms Moss. On behalf of NEST, I'd like to say how much we appreciate the great job you're doing for us."
Graham chuckled as Poppy blushed red.
"Cut the flannel, Lennox, you're embarrassing her."
Lennox laughed, then smiled at Poppy.
"It's true though, you are doing a good job." His gaze returned to Graham. "So, why the call? You aren't due to report in for another four hours."
"We have a... situation. Not urgent, but it's something we haven't devised protocol for yet." He explained what had happened at the supermarket, and Lennox frowned.
"Yeah, see what you mean. OK, I'll brief them here, you speak to Ratchet."
The screen darkened momentarily: when it brightened Poppy and Graham were face to face with... Poppy felt dizzy. It was the most alien face she'd ever seen, grey and white and blue with bright little turquoise eyes...
Graham saluted casually.
"'Morning, Jolt. Ratchet handy?"
A shiver of what looked like lightning arced across the transformer's blue chest, accompanied by what sounded like the language her own wards spoke, then he moved aside as another face came into view, this one silver and chartreuse.
"His self-repair will deal with the problem on this occasion. However, it might be useful for the human to keep a supply of medical nanites in-house, in case anything similar happens in the future. I'll arrange it."
"Thanks, Ratchet." Graham nodded, and the view on the screen switched back to Lennox.
"Yes. If you could organise a courier though, we'd appreciate it."
"No problem. Hey, do you think you could send us a shipment of that local beer you like? We're running out of anything decent here."
"Oh, I'm sure you could twist my arm. Anything else, while I'm at it?"
"I'm sure we can think of something."
"Make a list for when I report in."
"Will do. Lennox out."
Poppy was staring at him.
"What just happened? It was like listening to half... no, a quarter of a conversation!"
"Ah, that was the well-oiled military machine you may have heard of hard at work."
She stared blankly, and he chuckled.
"Ratchet is always busy. To save time and me repeating it, Jolt and Lennox passed on what I told Lennox, and Ratchet came up with the answer and a solution which should help should anything like it happen again."
"He... he was a bit brusque..."
"He certainly can be. He's probably working on a project at the moment, always makes him impatient with interruptions."
"Oh." Poppy felt suddenly breathless - it had been a glimpse into a completely alien world. And she was a part of it! Even if only a tiny part and only peripherally. She shivered and grinned at Graham.
"You're welcome. There'll be instructions for storing the nanites when they arrive - hopefully in English, but ask Chill to translate if Ratchet forgets and leaves them in glyphs - and if you have any other problems, have Ramp contact me." His head swivelled to the door as a crash came from the lounge, followed by a babble of voices. "Sounds like you might be needed. Want backup?"
"No, it's OK. I'm sure between us 'Spin and I can sort it out."
"Then I'd better head off. A pleasure as always, Poppy."
He headed for the door as Poppy entered the lounge to see a disconsolate Grunt sitting in a corner with 'Spin patting his shoulder, while Sucker zoomed about vacuuming up the shattered glass from a large fruit-bowl that had been sitting on the coffee table.
Well, it wasn't the first, and it wouldn't be the last, Poppy thought, as she went to reassure the ungainly new transformer that it was OK, it was just an accident, and not to worry about it...
Part 3 - Hideaway
The roses were just so pretty, so fragrant - and Graham was sparkling in the moonlight...
Poppy frowned as a soft voice intruded, drifting across her dreaming mind.
"Poppy? I'm sorry, but you have to wake up. There's someone at the door and they don't want to go away..."
Groggily, Poppy forced open her eyes to see her 'radio alarm clock' - a sweet little cat-like transformer who went by the designation of Livewire and who made it a point of honour to always wake her as gently as possible - gazing at her apologetically. She groaned and rubbed her eyes.
"An obscenely early 4.30 a.m."
"Bugger..." She hauled herself more or less upright and shoved hair away from her face. Livewire started playing soothing music, and awkwardly pushed a freshly brewed cup of coffee within reach. Not for the first time Poppy silently thanked whatever was looking after her that one of her wards was a coffee-maker with a timer: she was useless without that first cup of coffee...
As the caffeine hit her system she became aware of the noise from the front door - a prolonged ringing of the bell, followed after a space of about ten seconds by several firm raps on the metal door knocker, a pattern that repeated after another few seconds. Whoever it was was obviously not going to be put off by the non-responsiveness within, and Poppy dragged herself from the bed, pulled on a floor-length fluffy purple dressing gown that almost swamped her - last year's birthday present from her mother - and managed to get down the stairs without tripping, distantly relieved to see that all her charges were acting human-normal, silent and dumb.
She opened the front door, gazing blearily at the figure outside, then, with some alarm, jerked upright.
The soldier smiled in a conciliatory fashion.
"I'm really sorry to have to wake you, ma'am... uh, Ms Moss. I know it's early, but I really have to be in Southampton in a couple of hours..."
Poppy waved a hand vaguely at him.
"S'OK. S'there a problem?"
"No, but I've been ordered to make the energon delivery."
Poppy stared blankly.
And suddenly Chill and 'Spin were there.
"Energon? Why... oh, of courth. Upbeat."
Chill inclined his head to the soldier.
"If you would wait just a minute, I'll open the garage."
The young man smiled gratefully.
"Thanks, that'd make my life easier!"
Poppy watched, a little dazedly, as between them Chill, 'Spin and the NEST operative manoeuvred four large tanks of... something into the garage, setting them against the rear wall. They were followed by four smaller tanks, two metal gallon drums and what looked like a large can of oil.
The soldier proffered a clipboard and a pen, which Poppy automatically took, signing the delivery sheet, and handed back. He saluted her with a grin.
"I'll let you get back to sleep now, ma'... Ms Moss. I'll try to deliver at a more reasonable time, next time."
"Ta." As he climbed back into his truck, Poppy turned to her transformers. "What...?"
Before either could answer, she stiffened and swept an alarmed and now fully awake gaze around the garage. The empty garage.
"Where's 'Beat? Oh god, he's not been stolen or something has he? Surely he has an alarm, or something..."
'Spin laid a hand on her arm.
"It'th OK, Poppy. He jutht went out for a little drive."
"He what? He's not supposed to do that! What if anyone saw him?"
'Spin's reply was interrupted by the sound of a familiar engine, and seconds later Upbeat eased himself into the garage. Poppy glared as he transformed, her hands planted on her hips.
"And where do you think you've been?"
The Mini flinched, lugubrious expression even more hangdog than usual.
"'m sorry. Was out meetin' a friend."
"... scaring me half to death, s'not good for my blood pressure you kn..." Poppy stopped and stared. "You were what? What friend?"
"Lightdance. Lives in pub down the road."
Poppy could feel her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, but was unable to force anything intelligible out for several seconds. She looked at 'Spin, who shrugged, and then at Chill, who dropped his gaze to the floor, then she turned back to 'Beat.
"In the pub down the road?!"
The Mini winced at the volume.
"There's a transformer living in the pub down the road??!"
Poppy spluttered, and Chill handed her a glass of water. She was too stressed to wonder where he'd got it from. Taking a gulp of the cold liquid, she made herself calm down.
"OK. OK. Let me get this straight. You have a friend living in the pub down the road. How long has he been there and why didnít you tell anyone? And do the owners know?"
"Nah. He keeps to 'imself, and's learned to use mains power to stay hidden. 'Is own signal's hid by the electrics in the place. Been there a few years now."
"Why didn't you tell us?"
"You never asked."
Poppy rubbed at her forehead, fighting back the incipient headache. She really wished they'd be a little more forthcoming and a little less literal.
"How often do you go to visit? And how do you... I mean, you wouldn't fit in the place..."
"Nah. I pops down every month, an 'e comes out t'me. "
"Unsetting all the alarms, I suppose."
"Yep. Then activatin' 'em again when he goes back in."
"OK..." Poppy frowned to herself. "How did you know where he was?"
"'e told me."
"And you've been sneaking out every month since you got here to meet up with him?"
'Beat looked shifty, then shook his head.
"Been meetin' up since I got here. To your planet. That were ten year ago."
Poppy blinked. "I thought you were a new arrival."
"Nah. Just got tired of tryin' to hide on me own and turned meself in to NEST."
Well that was a bit of an eye-opener.
"So, how long has he been here? On earth, I mean."
'Beat considered the question, then raised his hands.
"Must o' been about... fifty o' your years, give or take."
Poppy stared, speechless.
"There've been transformers here for that long?"
"Much longer'n that." He gave her what passed for a grin. "We're good at hidin'."
"Obviously." Poppy shook herself. "But he should really be here with us, shouldn't he?"
"e's happy where 'e is. Likes watchin' humans. Finds you interestin'."
"It's not really safe though, is it?"
"Been awright so far."
"I need to report this."
The Mini nodded mournfully.
"I s'pose you have to."
She patted his shoulder.
"I'm sorry. But wouldn't you like him to live here?"
"I would. Dunno if 'e'd agree."
"It would be safer for him."
"e's been safe for fifty year."
"Well yes, but people here know about you now. And some of them are unhappy about it. Your being here, I mean."
"Yeah, so 'e might be safer stayin' where 'e is."
Poppy could see his point of view.
"OK then. At lunchtime you and I are going to go and visit so I can see him. I know we won't be able to talk, but I'd still like to see what we're dealing with."
"Can you speak to him from outside the pub? Do you have some sort of... internal communications?"
"Good. Would you introduce me, so he knows I don't mean any harm?"
"Awright..." It was said reluctantly, but Poppy was determined. She'd had nightmares where her friends had been captured by hostile humans and gutted in front of her, and they had made her wary of being too trusting.
"Thanks." She patted his arm. "I promise I'll do what I can to cause as little fuss or upset as I can, but I really think NEST need to know about this."
"I know." 'Beat sighed - then his eyes brightened as he caught sight of the tanks against the wall. "Ooh! Energon!"
"I hope you're going to thare thome of it."
"I'm sure I can spare a bit."
Poppy frowned. "And on the way to the pub you can tell me what that's all about."
She'd lost track of the time, or she might have thought twice about contacting Graham. As it was, the unshaven, bleary eyed face that regarded her from the screen had her glancing at the clock. Quarter past five? Oops...
"I'm sorry. Shall I ring back later?"
He rubbed a hand over his eyes and rested his chin on a hand: it took Poppy a moment to realise he was in bed.
"What's the problem?" Behind him she could just make out a pillow covered with a mass of pale blonde hair. Oh bugger it: she'd not only woken him up, she'd disturbed him too. Best to get the message delivered so she could let him get back to sleep. Or whatever else it was he did first thing in the morning.
"I've just found out there's another transformer not a mile from the house."
He was immediately alert, sitting up, the continental quilt falling to his waist. Apparently he didn't believe in bedclothes.
"How did you find out?"
"'Beat told me. Apparently the new one's been here about fifty years."
The NEST officer frowned.
"Hm. The older ones can be difficult to persuade to move."
"I thought I'd go there at lunchtime - he's living in a nearby pub - and get a feel for the situation."
"We don't want you endangering yourself."
"I'll be fine. I mean, it's a pub. What could possibly go wrong?"
He raised an eyebrow.
"That sounds like 'famous last words'. I should really accompany you, but I can't get away until mid-afternoon."
"No, honestly, I'll be fine. If I'm the least bit worried I'll get out and ring you right away."
She could see him considering it, and sighed.
"Please. I'm not incompetent, you know."
He chuckled. "Oh, I know that. Very well. But take Cable with you. In a pinch he can contact me urgently."
"Oh, OK." Graham smiled, and she suddenly remembered her dream. She burst into giggles, and the officer eyed her warily. She waved a hand dismissively.
"Sorry. Just remembered - you were in a dream I had last night."
He looked alarmed. "I was?"
"Yes." She tried to quell the giggles and ended up spluttering. "You were all sparkly, like one of those stupid American vampire things."
Both eyebrows rose. "I'm... not sure whether to take that as a compliment or an insult..."
"Oh, an insult, definitely. Sorry. I sometimes worry about my mind. It wanders off into the weirdest places."
"Yes..." He eyed her wryly. "And on that note, I will say goodbye, and please report in as soon as you can after your foray to the pub."
Part 4 - Outside
A couple of hours later Poppy flopped down at the kitchen table, winced as her back made contact with the chair, and took a long swallow of her cooling coffee. Chill shook his head. None of her charges were able to make much in the way of facial expressions but in the last year she'd become something of an expert at reading their body language and overall attitude: Chill was a little alarmed.
"Are you all right?"
"I will be." Poppy rubbed at the back of her neck. "But I'd appreciate it if you could have a word with Grunt. I'm not a soldier, I can't be expected to do their workouts!"
The multigym had turned out to be a bit of a tyrant, insisting on her using him at least once a day, and continually upping his programme. Poppy had tried resisting, but he was stubborn, and followed her around the house until she gave in. And since he had turned out to be particularly clumsy, unless she wanted half the furnishings broken she was pretty much forced to do as he wanted. So far it hadn't been too bad, and she'd been feeling the benefits in increased stamina and flexibility, but it was time now to grab back control before everything got out of hand.
Chill nodded understandingly. "'Spin and I will have words with him. If matters don't improve, we can always have him seconded to one of the NEST bases." He paused in thought, then inclined his head. "That might actually be a better idea. The soldiers there would get more benefit from him than you ever could. When do you speak to Agent Graham next?"
"He asked me to contact him after I get back from the pub."
"Then I suggest you mention it to him this afternoon."
Poppy nodded, a little reluctantly.
"It'd probably be for the best, though it feels like I'm failing Grunt..."
Chill shook his head.
"Not at all, Poppy. He'd be a lot more useful, and a lot happier, somewhere he feels he has more purpose."
Poppy considered it, then smiled.
"I suppose so. Thanks, Chill."
"You're welcome. May I get your breakfast?"
"I'd rather you tell me what that business was this morning at the crack of dawn. What's energon?"
"You what? Seriously?"
"Yes. It fuels and feeds us."
She considered that for a moment then frowned.
"But... You've never said anything about it before. And I thought you used solar energy for fuel..."
"Solar energy can be converted into energon. It's easy enough for we smaller transformers. But the larger ones - especially those with vehicular modes and weapons - require a lot more than can be simply gathered from sunlight."
"Ah, I see. That makes sense. So the energon in the garage is just for 'Beat?"
"Primarily. Though if he's willing to share, we'd all welcome a little. Energon has a certain... pleasurable effect if one hasn't had any for a while. If I've understood it correctly, it's a little like human alcohol."
Poppy stared, then waved her hands.
"Oh god... I don't want drunk robots running loose! Can you imagine what Muncher would do?"
Chill made the sound she'd come to associate with him chuckling.
"No, it's nothing like that. Well, not for us - I can't vouch for our larger colleagues. We just become... mellow is probably the best way of putting it."
"You sure?" At Chill's nod, Poppy breathed a sigh of relief. "Well, OK then. But I'll hold you to that!"
There was a moment's silence, then,
"So if that's energon in the big tanks, what's in the others?"
"Coolant in the smaller tanks, additive-rich refined energon in the drums, and medical-grade oil with added nanites in the can. That's one of Ratchet's specials: it'll help protect Upbeat's exterior and heal any little scratches he may pick up. It's different from the medical nanites, for general use rather than for injuries."
"He thinks of everything!"
"Ratchet is rather good."
"What does the refined stuff do?"
"It acts as lubrication. Your planet's surface has an astonishing amount of irritants. They're not too much of a nuisance for us, but for the vehicles... most aggravating, if not actually painful."
Poppy nodded thoughtfully, chin propped in her hand, and gazed at Chill.
"You're well-educated, aren't you? What were you? You know, back on Cybertron."
He stilled, staring at her, then lowered his head, shoulders bowed.
"I was training as... your equivalent would be a cross between architect, electrical engineer and metallurgist. I wanted to specialise in creating versatile, self-sustaining domiciles..." His voice tailed off and he shrugged. "Then the war came..."
Poppy bit her lip, regretting she'd asked.
He raised his head and regarded her sadly.
"So am I." The brilliant light of his eyes faded for a moment, something she'd come to associate with them closing, then brightened again as he straightened. "But I'm alive, unlike so many of my colleagues. I may even be able to resume my studies, one day. And in the meantime - this is not such a bad life."
Steamy was agitated.
"But Poppy! That sort of food isn't good for you!"
"Just once isn't going to do me any harm."
"But I've read so much about how bad pub grub is for you."
"Yes, if you eat it all the time." She was trying to be patient. She knew they all had her best interests at heart - no, they had sparks instead of hearts, didn't they - but honestly! Even her fussy aunt Veronica hadn't been this pernickety. And even 'Spin, who usually took her side when such issues were mooted, wasn't helping.
"But we've heard terrible thingth about what cholethterol doeth to your bodieth. And alcohol! You could have a heart attack! Liver failure! Obethity! You could die..."
Oh for... Poppy took a deep breath and gazed around at the worried forms of the assembled transformers. "Those things take years to happen. You all know I'm healthy - you've all been making sure of that! All I'm going to do is have one little meal at the pub. Just one. I will be fine."
"I promise. We'll be back in a couple of hours or so and tonight I'll eat whatever you think would be best for me. How's that sound?"
'Spin grumbled. "It'll do, I thuppothe."
"Great. Now, if you'll excuse me, 'Beat is waiting. Chill's in charge 'til I get back."
Poppy sat back, her hands loosely on the wheel, and just let 'Beat drive. The radio station he'd chosen today played rather more recent music than his usual golden oldies, but also avoided what passed for pop these days. She wasn't surprised when he took the scenic route, the narrow road winding through autumnal countryside.
"This is nice."
"Thought y'd like it. Your planet is very pretty."
She grinned and settled a little more deeply into her seat with a contented sigh, happy to ride without words for a few minutes.
But her curiosity wouldn't let her stay quiet for long.
"So... How often do you need to refuel - and do I need to help you with it?"
The Mini juddered for a second, on the verge of stalling, then the forward motion smoothed out again before Poppy could ask what was wrong.
"Nah. Can feed meself. Might need a hand with th'oil, though. Can't reach me back."
"Hm. Do you need it in both your forms?"
"'s useful in both. If you don't mind."
"Of course not. I want you to feel comfortable."
"Ta. Maybe when we get back?" It was tentative, and Poppy chuckled.
"OK." She peered forward. Through the trees ahead she could make out a building. "Is that it?"
Moments later 'Beat pulled into an area that was more paddock than car park. Framed by trees a short distance away was an ancient and rather unprepossessing building, blocky, its roof thatched, its windows small. The sign was so faded as to be almost illegible: Poppy could just make out 'The King's Head'.
"Blimey. Which king?"
There was a moment's silence, presumably while 'Beat accessed information, then,
"Charles the second, I think."
History wasn't Poppy's favourite subject.
"So how old is it?"
"Middle 1700s. Was old coaching house."
"It's a bit off the beaten track for a coaching house, isn't it?"
She almost felt 'Beat shrug.
"Not me place to criticise human ways..."
Poppy grinned and opened the door.
"So, how do I recognise Lightdance?"
"He's over in th'corner at th'end of th'bar."
"OK, thanks. I shouldn't be too long."
"Don't mind me. You enjoy y'rself."
There were only a handful of people in the pub, the owners of the four other cars parked outside, presumably. They glanced up as she entered, as people are wont to do in half-empty pubs, then resumed their quiet conversations as Poppy approached the bar. The middle-aged, motherly-looking woman behind the counter smiled.
"Ullo love. First visit?" Poppy nodded. "Going to be eating?"
"Please." She took the offered menu card, asked for a half-pint of local cider, then, her eyes finally adapting to the dimness inside the room, ran her gaze to the corner at the end of the bar.
And blinked. Apparently Lightdance's alternative form was a jukebox. She was anything but a connoisseur, but the machine looked like an original - and was very pretty. She moved closer, admiring the smooth curves, the broad, stylised glittery petal effect at the base, the chunky design. The sign on the front read Wurlizter. And ye gods, it still played actual records!
"Aren't you a beauty?" She murmured, touching the glass front.
Lightdance twinkled at her. She inclined her head.
"Hello. I'm Poppy."
"In't she grand?" Poppy jumped and looked over her shoulder. The barmaid was hovering behind her, cider-filled half-pint mug in hand.
"It's lovely! I didn't know you could still get ones that play vinyl."
"Not many left outside museums, these days."
"I'd love one. I don't suppose it's for sale?"
"No, love, 'fraid not."
"No harm in asking. If you ever do decide to sell, can I have first refusal?"
"If you like." She handed Poppy a notepad and pen. "Give us your name and phone number and I'll tell the boss."
Poppy obliged, then took her drink to a table close to the jukebox and had a look at the menu. Ploughman's lunch, fish and chips, baked spud with an assortment of toppings... Her mouth watered. Healthy food was all very well as standard fare, but sometimes you just had to indulge in something deliciously naughty.
Ooh, steak and ale pie with chips and mushy peas! Perfect!
Steamy would have a fit. Perhaps better not tell him...
She gave her order at the bar then stood in front of Lightdance, ostensibly taking a look at what music was on offer while speaking very quietly to the transformer.
"'Beat tells me you're a friend. I suppose he's told you about me. I'm here to say hello and invite you to join us."
With a whir and a click, without being touched the jukebox slid a record into place, and seconds later the warm strains of a clarinet drifted across the room. The barmaid smiled as she carried Poppy's lunch to her table.
"Ah, 'Stranger on the Shore'... somehow that one always gets played. Enjoy your lunch, love. Let me know if you need anything."
'Stranger on the Shore'. Somehow that seemed highly appropriate...
The meal was delicious and filling, and Poppy treated herself to another cider (though only because she knew 'Beat would be driving back), while Lightdance regaled the pub in general and Poppy in particular with a variety of melodic old songs. Poppy recognised 'World Without Love', 'Aquarius' and 'Exodus', but most of the rest were unfamiliar. Though no less delightful for that, and somehow very fitting in the ancient low-ceilinged room with the smoke-darkened beams overhead. Poppy leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, soaking up the atmosphere.
"Everything OK love?"
Poppy opened her eyes and nodded as the barmaid lifted her empty plate.
"That was really good, thanks."
"Glad you enjoyed it. Can I get you anything else? Pudding, maybe?"
Poppy considered it, but the meal had been of the usual generous pub quantities and she really was rather full.
"Next time. I'll make sure I order something a bit smaller!"
The barmaid chuckled.
"Right you are!"
Poppy swallowed the last of her cider and, with one last smile and gentle pat to the jukebox, paid for her meal and exited the pub.
'Beat opened the door for her and reminded her to put on her seatbelt as she slid behind the wheel. She slapped lightly at the dashboard.
"What's all the fuss for?"
"Eh, you've had a drink. Can't be too careful..."
She considered remonstrating, but it was too much effort. Chuckling, she directed the Mini to take them home.
'Beat took the direct route this time, and after a couple of minutes said carefully,
"Lightdance liked you."
"Oh good. I liked him too. Wonderful choice of music."
"'e's not sure 'e wants t'leave th'pub though."
"I can understand why. Though I'd love to have him join us."
'Beat was silent for a moment., then asked, tentatively,
"Pr'aps we can go back again, in a couple o' days? See if e's changed 'is mind?"
"I think that's a very good idea. Thursday lunchtime it is."
Part 5 - Funtime
The first hint Poppy had that all was not as it should be back at the house was when, pulling into the drive, she saw Muncher cuddling a tree...
'Beat yelped as she slammed her foot on the brake, forcing him to stop dead before she scrambled out and raced to the front door. Which was open.
A sound reached her from the kitchen. She frowned, trying to place it, then realised it sounded like... a giggle? What the hell?
Heavy footsteps behind her had her whirling, alarmed, only to relax a little as the bulk of the transformed Mini loomed over her.
"Can't let you go in there alone." Internal sensors measured the doorway and he nodded, calculating he would just be able to squeeze through without causing damage. Well, much damage, anyway. "You better stay behind me."
Only too happy to have half a ton of metal between her and whatever was inside, Poppy followed him as he wormed his way into the downstairs hall. She peered out from behind him, looking around carefully, but couldn't see anything to cause any immediate alarm. Then the giggle came again. She laid a hand on 'Beat's back.
"I... I think we'd better see what that is."
"Mm." It sounded a little dubious, but, making sure Poppy stayed behind him, 'Beat moved cautiously to the kitchen door. He could be surprisingly quiet for such a large, metal creature, Poppy thought absently.
At the door he paused, then sniffed loudly - then straightened up, his head just brushing the ceiling. Arms folded across his chest he turned to glance at Poppy. She was startled by his expression - narrow-eyed, lips a thin line, almost scowling. At least, that was the impression he gave, and looking into the kitchen she thought she knew why.
'Spin was lying in the middle of the floor in a shallow pool of liquid, with Steamy jumping up and down on his stomach and giggling, while Sucker... was lying curled up in the sink? What...?
"What the hell is going on?!"
'Beat growled from somewhere deep inside.
"They've been at me energon!"
Poppy closed her eyes with a shudder, then shouted loudly for Chillvern...
"I'm so sorry, Poppy." Chill - who had been so engrossed in the five games of chess he was playing simultaneously with Ramp that he hadn't noticed what was happening in the rest of the house - was wringing his hands. "I didn't hear anything, didn't realise anything was happening... I'm sorry." He bowed his head, shoulders hunched, and Poppy sighed.
"It's not your fault, Chill."
"But you left me in charge, and I've let you down."
"It wasn't your fault! They all knew the energon was for 'Beat." She glowered at 'Spin, who was wincing and rubbing his head with both hands. "You at least should have known better!"
"But we only had a little bit! A tiny little bit each. Jutht to... tathte."
Poppy humphed her disbelief. 'Spin flapped a hand vaguely in the direction of the garage. "Go and thee if you don't believe me..."
With Chill and 'Beat following her, Poppy went to check. To her surprise she found that 'Spin wasn't exaggerating: there were barely two pints missing from the first tank, and none from the other three. She frowned at Chill.
"It is really that potent?"
"Not usually, not even after such a long time without..." He leaned closer and sniffed cautiously at the upended cap, and pulled back sharply. "That's... strong." He glanced at 'Beat. "Is that your usual grade?"
'Beat smelled the cap and shook his head.
"Nah. That's had stuff added, that has." He carefully removed the caps of the other three tanks, large fingers surprisingly dextrous, and he and Chill sniffed the caps. "All the same. All had somethin' put in 'em."
Poppy switched her gaze between them uncomprehendingly.
"Is that good or bad?"
Fridge and Mini stared at each other for a moment or two, then Chill turned to Poppy and shook his head.
"We'll need to have it analysed. It would probably be best if no-one took any more until we know what's in it."
"I have to contact Graham anyway - I'll tell him what's happened. Will NEST be able to check it?"
"Yes. It's a pity we don't have the facilities here - it would be quicker - but that can't be helped."
"Will you be able to manage?" Poppy was watching 'Beat anxiously. "Without refuelling, I mean."
"Got enough in me tanks to cope for a couple weeks, s'long as you don't want to drive Landsend to John O' Groats."
Poppy chuckled briefly. "Not in my diary for this year. Will everyone be OK though?" She gestured towards the house. Chill nodded.
"It would have been useful to have clean energon to flush the other out of their systems, but since we don't have any, it'll just be a matter of time. Sunlight would help, but the forecast is for cloudy for the next few days." He eyed Poppy wryly. "I'm afraid you'll have to cook your own food for a day or two. I wouldn't trust Steamy to boil water at the moment."
"I'm sure I can remember how." Poppy turned back to the door. "But I'd better contact NEST right away."
"Hm. I'll arrange to have the tanks collected - no, on second thoughts, I'll pick them up myself. When they left HQ they were perfectly fine. If the energon was doctored, it was probably on route, and that couldn't happen without the driver's cooperation. I'll have him detained for questioning. What I don't understand is why anyone would want to tamper with it. Not to denigrate your value to us, but your operation simply isn't that important in the larger scheme of things."
Poppy nodded: she'd considered that herself already. Her transformers were all neutrals, refugees, and none of them were fighters (though she suspected they could all defend themselves if they had no alternative).
"Well, we'll see what we can find out." He glanced to one side as someone leaned in to speak to him, then nodded and turned back to Poppy. "Fortunately we have enough energon stockpiled for me to replace the dodgy tanks. I'll bring it with me."
Poppy grinned. "Thanks. 'Beat says he has enough for a week or so, but I'd rather not push it."
Graham nodded. "And how did your meeting go?"
Poppy frowned momentarily, then smiled.
"Oh, yes, at the pub. Well, Lightdance's alternative form is a jukebox, of all things. We couldn't actually speak, but 'Beat says that he likes me but isn't sure he really wants to leave the pub."
"I expected that. It really would be safer though."
"We're going back on Thursday to see if he's changed his mind. Or if we can change it for him."
"Good. Let me know how you get on. I'd rather not intervene if we don't have to but I do want to see him settled with you."
"Do my best." She was about to sign off, then remembered. "Oh, just one last thing. Do you think you could take Grunt back with you? He seems to think he's training me to join the army and Chill thinks he'd be better off at one of your bases. You know, where he can torture real soldiers."
"Oh, I'm sure he would. Very well. Tell him it's an order from me. I'll see you later - I should be able to get there by 2 a.m., if that's not too inconvenient."
Well, she was already tired, but should be able to get in a nap this afternoon.
"Should be OK. I'll see you then."
Graham had only stopped long enough to unload the new tanks, load the old and get Grunt (who to Poppy's relief had raised no objections to being moved on: she rather suspected he was simply used to obeying orders. She wondered idly what he'd been, back on Cybertron) settled in the back of his Defender. She waved him off, hiding her yawn behind her hand, then locked up and set the alarm. As she passed the kitchen door Chill appeared, a mug of rich hot chocolate drink in his hand.
"Don't tell Steamy..." he chuckled. Poppy grinned tiredly.
"Thanks Chill. You're a star."
The fridge blinked, head tilted to one side - then smiled as he tracked down the reference.
"One does one's best. Sleep well, Poppy."
Wednesday morning was... awkward. 'Spin was sullen, Muncher maudlin, TeeVee and Blue - who had imbibed less of the energon than the others - were irritable, Sucker was hiding somewhere, Livewire was curled up on the bed with his head under the pillow refusing to speak, Grounds (the coffee maker) was sulking, Hotpot the microwave refused to open his door, Downbeat (the stereo) was working - sort of, if you could call playing music at the wrong speeds working, Airhead (the tumble drier) wouldn't stop working, Blurt the kitchen TV played nothing but static, Hooker the food processor kept shorting out, and Steamy was inconsolable, not least because he still wasn't sufficiently recovered to cook Poppy's food. Ramp, who'd been playing chess with Chill and hadn't partaken, was unbearably smug and amused himself by making loud noises whenever one of the suffering transformers was in his vicinity. Cable had been with Poppy so had missed out on the fun, but was wisely keeping quiet. Only Chill and 'Beat were normal. Well, what passed for normal in this household, anyway. Poppy was torn, on the one hand wanting to be sympathetic - after all, they were all suffering the transformer version of massive hangovers - and on the other wanting to shout at them all to just shut up!
Eventually she took herself out to the garage and offered to rub Ratchet's special oil into 'Beat's frame, an offer he accepted warily. She opened the can and carefully poured a little onto a soft chamois cloth as he transformed from Mini to robot mode and hunkered down so she could reach all of him.
It was very soothing. 'Beat was happy to play music quietly rather than talk, and after a few minutes apparently decided she was skilled enough for him to relax (though quite what he thought she could do to cause him discomfort Poppy couldn't work out. Perhaps the cables and wires between his metal plating were particularly sensitive...) and settled a little lower to the ground. She took her time and used careful strokes, and an hour later patted him on the shoulder as she finished.
"How's that feel?"
'Beat stretched and blinked at her.
"S'good. It'll do nicely."
"Good... How often do you need it applied?" She frowned. "Come to that, how do I keep you clean? Should I take you through a carwash? Or can you use a hose? I mean, I can help you with that..."
"Hose would do, as long as water's hot, ta. We got our own cleansers - there'll be some at NEST, if your officer could have 'em sent. And th' oiling should do me for a month, unless weather's really bad."
"Thanks. And I'll be sure to ask Graham." She sighed then patted him again, affectionately. "I suppose I'd better go and see how everyone's doing..."
By Thursday morning everything was back to normal - helped, admittedly, by Chill allowing everyone a little of the pure energon on Wednesday afternoon. (Poppy had watched, bemused, as he'd trickled small amounts into inlet tubes with the precision of a nurse: the beneficial result was almost immediately clear as they'd all visibly perked up.) 'Beat had also refuelled - Poppy saw that the first of the energon tanks was now about a quarter empty and made a mental note to keep an eye on the supply so she could request more in plenty of time - and was ready and waiting as she slid into the driver's seat. She took hold of the wheel as he started his engine.
"Right. Let's go and see if Lightdance has changed his mind."
Part 6 - Survive
'Beat took the direct route this time: the weather was cloudy with a hint of drizzle in the wind, the autumn leaves looking somewhat duller than before, limp until the wind dragged them from the trees and tossed them into the air. Not a great day for the scenic route.
There was only one other car parked in the 'car park' when they arrived; Poppy wondered absently how the pub kept going, being so out of the way and with hardly any customers. Perhaps their evening trade was better. The same woman was behind the bar: she looked up and grinned a welcome as Poppy entered.
"Ullo again! Back for seconds?"
"Thought I'd try your puddings this time!"
The woman - the owner's wife, Poppy had discovered - nodded and reached for a half-pint mug, pausing to glance at Poppy.
"Please." It was nice to be remembered, though it did reinforce the idea that not many people used the pub. Poppy took her cider and glanced casually towards the corner - then looked again, her face falling, and heart plummeting, at the large 'Out of Order' sign taped to the jukebox's front.
"Oh! What happened?"
The proprietress sighed.
"We dunno, love. Switched her on yesterday evening, something went bang and smoke started coming out the inside. Had to switch her off. Lucky it didn't blow all the fuses in the place! Someone's coming to take a look..." she checked her watch. "Should be here by now..."
And the door opened, and in came a middle-aged man in overalls, carrying a bag of tools.
"Gotta problem wi' yer jukebox?"
The proprietress nodded and held her hand out for his card, checking it as she pointed to the machine. Poppy watched from the corner of her eye as he pulled out screwdrivers and a torch and set to work removing the front panel.
"What you fancy today, then, love?"
"Mm? Oh..." Poppy ran her gaze over the proffered menu and opted for chicken and chips with a side salad. That should leave room for a dessert. She took her drink to the table near the jukebox where she'd sat last time and watched as the workman poked and prodded around inside the machine. She was no expert, but the burnt cabling and cracked components didn't look very promising. She bit her lip, expression anxious. Was Lightdance even still... alive?
A light twinkled at her, very briefly. She blinked, gaze darting swiftly to the bar, but the proprietess was pottering around washing glasses and hadn't noticed. And the power cord was still clearly lying on the ground, unplugged from the electricity socket. She watched a little more intently as the workman tugged on wires and jiggled connections, finally shaking his head and pulling himself upright.
"Nope, s'no good. No-one'll be able to fix that. S'too old, can't get the parts any more."
The proprietress plunked Poppy's lunch on the table and sighed.
"Well that's a damn shame. Are you sure?"
"Yers. Whole thing's shorted out, destroyed half the whatchamacallit."
Poppy nearly giggled, inappropriate as it was, at the wonderfully imprecise description. The proprietress grumped quietly for a moment, then shook her head.
"I suppose it had to come sometime. She is very old."
"Yes, but I don't think it'll cover wear and tear on an antique."
"Shame, that." He tilted his head to one side, then said, "I could take it off yer hands. Come in useful for spares."
"No!" Poppy half stood in agitation. They both turned to her, startled. "You said I could have first refusal..."
The proprietress frowned.
"But she's useless."
Poppy nodded, thinking fast and apologising mentally for what she was about to say.
"It's still pretty though. I could gut it and use it for... a drinks cabinet. Or a bookcase."
The proprietress looked at Poppy, then turned her gaze to the workman.
"Wellllll, I dunno..."
"How much do you want for it?"
A speculative gleam entered the woman's eye.
"Oooh, let's see..." She eyed the workman. "What's she worth for parts?"
He pursed his lips, then surprised Poppy by shaking his head.
"Not much. S'all shot to hell. Maybe a couple hundred tops."
The proprietress smiled at Poppy.
"And what's she worth to you?"
Poppy swallowed, then squared her shoulders.
"Fifty quid more than he's offering."
"She's worth more than that! Even just as a piece of furniture."
"But how many people do you know who want an old jukebox as furniture?"
The workman hissed through his teeth.
"Mm. Course, you could always strip out the insides and replace 'em with a new system. Play them mp3 things..."
Poppy could have kicked him.
"Isn't that going to cost a lot? I mean, surely you'd be better off buying new."
"True, that. Won't come cheap. New'd be cheaper.
Poppy was seriously beginning to wonder whose side he was on.
"OK. Two seventy-five."
Poppy winced - but then realised that NEST would reimburse her. Surely. Wouldn't they? Of course they would! Reluctantly she offered three twenty-five.
The proprietress's gaze switched back to the workman, who frowned and drummed his fingers on the edge of the table.
Poppy gritted her teeth. It was, after all, in the best of causes...
"Four fity. And transport."
The workman shook his head.
"Nah, that's too much. Let the young lady have it."
The proprietress grinned rather too triumphantly at Poppy.
"S'yours, love. When can you collect?"
"I'll try and get that sorted now." A little worried that the woman might change her mind, Poppy pulled out her mobile and rang Ramp, who immediately patched her through to NEST. Graham wasn't available, but his second-in-command, a Lieutenant Smith, was able to speak to her, swiftly authorising the transaction and organising a van to pick up the jukebox in about two hours, just before closing time. The driver would also bring the required cash. She sighed and relaxed, thanking the officer gratefully. The proprietress smiled at her.
"Yes. Be here in a couple of hours."
"Cash. I'll need a receipt though."
"O' course." She glanced at Poppy's lunch, now going cold on the table. "Want me to warm that up for you?"
Poppy gazed down at the plate. She'd forgotten it was there in the stress of the last few minutes - and she hated cold chips. "Yes please."
"Won't be a minute, love." As the woman disappeared through the door into the kitchen Poppy slumped back and finished her drink, gazing at the jukebox. Five minutes later her lunch was back - with freshly cooked chips and another half-pint of cider, on the house.
She chose plums stewed in red wine for dessert. It was delicious, but the cook wouldn't give her the recipe.
Poppy was beginning to get twitchy: the closing time bell had already been rung twice and the transport hadn't arrived. The proprietress was beginning to give her dubious glances.
Then to Poppy's relief a head poked itself around the door and grinned at her.
The young man sauntered to her table, inconspicuously flashing an ID and handing over an envelope.
"Sorry I'm late. Traffic snarl-up in the town centre."
Relieved, Poppy took the envelope with a smile.
"You got here in the end." She gestured to the jukebox. "Need a hand?"
He eyed it narrowly then shook his head.
"No. Got a sack truck in the van - should do the trick. Be right back."
As he ambled off, Poppy handed over the cash to the proprietress, who counted the notes then handed over a receipt, hand-written on pub notepaper.
"Good luck with her."
"Thank you." Poppy carefully stowed the receipt in her wallet, then helped steady the jukebox as the young man eased the wheeled trolley under its base.
"See you again, love?" The proprietress inclined her head as Poppy headed to the door.
"Oh, I expect so. You've still got some puddings I'd like to try!"
Outside, the young man - who introduced himself as "Second Lieutenant Philip Collier, but please just call me Phil" - was easing the jukebox carefully into the back of the white van parked beside 'Beat. He grinned as he climbed into the van's driver's seat.
"I'll follow you back."
"Thanks. It's not far." Poppy slid into the Mini and let 'Beat take over the driving. The drizzle had turned to rain, though it wasn't too heavy, and the afternoon turned overcast: the sooner they got home the better.
But first she had to have words with 'Beat.
"Did you know he was out of order?"
"Yup - tol' me when we got here. But's jus' pretendin'. Easiest way t'get out."
"You could have told me! I thought he'd died!"
'Beat was silent for a few moments, then sighed.
"'M sorry. I forget y're not one of us, sometimes."
Poppy wasn't sure whether to be flattered or insulted. She decided flattered was less hassle.
"Well, that's nice, 'Beat, but I can't read your mind. Or your internal communications. You have to tell me these things in future, please."
"Oh, all right."
A few seconds of silence, then, "He really is just pretending, isn't he? All that damage looked very real."
"'E's fine. Give 'im a mo to transform an' it'll all be back t'normal."
All was quiet back at the house: the transformers were understandably a little wary of strangers after the energon incident. Phil wheeled the jukebox in and settled it against the wall, then saluted Poppy, politely declined her offer of a coffee, and headed back to his base. As he drove off she called out "All clear!" and her charges made their way swiftly into the lounge. Even 'Beat squeezed in, careful not to damage anything, and seated himself on the floor, knees pulled up to his chin. Poppy smiled at the jukebox.
"Welcome, Lightdance. You're among friends..."
For a moment there was silence, then the newest arrival performed that wonderful twisting, transforming dance that always had Poppy transfixed, and suddenly there was a new individual standing (a little shyly, she thought) before them. She opened her mouth to speak...
'Spin flung himself forward as Chill lunged for the newcomer, hands outstretched and frighteningly sharp 'claws' extending from his fingers, the washing machine catching the fridge around the waist and preventing him from colliding with the jukebox. Poppy stumbled back a pace or two, eyes wide in shock, as the fridge began shouting, his usually fairly blank, expressionless face contorted with what could only be fury, though since he was bellowing in very fast Cybertronian she couldn't understand a syllable of it. With 'Spin also speaking loudly, trying to calm his friend down, and TeeVee and Blue shielding Lightdance, who was shouting back at Chill (but without trying to attack, as far as she could tell), and the smaller transformers scrambling to try to hide behind various bits of furniture, the lounge was a scene of pandemonium. Poppy jumped onto the coffee table and tried to make herself heard, but was completely ignored - until 'Beat sounded his horn, loud enough to rattle the windows and leave Poppy deafened for a few seconds. Everyone went still, and the Mini stood, looming over them all. His own Cybertronian was deep and sounded angry, but whatever he said at least had them all calm a little - although Chill was still snarling. Poppy glanced gratefully at 'Beat and managed to grab back control.
"Chill - kitchen. NOW."
"Save it. I'll speak to you later. 'Spin, go with him. I don't want to see either of you in here until this is sorted." As 'Spin shoved the fridge in the direction of the kitchen, Poppy turned to Lightdance, who was glowering angrily after them. "You, over there." She pointed to the corner furthest away from the kitchen door. "Not a word until I say." She scowled after him as he obeyed, slowly and reluctantly. Then she turned to 'Beat.
"Right. Translation please."
With Lightdance grumbling an almost inaudible, incomprehensible counterpoint from his corner, 'Beat began the sorry tale.
Part 7 - Run
[AN - I've adopted the fanon use of ::....:: to indicate transformer internal communications. There are some possibly useful Author's Notes here, which includes a map of Cybertron.]
They were known as Sinewave and Vault, millennia ago, back when Cybertron had a sun. Artist and architect, the one making music dance and fluctuate in syncopation with the simple but beautiful fluid forms he pulled from the dynamics of the metals he worked with, the other creating soaring, arching columns supporting elegant domiciles that shimmered in the light...
Sparked in the sunlit years before both Allspark and sun were lost to the world with the coming of The War, in the normal course of events they would probably have never met - but their burgeoning skills in their diverse fields brought them to the attention of their respective Councils, and they found themselves working together, with others equally as skilled, as talented, to build an Academy on the outskirts of Praxus, one to rival the great Assembly itself.
It was a most unlikely partnership. Sombre Vault, precise, meticulous, goal-orientated, who never articulated without carefully considering his words, was almost the complete opposite of Sinewave. The artist spoke without consideration, in raw half-processed cadences: it seemed he carried chaos within him, drawing it out and forcing it into configurations he'd determined on the spur of the moment, unthinkingly. He moved without care, where and how he pleased, dancing through the long sunlit cycles as if in tune with the movement of their world through space, with the sun itself.
And he shimmered in that light, a beautiful, fascinating mystery to his working partner.
For his part, Sinewave - at first dismayed to find himself commanded to work with and for others - wanted to dislike Vault. Tried to dislike him, illogical as that was, given they had to work cooperatively. But it was difficult. Vault seemed dull, but... his designs were marvels, lofty hyperbolic paraboloids and arcing, gravity-defying pillars that were simultaneously airy yet solidly practical. Sinewave quickly found himself wanting to enhance the architect's ideas, to add music and artistry to the designs...
Their first drafts were, quite naturally, rejected as being inadequate. Vault was untroubled, having expected the reaction - after all, they had little to no experience in the design intricacies of such a monumental project - and his calm demeanour helped the more volatile artist to quash his indignation.
"We will simply have to work harder, with a clearer perception of what is required." Vault had said to his visibly sulking partner. "We should coordinate with the others, also. Camber has far more experience, and specialises in lattice formwork. I could learn much from him. Though I doubt there is any among us who could better your own skills."
For a moment Sinewave thought the architect was mocking, but there was true admiration in the lines of his face and body, and in the feel of his personal field, the tickle of static along the arm next to the artist's on the drafting imager.
"Why, thank you." Sinewave's own field sparkled briefly in the far ultraviolet, a shiver of amusement that made Vault twitch. "It's nice to have one's talent recognised."
Vault tilted his head, but refrained from saying anything further. It wasn't as though the artist actually needed any encouragement; his ebullience was an almost irresistible force.
As time went by the various entities of the working group began to coordinate their designs, and the plans for the structure as a whole coalesced into a three dimensional hologram of extraordinary grace and symmetry. Sinewave wanted the entire building to sing, with the sunlight, with the upwelling light from below, with the steps of those within, with the movements of their frames as they went about their business, with the air currents funnelled along corridors and broad high halls, wanted delicate fluting resonance and deeper modulations designed to promote concentration and focus. Vault supported the idea, adding his own motifs in silicate, gem and rare metals to refine the music, creating singing crystalline interstices within the structure itself. The rest were in agreement, and finally they were given permission to explore the formulations and processes that would make their ideas a reality.
Vault found Sinewave standing at the edge of the broad roadway, watching the sunrise through senses that perceived more of the electromagnetic spectrum than all other known species; seeing the honeycombed lattice of the world shimmer into the light, hearing the electronic keening of microwave bursts shivering against the starward-yearning towers. The light was intense through the planet's thin atmosphere, turning Cybertron into a jewel, an intricate organism, a shimmering symbol of possibility...
"It is very beautiful." Vault's deep, quiet voice added to the moment rather than disrupting, and the artist flashed him an infrared smile.
"Indeed." A brief pause, then, "They are waiting for us."
"They can wait a little longer." Sinewave waved a hand towards their temporary workplace. "You go ahead. I won't be long."
He shuttered his optics to feel the sunrise, aware of Vault leaving. A little later he became aware of another presence beside him, and slowly allowed his visual receptors to come back online. Turning his head he found another being at his side, also watching the now risen sun silhouetted behind the towers and roadways of the city. Taller than himself, gleaming in shades of silver and a rich soft blue - a 'winger, thus probably a native Praxian. Sinewave inclined his head.
"And to you."
The figure's gaze turned to him.
"Upbeat." A moment's pause. "You are the artist?"
"I'm flattered you've heard of me!"
"Ah, word gets around. You're here to create us a new and better Assembly, I hear."
"That's the intention. It's looking promising so far."
"Good to hear. I'm hoping to be stationed there once it's finished."
"I'm a historian. There are plans to make the new Academy the central repository for Cybertron's historical records. Amongst other things."
"I..." Sinewave paused as Vault's glyph chimed in his internal comms. "I'm sorry. It seems I'm late and my presence is required."
Upbeat's optics flickered, and Sinewave felt his glyph offered.
"In case you'd like to meet later. I assume you've had no time to visit the city, and I make an excellent guide."
Sinewave blinked in surprise, then realised it was a good idea.
"I would like that."
"Whenever you're ready."
Sinewave pushed himself upright and stretched, easing taut cabling and overstressed joints, and wincing as a line pinched sharply. Vault laid a hand against his lower back, flooding the painful area with heat. The artist vented gratefully and smiled.
Vault eyed him sardonically.
"I am aware of your tendency to become engrossed, but it does help to change position occasionally."
"I know. I'll try to remember in future." Sinewave took a step backwards and critically regarded the results of the last cycle's work, Vault at his shoulder.
"Close, but we're not quite there yet."
The architect nodded gravely.
"Agreed. There's a discongruity in this plane" he highlighted an upper area of the penultimate storey in the hologram "that disrupts the balance of the whole."
Stonemount, a fellow architect who'd been working closely with Vault this last few cycles, indicated his agreement from the other side of the hologram.
"If I may offer my own assessment... I believe that changing the orientation of this arch" said feature brightened and twisted as Stonemount manipulated the image "will give us the result we require."
Vault and Sinewave examined the new aspect minutely, Vault tweaking the display fractionally and increasing the intensity of the virtual sunlight entering by adjusting the angle of the intricate casement in the opposite wall - and suddenly the entire holographic chamber was flooded with singing light.
Sinewave huffed his satisfaction.
"Perfect." he glanced at his partner. "We make a great team."
"I am tempted to agree." Vault was examining the hologram from every angle, accompanied by Stonemount, but neither architect could find fault with the improvement. "Perhaps we should consider making it a more permanent arrangement."
Sinewave inclined his head, intrigued and quite flattered. There was no denying he and Vault - and several of the other designers and artists here - worked extremely well together, and there were always construction and reconstruction projects taking place around the world. It would be very satisfying, on both a professional and personal level. He had come to appreciate the architect since they'd been here...
"We should consider the idea further. I enjoy working with you."
Vault glanced up and smiled. "As I do, with you. Very well. We'll speak of it later, once construction has started here, yes?"
It took several more cycles before the planning committee were fully satisfied, at which point the construction crews took over and the working group was permitted a little more freedom. They still needed to be within easy reach, to advise and revise if necessary, but they finally had the leisure to indulge in a little exploration. After all, Praxus was world renowned for its culture and its beauty.
They stood for a moment, watching the Academy's foundations being laid out. It felt a little strange to be able to relax, to do nothing, for a while.
"So, exploration. We should ask Upbeat to guide us." Vault glanced at his partner as Sinewave added, "Local historian. Met him a few cycles ago."
"A useful contact. However, Stonemount, Lintel and I have arranged a session in the archives at the Assembly: there are some ancient architectural texts I wish to study, and the venerable Keystone has agreed to speak with us. A rare honour."
"Oh. And here I was hoping to finally drag you away from work to come and see the Helix Gardens with me."
Vault hesitated, obviously torn. The Helix Gardens... thousands of blue crystals, their resonance a source of infinite peace... He lowered his head, reluctantly.
"I'm sorry, I cannot, not this time. Our meeting with Keystone has been specially approved - I will not be granted a second chance. Perhaps we can visit another time?"
"I suppose so."
Vault touched his shoulder gently.
"I am sorry to disappoint you."
Sinewave flashed a combination of acceptance and friendship.
"Don't worry. I'm sure Upbeat would be happy to accompany me. I'll find out all about them this time, then when we both visit, I'll be able to tell you what I've discovered." He commed the historian's glyph: moments later they'd agreed the details of the trip and Upbeat was already on his way. Vault inclined his head.
"Good. I would not want you to get lost!"
Amusement flickered across the artist's frame in tiny blue sparks.
"I am not quite that disassociated from external reality!"
Vault's optics gleamed teasingly as he leaned a little closer.
"Are you sure?"
"Oh yes." He glanced at the design centre as Vault's fellow architects exited. "And here are your workaholic friends. I will see you later. Enjoy your visit!"
"And you, yours."
Sinewave watched indulgently as all three assumed their vehicular modes, sturdy and practical as befitted their occupation, and headed off towards the city. A little later a low, sleek but somewhat antiquated vehicle pulled up. Sinewave raised a hand in greeting, and transformed himself, his eccentric alternative mode dramatically colourful against Upbeat's muted silver and blue.
::And to yourself. Do I assume that the groundwork is complete and they've let you out to play?::
Sinewave blinked amusement.
::A good way to put it...::
::And you'd like to see the Helix Gardens::
::How did you know?::
A flicker of mirth.
::Everyone does. Follow me::
Sinewave gazed down over the city, but seeing only the crystals. So... perfect...
Upbeat had been a little surprised by the strength of the artist's reaction to the Gardens - he'd refused to move, simply entranced, and they'd ended up spending the entire half cycle there. Eventually Upbeat had had to drag him away: they both needed to refuel, and the historian would be hard-pressed to make it to his current assignment as it was. He'd left the artist a little way from the guest domicile the working group were using while in Praxus, with Sinewave assuring him that yes, he could make his own way back from here, and yes, he'd thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and yes, they must meet up again, soon. Upbeat had rolled away, not entirely convinced the artist would manage to get back without incident, but forced by time constraints to leave him. And now Sinewave was standing on an observation dais, watching the sunset, circuits still chiming with the sounds from the Gardens and formulating ways to incorporate them into his own designs...
Immersed in deep thought he'd not felt anyone approach, and twitched as he stepped back, pulled his field in tightly, and turned to face the stranger, who offered a conciliatory bow and raised his hands placatingly.
"I'm sorry - I did not mean to startle you. You are the artist Sinewave?"
Must be making a name for myself, he thought distractedly. "I am."
"My master has a proposition to put to you."
"Yes. The Senator Stylobate, of Kaon."
"And what does he want with me?"
"As I said, sir, he wishes to put a proposition to you."
"Where is he?"
"If you'd care to accompany me, I'll take you to him..."
Sinewave raised his hand.
"One moment. I trust he will not be inconvenienced if I take a friend with me?"
The stranger shifted uneasily. Sinewave commed Vault anyway.
"I... was only instructed to ask you, sir."
"I see. Well, I'm not going anywhere without my partner."
At which, Vault stepped onto the dais.
::That was fast!::
::I was coming up to get you anyway. You need to rest and recharge::
Sinewave narrowed his optics.
::You are being overly protective::
::I know. Sorry::
::You will be...:: "This is Vault."
The stranger's optics lit up.
"The architect? Oh, I believe my master will be most pleased to make your acquaintance, sir!"
Artist and architect glanced at each other, perplexed, then both looked at the Senator's... aide.
::I suppose we had better find out what this is about::
::Well, it certainly looks as though it may be interesting::
"How do we meet your master?"
The aide stepped back and gestured to the door.
"If you would care to accompany me..."
Vault crossed his arms.
"How long is this going to take?"
"Oh, not long."
Venting quietly, Vault ushered the aide doorward.
::A proposition. You suppose he wants us to design a building for him?::
::I can't see any other reason he would be interested in both of us. But Kaon...::
::What about it?::
Vault paused, uneasiness flickering along his field.
::It's not the nicest of places in the world. Or so I've heard. Heavy industry, rather grim:: He hesitated. ::And... there have been rumours about forbidden activities, beings forced to fight for the amusement of spectators..::
::They're just rumours! Can you honestly imagine anything like that being allowed on Cybertron? And anyway, I can't see a Senator having anything to do with anything like that. Nor living in any kind of squalor. He'll be well away from anything nasty::
::All the same...::
::Shall we wait 'til we know a bit more?::
Vault hesitated for a moment, then vented.
::It would be more sensible::
The Senator was housed in a pleasant - and expensive - hostelry not far from their temporary domicile. He stood as the pair entered, greeting them politely but with an indefinable air of superiority that prickled unpleasantly across Vault's circuits.
"Greeting to you both."
"And to you, Senator."
"Please, be seated." As they settled he flicked a hand negligently towards the aide - an action that had Vault twitching in annoyance - summarily dismissing him, then leaned forward earnestly.
"I appreciate that your time is precious, so I'll be direct. I need a new domicile, and I want you to design it."
Somewhat taken aback, Vault and Sinewave both stared at him for a moment or two, then Vault inclined his head.
"I've seen some of your compositions," he nodded at Sinewave, then glanced at Vault, "and I have heard many good things about your talents." The metal plates of Stylobate's face shifted into a smile. "I am also privy to the goings on in Praxus, and am impressed with both the quality of your work and your efficiency. I also know that you are both just starting out. Trust me, the successful execution of my commission will do your prospects nothing but good. I have powerful friends who will be happy to employ you, and will no doubt speak well of you to others."
On the face of it the proposal sounded good. They were both dedicated to their work, and anything that furthered it would be welcome.
"We couldn't leave Praxus until we're no longer needed."
"I quite understand. In the meantime I can send you the ground plans of the area for your perusal, along with schematics of the sort of thing I have in mind - subject to your approval and revision, of course."
"Where would we be working?"
"My estate is on the outskirts of Vos."
Sinewave glanced at Vault, who shrugged.
"Would be very generous. Certainly more than comparable to your current project."
Not that that was of primary concern. The standing accrued from a successful culmination would be far more valuable. But Sinewave could feel his partner wasn't convinced.
"May we have time to consider your proposition?"
"You may - but don't delay too long. You may be my first choice, but you are not my only one."
"The benefits do seem to outweigh the disadvantages."
"But you still aren't happy."
"I am probably being unnecessarily wary. It is quite obviously an excellent opportunity."
"Then let's get the full details and accept..."
And against his better judgement - except that he had no concrete reason to feel so troubled - the architect agreed.
Work on the new Academy continued smoothly, and the working group's input was required less and less, until eventually the committee decided they were no longer needed - at which point Sinewave and Vault left for Senator Stylobate's estate in Vos.
They'd already familiarised themselves with the fundamentals - size, area, requirements, the Senator's favoured art and music - and had prepared three different draft versions for the domicile. Stylobate had spent a cycle considering the options, then had had made his choice: the third version, a low sprawling structure, much of it open, with graceful spires for observation and conversation. Several rooms were orientated to sunrise and sunset, and in those the pair planned to integrate light-controlled prisms and singing crystals in the outer walls. It would be beautiful to all the senses, a domicile to be proud of.
The Senator could move quickly when required. Rather, those who worked for him could move quickly when he so ordered. Vault had watched with some dismay as what was apparently the Senator's own construction workers had arrived en masse from Kaon and were made to work for full cycles without rest, made to refuel where they laboured.
To his consternation Sinewave did not appear to see anything wrong with the situation.
"They're obviously used to it! And no-one's objecting."
Which was true. It wasn't until the construction was well underway that Vault found out why...
Sinewave watched his friend pacing.
"I don't understand why you're all fired up. If he wasn't doing his job, then why shouldn't Stylobate get rid of him?"
"Because it wasn't his fault!" Vault halted and leaned forward, optics bright with frustration. "The load slipped and landed on him before he could rebalance it or get out of its way. It crushed his legs."
"Which is sad, but I still don't see why you're angry. That sort of injury is easy to repair."
Vault felt himself growing more exasperated by the klik, his field bristling with static.
"How is he supposed to get it repaired?"
"Aren't there medics in Vos?"
"How is he supposed to get to a medic?"
"Can't they bring one here? Or can't his friends carry him to one?"
"His 'friends' are his fellow workers. If they stop work, Stylobate will get rid of them too. I heard the overseer threaten them." Vault lowered his gaze. "He just... kicked the injured one out of the way."
"You must be imagining things!"
"'Wave, I saw it. I heard it." He huffed his agitation. "Come with me. I'll show you."
Reluctantly, the artist followed his friend along the perimeter of the unfinished building until they reached the site of the accident. The workers there glanced uneasily at Vault, but didn't dare to show much interest - not with the overseer standing nearby. Said overseer eyed them coldly.
"What do you want?"
Vault stood as tall as he could - which was only about half as tall as the bulky figure he was confronting - and did his best to keep his vocals firm but non-aggressive.
"The worker who was hurt." He gestured to the scoured and pitted patch of the surface where the massive load had fallen on the labourer: there was no sign of the worker himself. "What happened to him?"
"I don't know - and it's none of your business." The overseer glowered, looming over the architect. "For your own safety, I must ask you to leave the area. We don't want another accident, do we?"
It wasn't a threat, although it felt like one. Sinewave tugged on his friend's arm.
Admitting to himself that there was nothing he could do, Vault allowed the artist to pull him away from the site. A few paces away, however, something on the ground caught his eye, and he bent down for a closer look.
::'Wave, this is energon::
::So?:: He tugged at Vault's arm, a little harder. ::Come on. That overseer is watching us and I really I don't like his expression::
Vault straightened up and scanned the ground around them, then pointed discreetly.
Sinewave peered in the direction of the area set aside for the disposal of building debris. Although where they stood was relatively clear, with only a few drops of scattered energon to be seen, further over, in front of the massive waste collectors, two faint but wide smears seemed to vanish into the jumble of rubble.
Sinewave pulled back.
::We shouldn't. It's not our business::
Vault continued to walk casually towards the disposal area.
::Just pretend we're out for a stroll::
::Among the rubbish? Think our host will believe it?::
::I think he'd be too polite to accuse us of mendacity::
Cringing, Sinewave followed his friend.
The trail ended at the base of a gigantic skip. The worker was lying crumpled on the ground in a pool of energon, the life-giving fluid still sluggishly pumping from the ruin of his legs. Vault dived forwards, followed more slowly and unenthusiastically by Sinewave.
The architect laid a hand on the worker's shoulder, and was rewarded by a slight twitch.
"He's still with us... Comm for assistance."
Vault stilled, then gently turned the heavy head towards him. The optics were flickering intermittently, the worker obviously very close to permanently offlining.
The worker tried to grab his arm.
"... too late... and... Sena...tor... wouldn't... wouldn't..."
"This is nothing to do with him. This is us. We can't leave you like this."
"... must..." The optics were dimming, the vocals scratchy with static. "... this is... all we... know... go... not safe..."
Vault's hands clenched on the metal frame as the light - and the spark within - fluttered and died.
Sinewave, optics wide and horrified, glanced over his shoulder then tugged at his friend.
"We can't do anything, and someone's coming. Several someones, and they're a lot bigger than us."
Vault glowered at the artist.
"I said no. Someone has to stand up for these people."
Sinewave inched behind the architect as three very large overseers arrived, taking in the scene with narrowed optics. The foremost of them extended a hand to Vault, who managed not to flinch.
"Come with us, please."
Vault glanced back at the limp, silent worker.
"What will happen to him?"
The second overseer inclined his head.
"We'll clear up this mess. You don't need to trouble yourself over it."
"This way, please." The first overseer stepped aside and gestured back towards the half-built domicile. Vault stared up at him, then looked back at the worker. There really was nothing he could do. Reluctantly, Sinewave pressing closely to his side in fear, he allowed the overseer to usher them both away.
They had been flown to Kaon, ushered into the presence of Senator Stylobate. The luxurious, expansive room in which he sat, on the second storey of the luxurious, expansive mansion which was, they learned, his second home, was, to Vault's optics, an deep offence against the workers he'd glimpsed labouring in the city levels below.
Stylobate regarded them gravely.
"I deeply regret your involvement in this matter. You should not have been allowed to see the accident."
"The accident isn't what bothers me. Accidents happen. What concerns me is that the worker was simply left to bleed to death. No one made any attempt to provide medical assistance or help him in any way."
"As per my instructions. What you need to understand is that the workers are little better than drones. Easily lost, easily replaced."
Vault blinked, speechless, staring at the Senator. Sinewave was trembling minutely beside him, field clenched tight, not daring to draw attention to himself.
"He had spark! He was sentient! How can you call him a drone?"
"There are hundreds of thousands just like him. Most of them don't even have designations..."
"And that's some sort of justification?" Internal fans kicked in as Vault's anger and disbelief overheated his systems, adding a raspy undertone to his vocals. "They are living Cybertronians! Sparked, thinking, feeling beings! They deserve to be treated as such!"
Stylobate shook his head sadly.
"You really are quite naïve. It's almost refreshing."
Vault gaped: only a strong sense of self-preservation stopped him from flinging himself at the Senator. Stylobate leaned back with the smug assurance of one whom nothing can touch.
"They are workers. They work. We rule. It's really quite simple."
Vault fought down the repugnance that threatened to overload his vocaliser.
"What can I say to make myself clear? They..."
"They are worth only the amount of work they perform. Nothing more."
Vault stared. Stylobate gazed back arrogantly. An unfamiliar feeling of helplessness burned deep in the architect's circuits, and he vented harshly.
"I want nothing more to do with you. Or any of your colleagues. And I will make it known why."
"Do as you please. It will not cause me any inconvenience. Do you really think someone like you can actually cause harm to someone of my caste?"
To answer would only have emphasised their inequality. Vault turned, then paused and extended a hand to Sinewave.
The artist hesitated, glancing between the two, optics widening as Stylobate commed him privately, the internal voice dripping menace.
::You go with him, you share his fate::
With one last despairing glance at his friend, Sinewave edged his way to stand by the Senator: Vault turned to watch him, optics bright with betrayal. Stylobate smiled.
"At least one of you has some sense. You will be provided with transport back to Praxus. Do not try to contact us. I consider our association now over."
Vault replayed the meeting over and over again as Praxus came into view, unable to process why Sinewave had sided with the Senator. He'd believed they were friends, and even though they disagreed on many, many things, he'd thought their core beliefs were in tandem. It hurt to know he'd been wrong.
It hurt even more to find out, on his return to the working group, that his designation had been removed from the list of designers of the Academy, and that his services were no longer required.
In fact, courtesy of Stylobate, they were no longer required anywhere on the planet.
He'd not realised that the Kaon Senate held so much power...
"Oh my god." Poppy's eyes were huge as she glanced towards the kitchen door. "So what happened to him? I mean, Chill is Vault, right?"
'Beat nodded sadly. His voice had deepened, the scouse accent disappearing as he'd told the tale.
"Although I didn't know that until today. From what I have learned, Vault - Chill - lost all purpose. I'm not sure any of your kind can quite understand how much our work, our... path... means - meant - to any of us. We had little choice in the path we were allocated - well, the nobles did, but ours were more or less dictated when we were sparked... For most of us it was, as you say, the be all and end all of our existence. Most of us were relatively happy with the state of things. Some of us honestly... you'd say, loved... what we did, in 'Wave's case with a passion, but even for me, and from what 'Wave has told me, for Chill - well, we couldn't have imagined doing anything else. Without a complete reformat we wouldn't have been able to."
"What did he do?"
'Beat's gaze lowered.
"He came close to offlining... starving."
"No! Surely he had family, friends, someone who would help him?"
"Yes, but... his purpose for existing had been taken from him. He had nowhere to turn. He felt he didn't want to continue."
"But he escaped."
"The war started soon after. Well, 'soon' in our terms. Several hundred of your years. As far as I can tell, some of his colleagues were able to smuggle him onto a ship, where he stayed in stasis until he arrived here. I don't know the details. We don't talk much, and he isn't keen about harking back to those days anyway."
"But you stayed friends with Sinewave - Lightdance?"
"I lost track of him for a while, but then the Kaon Senate and all inside it was destroyed very early in the war." He glanced at Poppy, eyes narrowed. "Poetic justice, you might say. Anyway, 'Wave found his way back to Praxus, came to me, desperate and hurting, and that's when I found out what had happened - 'Wave's side of it, anyway. Stylobate had kept him close all those years, hanging the threat of black-listing - even mutilation at one point, until he saw that it hampered 'Wave's ability to create - over his head the whole time, and without his art 'Wave wouldn't be able to survive. He regretted his betrayal the moment Vault had walked out of the door, but he was never brave." He huffed a sigh. "That's why he's been hiding out all these years."
"What a god-awful mess. And Chill never knew what had happened?"
"He had no way to know, he was offworld and in stasis by the time 'Wave escaped Stylobate."
"But he's reasonable. Surely if we tell him the full story he'll understand..."
"I don't know. I'm surprised he survived with his processors intact. It would have been... traumatic."
Poppy considered all she'd heard. She was no psychiatrist - even if such a thing could apply to the transformers - and she'd never had a day's hardship in her life, but she could try to imagine what it had been like for her wards, try to empathise, try to make their lives easier... She frowned at 'Beat.
"How did you escape?"
"'Wave and I managed to get onto one of the last ships before the Allspark was lost." He shrugged. "It broke up on the outskirts of your solar system. Eventually your gravity caught us and we just... fell to earth. You mistook us for meteors most of the time. 'Wave and I landed separately, forty years apart, and it was a year before we managed to find each other again."
"And that was ten years ago."
"I am so sorry. For all of you. To lose everything..."
'Beat gently touched her shoulder.
"But we're still here. And we found new friends. Most of us never had that chance."
Poppy sighed and pulled herself to her feet, glancing over her shoulder at Lightdance. "Can you look after him for a bit? I'll see what I can do for Chill..."
Part 8 - Stay
Poppy briefly considered knocking on the door before entering the kitchen, then realised that that would be daft - it was her house, and a communal room. Nevertheless she did peek around the door before opening it cautiously.
Chill - or should it be Vault? - was sitting on the floor against the wall, knees to his chest, arms wrapped around his legs, his face absolutely blank, the light of his eyes dimmed. 'Spin crouched at his side, hand on one drooping shoulder, speaking quietly in Cybertronian. He glanced up as Poppy entered.
"How is he?" Poppy kept her voice low. 'Spin shook his head minutely.
"It wath a thhock."
"I can imagine." She knelt down in front of him and cupped the cold metal face in her hands. "Chill? Will you talk to me?"
No answer, no change of expression, although she could feel faint vibrations through her hands, as if he was trembling very slightly.
"Chill? ... Vault?"
He quivered, and dulled eyes raised to stare at her.
"He died a long time ago."
"Oh Chill..." She bit her lip. She had no idea what to say to him...
But she had to say something. There was no way they could leave things as they were, and Poppy was never much of a one for procrastinating. She sat cross-legged in front of him, putting both hands on his knees.
"'Beat told me what happened." Chill shuddered, and Poppy wondered distractedly how fast the Cybertronian spoken language must be if the Mini had managed to hear the full story in the few second the shouting match had lasted... She shook herself mentally and returned her full attention to the miserable transformer before her. "But I don't know how much Sinewave managed to say before 'Beat shut everyone up."
Chill shuddered again at the name, lowering his gaze but saying nothing. Poppy tried again.
"'Beat says Sinewave regrets what he did. He was being threatened by that Senator."
Chill's hands moved to cover his face. In a human Poppy would have associated the action with weeping: in a transformer... Despair maybe? She soldiered on.
"You need to listen to him. You need to talk. You've both suffered so much... and there are so few of you left."
The hands came away from his face, and he gazed at her bleakly.
"His presence is... a reminder."
She nodded, suddenly understanding.
"Of how much you've lost. And that things can never be the same again. But there's no point in making them worse, is there? You were friends, before. And partners. Couldn't you be again?"
Chill's gaze lowered again.
"I don't know."
"But you could try."
"Please, Chill. For me, and for a peaceful household, if nothing else."
'Spin, who'd been sitting quietly to one side, snickered.
"You have to admit the'th thneaky."
Chill sighed. "Sneaky isn't quite what I'd call it." He eyed Poppy, head tilted to one side. "I did not mean to cause you distress."
She stroked his face.
"You didn't. I know it must have been a hell of a shock."
"I thought he had... been offlined. As most of us were."
"So you believed you'd lost your friend, who you also thought had betrayed you... and then he suddenly turns up again. Yes, I can see how that might have... upset you."
And all the rest, she thought. She couldn't quite wrap her mind around what it would feel like to have your planet destroyed, to be stranded somewhere you had to pretend to be something you weren't, dependant on the goodwill of the natives for your survival. And - oh god - all their artwork, their buildings, everything they'd poured their skill and passion into had gone too... She shivered, suddenly cold, and 'Spin regarded her worriedly.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine." She frowned at Chill, considering. "Tell me - would you be able to go back to your... primary function? If the opportunity were there?"
He blinked. "Architecture?" Poppy nodded, and Chill inclined his head pensively. "If the need were there, I see no reason why not. I believe I can still access all my data. Why do you ask?"
"Could you work here? On earth?"
A brief, startled silence, then he leaned forward a little.
"Create structures on this planet?"
He considered the idea, then sat up a little straighter.
"It... should be possible... Of course, earth does not possess the technology Cybertron had, nor the materials we used - although many of them could probably be synthesised..."
Poppy grinned to herself as Chill's tone became speculative.
"The majority of your buildings are poorly constructed, making inefficient use of both space and resources. Not to mention they are quite stunningly ugly, many of them..." He paused, and his shoulders slumped again. "But we are not altogether welcome here. Would humans even consider allowing us to work?"
"I think it would be a good way of encouraging them to accept you! You said you were into self-sustaining buildings?"
"Right, houses. Well, you must know we're trying, as a species, to find ways to reduce our impact on the planet." She snorted. "Well, a lot of us are. Those with more than a couple of brain cells and an addiction to 'reality' shows, anyway... If you can help us with that, I'm sure that would help enormously."
"You think so?"
"Yes. We could really do with your skills."
"I am not certain..."
"And we'll need Sinewave's skills too."
Chill eyed her sardonically.
"No, not this time. This is a really good idea." She grinned. "Although we'll have to make sure none of our 'senators' can kidnap you." She frowned to herself for a second. "Right. We all need to discuss this as a group - I need to know what the others were, what they did, back on Cybertron. Then I need to talk to Graham, to start with. It's going to take a while to get this all sorted, and it'll probably have to start small, but I really think it could work!"
Her enthusiasm was infectious. 'Spin was twitching happily, making funny little purring noises, and she smiled at him.
"What were you, back home?"
He lowered his head, suddenly coy.
"Oh, nothing very much. I thaped and polithed metalth."
"Shaped and polished metals?" Poppy frowned. "What for?"
"It wath the end of the refining protheth for thpethialitht metalth..."
"He is being modest." Chill interrupted. "They performed an absolutely vital function. The metals he's speaking of are the ones that went into creating our protoforms - our fundamental bodies - and specifically the materials that form our spark chambers."
Poppy blinked. 'Spin had been responsible for making the casings for transformer sparks? Bloody hell...
"Are you all specialists?"
"Well, we'll talk about that later..." She shook herself, reigning in her zeal and getting back to the original topic. "OK, so it's even more important, now, that you and Sinewave sort yourselves out. You can't work together if you hate each other's guts!"
"Poppy, we do not have 'guts'..."
She grinned at him.
"You're being pedantic - I know you know what I mean." She calmed herself. "Seriously, you need to talk to him. And now rather than later. Shall I speak with him first?"
Chill raised a hand.
"No. The overreaction was mine: I will accept the consequences." He managed a tiny smile. "I promise we will not wreck the house."
"I'll leave 'Beat to referee."
"That... might be a good idea."
"OK. Shall I send them in here? It's... kind of neutral territory..."
Chill rose to his feet, frame indicative of determination, and headed for the door.
"I think outside would be best. You will need the kitchen for food preparation shortly."
"OK. Give me a couple of minutes to explain, then I'll send them out..."
It was evening before fridge, Mini and jukebox came back inside. Poppy could see that much of the damage had been repaired, although Lightdance and Chill - or should she call them Sinewave and Vault? Would they want to revert to their original designations? Another thing to put on the list of things to discuss - were still wary around each other. But she was sure that would change, once the newcomer settled in. The others were a little subdued, but not hostile, doing what they could to make everyone feel comfortable, and all in all it was a relatively pleasant evening. Well, not too tense, anyway.
Come eleven Poppy caught herself yawning, and rubbed at her eyes. It had been a long, fraught day - might be best to get some sleep. She glanced over her shoulder: fridge and jukebox were still talking quietly in their native tongue, but she noticed they were sitting a little closer together than previously, and smiled to herself. Heh. Perhaps she could go into diplomacy after all.
She was on the point of asking TeeVee to turn off his TV function for the night, when a late news item caught her attention, and she asked him to turn up the volume a little. An old country pub had burned to the ground earlier this evening: the police were investigating. Arson was suspected.
She gasped when she recognised the pub - or what was left of it.
It was the King's Head.
On to Mechanism, part three of the tale.