New World 2.

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

Pt 1 - Homecoming
Pt 2 - Safe
Pt 3 - Misunderstandings
Pt 4 - Operations
Pt 5 - Operations 2
Pt 6 - Operations 3
Pt 7 - Proposals
Pt 8 - Considerations
Pt 9 - Consternations
Pt 10 - Loss
Pt 11 - Success
Part 12 - Echoes
Part 13 - Found Part 14 - Resurrection
Part 15 - Progress Part 16 - Celebrations
Part 17 - Deliberations Part 18 - Decisions
Part 19 - Reconnecting Part 20 - Reconnecting pt 2
Part 21 - Journeys Part 22 - Mars
Part 23 - Prehistoric Part 24 - Settling In
Part 25 - Advances Part 26 - An Ending - and a Beginning

Part 1 - Homecoming

     Poppy grinned and opened her arms as Jacinta hurried - in slow motion - to greet her. The Australian was shorter than she'd imagined - probably due to her Asian heritage. Behind her the PA, Amanda Mullane, grinned and waved with the hand that wasn't carrying a very large documents case.
     Jacinta hugged Poppy hard.
     "It's great to meet you! This is so cool!"
     Since Poppy had already spent getting on for two months as lunar consul, it had been decided to bring forward the inauguration a little and have the consuls take turns as of now, but initially only for a one month shift, until they'd all had a shot and their reactions and suitability assessed. Jacinta had drawn the second place.
     "I'll show you around, introduce you, and get you settled. Then, if you don't mind, I'd like to get back."
     Jacinta nodded. "Of course. We all heard what happened. How are they?"
     "Alive and improving. We won't know the long-term damage for a while though."
     The Australian patted Poppy's shoulder sympathetically. "We're all barracking for them."
     Poppy blinked. "Uh... you mean rooting?"
     Jacinta blushed and giggled, then inclined her head.
     "Language barrier? Barracking is supporting them, hoping they get better."
     "Ah right! Means the opposite in the UK." She eyed the other woman. "All right. So what does 'rooting' mean over there?"
     Poppy raised a hand. "It's fine, I can guess." She grinned as Valiant ambled up behind his human and waved at her. In the sterile white of the base he stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. "Hello Val. Been taking good care of Jacinta?"
     "Too right I 'ave, sheila!"
     "Glad to hear it..." she ushered them into the mess, which now served as the rec room and where those not working usually gathered. Grant was waiting for them, and shook Jacinta's hand.
     "Good to meet you, Consul. I've been appointed liaison between you and the staff, so if you need anything, just let me know."
     "Thanks. Right now I'd just like to see the consulate quarters - and tie this back!" She tugged at her hair, which was plastering itself all over her face. "I should have thought."
     Poppy chuckled and indicated her own hairband. "You get used to it! Plait will probably work best for you." She grinned at Amanda, whose hair was too short to need tying. "Come this way."
     She led them to the Consulate, where Jacinta squealed with delight when she saw the viewing windows.
     "Oh this is just perfect! We're going to be happy here."
     "It's very comfortable, and there's a constant, dedicated link with Ramp, and through him to all the other consuls." Poppy looked around the consulate and nodded. "It's surprisingly comfortable, all things considered. The only things you need to watch are eating and drinking. The low gravity does strange things to liquids, and it took me ages to get used to drinking everything with a straw. But the food is good, and Muncher's doing a great job of keeping the base supplied with fresh stuff. I'll introduce you to him before I leave."
     "'Preciate it. Are the cars going back with you?"
     "They are." She frowned. "They don't want me to take any risks, they say. Though why I need two guards is beyond me. I thought the danger was over now."
     "Better safe than sorry."
     "I suppose." She glanced up as 'Beat stuck his helm through the door, and gestured to a large pack and a briefcase sitting just inside. "Thanks 'Beat. If you could get those into Skyfire, I won't be too long."
     "No problem. They're still unloading supplies. He won't be ready to leave for another hour."
     "Oh, well in that case I'll show Jacinta the greenhouse."
     As 'Beat lifted the bags, Val nudged him with his elbow. 'Beat stared at the elbow, then up at the Valiant.
     "Got somethin' for ya, cobber." He handed over a datachip. "Collection of me favourite tunes. From Cannibal Corpse, Sadist, Disembowelment, Cephalic Carnage, Suffocation, Gorefest - all on there."
     'Beat stared at the chip as though it might bite him, then managed a somewhat sour-sounding "Thanks. I'm sure we'll find it... interesting."
     "You do that, mate!" He sketched a lazy salute and headed off towards the docking bay, where Stronghold was supervising the offloading of some specialised equipment Muncher had requested. 'Beat shook his helm and followed him with Poppy's luggage.
     Poppy made her farewells and left Jacinta and Amanda with Muncher, who was delighted to show them around his 'realm'. Gathering up Livewire she headed briskly for Skyfire, now eager to get home. And see Phil and Graham, though that would have to wait until tomorrow: they were both still in decontamination and under the watchful eyes of at least two specialists. But she'd been told she would be able to visit them in person, so it seemed there wasn't any physical risk to other people. Which had to be good, right?
     "Hello Poppy." Skyfire's deep, warm voice was a welcome reminder of home as she settled herself into her seat. "It's good to see you again. I'm told you have been missed."
     "I've certainly missed everyone!" And Yule, and Xmas, and New Year at Iacon House. It had been a bleak midwinter. Although the crew at the base had done what they could to make the place cheerful and Xmassy with a tree and little gifts they'd bought last time they'd been to earth, and they'd had slightly odd-tasting champagne from the squeezy packs with the straws to see in the New Year (holding it at midnight on 31st of December UK time in honour of Poppy). It had been a brave attempt, and Poppy was flattered and honoured. They were a fine bunch of people, and she'd made a mental note to stay in touch with them unofficially as well as in her role as Consul.
     "Our flight will take four hours, and we will arrive at six in the morning, local time. If you wish to rest, I can change your seat configuration, blank the windows and dim the lighting, if that will help?"
     "Thank you, Skyfire, but I'm too excited to sleep. I'd like to watch earth getting bigger ."
     "Of course." The starcraft widened his forwards window a little and closed all hatches. Stronghold and 'Beat joined Poppy in the main cabin and settled themselves in their own seats while Livewire sat in Poppy's lap and held onto her safety straps. "All secure?"
     At the chorus of affirmatives he slowly took off, reorientated himself and headed earthwards...

Meanwhile, on earth Beverley had been busy.
     By mutual agreement the Consulate staff, teachers and students staying over the holiday period had delayed both Xmas and the New Year celebrations until 'their Poppy' had returned. The decorations and tree were still in place, the latter with everyone's presents under it, and Steamy had had a wonderful couple of days getting a veritable feast organised.
     Ramp alerted them to Skyfire's approach five minutes before the starcraft arrived, so everyone had time to get outside but not have to wait there too long in the bitter wind that had blown all day, and everyone - including the transformers - let out a deafening cheer as 'Beat jumped out and reached back to lift Poppy down to the ground. She grinned at them all, and bent to pick up Steamy who was doing his usual madly excited puppy impersonation and trying to trip her up.
     "Missed me, I gather."
     She laughed at the loud chorus of "YES!", then shivered as a particularly icy blast of wind wrapped itself around her. The lunar bodysuit was not designed for earthly weather.
     'Beat ushered her inside, leaving Stronghold to carry the luggage, then Beverley suggested she have a shower and take a nap: they'd wake her at ten for brunch. And much as she wanted to talk to everyone, the heavier gravity and the stress of the last few weeks was dragging her down. She nodded, yawning.
     "I think I'll have to." Walking was hard, but she made herself do it. The sooner she got back to earth normal the better. "Then everyone can tell me what's been happening."

It felt strange showering in properly flowing water and sleeping in a normal bed, but she managed it, and felt a little better when Livewire woke her up with a steaming mug of chocolate with her favourite tiny marshmallows floating on the top.
     "Drink it carefully, and when you get up, take everything slowly for a couple of days while you readapt."
     Poppy nodded at the little transformer, although she'd already guessed that would be the best procedure. She hadn't been on the moon for long enough to cause any real problems, but she'd rather not fall and break something!
     "I don't suppose Cybertronian science came up with some sort of gravity generator, did it?"
     Livewire inclined his head.
     "I don't know. Vault might - shall I ask him?"
     "No, that's OK, I'll have a word with him myself, later." She stretched, then drank the chocolate. "Mmmm... I've missed this."
     "But you enjoyed yourself, didn't you?"
     "Oh yes. It was a wonderful experience and I'm looking forward to my next shift there. The timing was just bad." She put down the mug and eased herself out of the bed, quickly dressing - loose casual. It felt so good after the bodysuits! - and making her way down to the lounge...
     ... where she was met by paté on toast, popping champagne corks and New Year confetti. Laughing she took a plate of the toast and happily accepted a flute of the sparkling wine.
     "Happy New Year, Poppy!" 'Spin clinked his beaker of energon against her glass. "We are all tho happy you're back."
     "Thank you." She gazed around the room, smiling at the tree and the decorations. Aaron handed her a gift-wrapped parcel.
     "Sorry you couldn't take it with you. It's from all the staff."
     Poppy put down glass and plate and, curious, took off the wrapping. Inside was a box, and inside the box...
     She lifted the tunic out, eyes widening. The fabric looked vaguely silky, but it felt... actually it felt like water flowing through the fingers. The colour shifted subtly between rich blue, dark turquoise and deep green. It was beautiful, and she said as much. Aaron grinned.
     "It's the first of its kind. The material's a Cybertronian/earth hybrid. It's not that easy to make, but the bosses think that it could do well as an exclusive luxury item."
     "It's amazing!" Poppy held it against her - it would be loose and flowing on her, and wonderfully cool. "It's going to be fantastic to wear."
     "We won't ask you to try it on right now."
     Poppy quirked an eyebrow. "Thanks for that... Now, what's been happening?"
     It took until lunch time for everyone to have their say, and no, Cybertron science had never developed a gravity generator because they'd never needed one, but... Vault had paused and inclined his helm... it would be a very interesting project and something that would greatly benefit their human allies. He'd speak to Wheeljack about it... Poppy nodded.
     "I'd like to be there. I want to ask the Prime about the three 'Cons."
     "Of course. I'll let you know what we arrange." He glanced over his shoulder as Laura appeared carrying a gong, which she sounded and announced, "Dinner is served."
     Poppy rose to her feet, being careful to get her balance before trying to walk.
     "Later. For now, let's see what Steamy has dreamed up."

Dinner was - huge. And delicious. And consisted of five courses, including a lobster, crab, prawn and avocado concoction that Poppy decided she wanted on the main menu - just every now and then - and the most succulent duck in sweet goji-berry and cranberry glaze anyone had ever tasted. The meal took an hour and half and at the end Poppy leaned back in her seat and huffed quietly with satisfaction.
     "That was very good. Many thanks to all our wonderful kitchen geniuses!"
     It would have been perfect if Phil and Graham had been there... Cable lightly stroked her arm.
     "We'll see them tomorrow, Poppy, and maybe find out the long term prognosis."
     She nodded sadly. "I just hope it's good news."
     They moved back to the lounge and one by one everyone returned to their duties, leaving Poppy, Cable and 'Spin sitting together. 'Spin eyed her for a moment, then seemed to come to some sort of a decision.
     "Poppy, I think you may have to thpeak to Prowl."
     She frowned. "How come?"
     "Well, perhapth it'th not Prowl tho much, ath that human. The female one, camped outthide. The one who callth herthelf ProwlthMithuth."
     "She's still there?"
     "Yeth, and being a bit of a nuithanthe. The guardth caught her inthide the gateth latht week. No-one quite knowth what to do with her, tho at the moment they're jutht ignoring her. But I think the thituation needth thome attention."
     Poppy nodded and checked her watch. "I agree. And it's three pm and perhaps now would be a good time to go and see what we can do. Let 'Beat and Stronghold know I'd like their help? I'll see them outside once I've grabbed a jacket..."

© JAT 21.01.13

Part 2 - Safe

The first thing Poppy heard was coughing - a horrible, wheezy coughing. She started towards the private ward: the consultant gently caught her arm and stopped her.
     "I must ask you to wear this." He handed her a surgical mask identical to the one he wore. "The Wing Commander has developed bronchitis, and the lieutenant has pneumonia. It's vital no other respiratory pathogens are introduced."
     Poppy nodded and hurriedly put on the mask, then rubbed antibacterial gel thoroughly over her hands and wrists. The consultant nodded approvingly and opened the door for her: she took a deep breath and entered.
     Phil and Graham were both in their beds, attached to monitors and both looked ill. She tried to smile, hoping it showed in her eyes.
     "Hello you two."
     Graham smiled tiredly at her and raised a hand in greeting. Phil tried, but started coughing again, spasms wracking his body.
     The consultant checked the monitors and nodded to himself, then glanced at Poppy.
     "Ten minutes, Ms Moss. And please, no physical contact."
     "Thank you." She pulled up a chair between the beds and seated herself as the consultant left, and eyed them both.
     "I suppose asking how you feel is a silly question..."
     Phil tried to speak, but only started coughing again. Poppy patted his bed - the closest she dared come to patting the hand lying on the sheet.
     "Don't, Phil. Don't try to speak." She glanced at Graham. "I'm so glad to see you both. I was - we all were - so worried."
     Graham nodded, and wheezed, "We were a bit worried ourselves."
     "The doctors say you'll be able to leave in a week. I've organised it that you'll come back to the consulate. We can look after you there."
     "Great." Graham managed a brief chuckle. "The food'll be better too."
     "How do you feel?"
     "Better than we did. We won't know the full effects until after we've shifted this," Graham touched his chest "and they can run tests. With luck, our inhalation of the radon was minimal."
     Poppy swallowed. That was the worry now - the possibility of lung cancer from radon poisoning. Their careers could also be at risk: if their lungs had been weakened, they'd probably have to retire from active duty...
     They would both hate that.
      "I'll see if I can get any more out of the doctor. Do you want me to bring in anything next time I visit? Grapes? Books? Ouija board?"
     They both stared at her, and she chuckled weakly.
     "Sorry. Was supposed to be a joke."
     Graham grinned. "We're not dead yet."
     "What... Oh." She felt her face redden. "Oh hell, I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."
     Graham waved his hand dismissively.
     "Forget it. We're used to trenches humour." He thought for a moment. "Actually, if the hospital allow it, some fresh fruit would be wonderful. The food's not all that bad but it's not exactly exciting."
     "I'll check and bring some in tomorrow."
     "Thanks." He stifled a cough. "You look well."
     She grinned. "It was fun. Well, it would have been if you two hadn't been... you know. The lunar base is great, and the consulate very comfortable. For the moon, I mean." She smiled at Phil. "I want you to come next time. You'd enjoy it, I think."
     He managed a smile and a tiny nod, and she felt her stomach clench. It was so awful seeing him like this. Phil was strong, alert, funny and understanding. He shouldn't be here, suffering like this...
     She caught herself before her eyes could tear up, and made herself smile instead.
     "OK, so, a fruit basket. Books? Magazines?"
     "Can you get hold of the latest copy of National Geographic? We both like it."
     She hadn't known that. She nodded. "Sure! Anything else?"
     "Not right now." He glanced at the door as the consultant walked in. "Looks like they're kicking you out."
     Had it really been ten minutes? Although she wasn't too upset: it was difficult thinking of things to say. She nodded to them both.
     "I'll let everyone know how you are and see you again tomorrow. With fruit."
     "Thanks Poppy. Lovely to see you."
     Phil managed a nod and thumbs up. Poppy blew them both a kiss then headed off to check up the hospital's rules about incoming external fruit...

::What the frag are we going to do with them::
     Ratchet was pacing, servos clasped behind his back. The Prime was seated at his desk: Ironhide's image was on the screen on the wall, joining in the meeting from his post in the States. Through the window they could just see the basic, force-screened hanger where Barricade, Soundwave and Knock Out were currently housed, their comms systems jammed, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker - and half the human garrison, appropriately armed - on guard outside. So far they'd caused no problems, but Prime was taking no chances.
     ::At the moment, old friend, I am uncertain::
     ::They've terminated Autobots::
     Optimus frowned. ::And we have killed Decepticons::
     ::That's different:: Ratchet paused in his pacing and inclined his head. ::Well, maybe not. But all the same...::
     The Prime raised a servo. ::Let us consider the alternatives::
     ::One, we kill them:: Ironhide's voice was slightly less resolute than before his rebirth. The Prime regarded him solemnly.
     ::You would do that? Now that the war is effectively over?::
     ::... no, I don't believe I would::
     ::I am glad to hear it. There has been enough destruction. And Knock Out and Soundwave, at least, have excellent skills to offer:: He smiled at Ratchet. ::It would be good to have another medic on our team::
     That much was certainly true... His engine growled threateningly.
     ::We can't trust them::
     ::I believe they will listen to reason::
     ::Not Barricade::
     And it was true that of all the three, Barricade would be the most difficult to deal with. His hatred for the Autobots was, in Ratchet's estimation, irrevocable and merciless.
     ::Barricade may need special measures. But he is, nonetheless, an excellent warrior::
     ::Yes, if you don't mind being murdered in your berth! Honestly, Optimus, he's a lost cause::
     ::There are too few of us, Ratchet. So many dead, terminated. So many. I do not wish to lose even one more, unless we have no other option::
     ::I could beat some sense into him::
     Optimus smiled at Ironhide's image.
     ::I'm sure you could, and it may come to that. We'll try the more peaceable alternative first::
     Ratchet halted and lowered his helm. ::You're going to invite them to join us::
     ::Yes. But:: he said, raising a servo to quieten the medic's objections, ::we will not go into this blind. I want you and Wheeljack to devise something that will immobilise them completely should they stray further than a set distance from... well, we'll decide on that later. It could be you or me, or the base, or the island. I need a feasibility report first::
     ::You just want them disabled, not killed::
     Optimus fixed the medic with a stern optic, and Ratchet huffed a sigh.
     ::Yes sir::
     ::But I will speak with them first::

Knock Out stretched out on the spacious, comfortable berth and sipped his energon. It was good. It was very good. Possibly the best he'd had since before he'd left Cybertron.
     He could get used to this.
     Though he knew Soundwave was fretting. Without access to his comms, or any way to gain access to the outside world, the communications expert was lost. It was almost pitiful.
     Barricade, on the other hand, was in stasis cuffs for attacking Jolt when he had brought in their rations two days ago. Personally Knock Out didn't blame the 'Bots: he'd been more worried that their rations would be cut. Fortunately they hadn't been, but Barricade was squirming in a corner, growling constantly and trying to remove the cuffs.
     He wouldn't succeed, of course, and even if he did, Knock Out didn't fancy his chances against those two frontliners. The twins were definitely to be feared...
     The Prime entered without introduction or fanfare, and Knock Out instinctively rose, standing to a loose sort of attention as the big figure paced sombrely across the hanger. He was joined a moment later by Soundwave. Everyone ignored the stream of expletives coming from the corner.
     "You know your current situation."
     Knock Out sighed. "It's been made very clear to us. Sir."
     "The factions cannot exist any more. The war started over two things - the caste system and the shortage of energon. Over the aeons it became more about personalities and power. Now we are reduced to a handful of beings. Megatron is gone. So are most of his forces. Any personality clashes can and will be resolved diplomatically. There are no more castes. And we have more energon than we know what to do with, and will have until the sun grows cold. There is no need for war."
     Knock Out was silent for a moment.
     "But you remain the Prime."
     "Because we still need a leader. We still need someone to negotiate with the humans. And because the Matrix chose me."
     "And if another wanted that role?"
     "Then it would be open for discussion."
     "But all your tame bots would outvote anyone else who wanted the job. So how can you say there are no more castes? You're a caste of one. Where would we be, if we joined you? Right at the bottom with the labourers?"
     Optimus frowned. "Why would you think that? You are a medic - at the moment we only have Ratchet. It's a highly skilled occupation: I assume you would wish to keep it? If not, we will find another for you. Soundwave's communication and surveillance skills are always welcome. There would even be a place for Barricade, if he can adjust his attitude."
     "Or have it adjusted for him." Knock Out reached back for his energon and took a sip. Much to his surprise Optimus nodded.
     "If it came to that, yes."
     "I thought you were against that sort of thing."
     "To quote Sentinel, the needs of the many..."
     "Glad to see you're not quite as weak-sparked as I've been led to believe."
     "We would not be here to have this conversation if that had been true. You also have been fed... half-truths."
     "Hm. And if we say no?"
     "Then, regretfully, we would have to ensure you cannot cause any harm - to us, to the future we are building, or to the humans."
     "You'd terminate us."
     "We would prefer not to."
     "But you would if you had to."
     "With regret. But I'm interested to know why you are asking. Given that the cause for which you fought no longer exists, why not try co-operating instead? It's logical. No more running and hiding, scrimping and starving. It will be a while before you're trusted, but that will come."
     "You wish to consider the idea?"
     "I... think Soundwave and I need to discuss it." He glanced at Barricade, snarling incoherently in the corner. "I can't guarantee he will agree with anything we decide, but it may be time to cut him loose in any case. He's been getting more and more... irrational since we left America."
     "It may be possible for Ratchet to examine him. Later."
     Knock Out was silent for a moment, then regarded the Prime somewhat sourly.
     "I assume that if we say yes, there'll be some kind of restrictions? Some way to make sure we stay in line? If I were you I'd make sure of it. Some little device attached to, say, the spark chamber or processor, to render us offline if we try anything."
     "I am afraid so."
     The medic vented a sigh and nodded. "Understood. Well, I could live with that, but I don't know about Soundwave. He needs to fly."
     "Starstream can fly with him."
     Knock Out stared. "Starstream? Who's that?"
     "The resurrected Starscream."
     All three 'Cons stared.
     "Wh... what...?"
     Optimus shrugged.
     "His spark survived. Ratchet built him a new frame. He is now with us."
     "He remembers his old life?"
     "Only isolated parts. His processor was very badly damaged. He is recovering well, however. His sparklings are helping with that."
     "His..." It was unusual for Knock Out to be speechless. Optimus smiled.
     "Would you like to talk to him?"
     "... Yes. I think we need to."
     "Then I will see if he is willing. If so, we will organise it."

::You offered them what?::
     Optimus sighed. ::Sideswipe and Sunstreaker will be with him. If it would ease your concern I will be there also. Starstream has already said yes. He thinks it will help persuade them::
     Ratchet's engine growled. ::Well I think it's a very bad idea::
     ::Your opinion is noted. In the meantime, Knock Out has implied that Barricade may have some sort of glitch which is making him so irrational. I believe you should examine him::
     ::My joy is never ending...::
     Optimus smiled. ::We would hate for you to become bored::
     Ratchet quirked a brow ridge and crossed his arms across his frame.
     ::Not a hope...::
     ::Very well. Let's tell our visitors they may see Starstream tomorrow::
     ::And I'll get medbay ready for a thorough processor scan. If a virus, injury or glitch is all that's wrong with Barricade, then we may still be able to... save him::
     And that would be a good thing, as far as the Prime was concerned. There had been enough killing to last 'til the universe ended. It was past time to stop.

© JAT 27.01.13

Part 3 - Misunderstandings

"Sanders has emailed over his report."
     Poppy glanced up from her desk and smiled at Beverley.
     "That was quick! What does he have to say?"
     Ramp transferred the file onto Poppy's extension of himself - as the Consulate's business had increased he'd had to upgrade and extend himself to cope - and opened it on the screen. It was short and concise, and Poppy nodded as she read.
     "So that's all OK..."

Rowan 'ProwlsMissus' Skinner had proved quite amiable when confronted, excited rather than intimidated by 'Beat and Stronghold. She'd invited Poppy into her tent (Poppy had declined gracefully) and been quite open about her reasons for being there. Quite simply, she was enthralled by the very idea of the transformers, had believed in aliens from childhood, and was completely enchanted by Prowl.
     "He's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen..." Poppy watched, disbelievingly, as the young woman clasped her hands under her chin, eyes big and dreamy. Did people actually act so clichéd these days? Apparently so.
     A little questioning and the consul had learned that Rowan was an art school graduate, currently unemployed, originally from Plymouth via London: she left it to the two cars to record the conversation and take images of Rowan for later investigation.
     "What do you want to do?"
     Rowan eyed the consul uncertainly.
     "I... don't really know. I mean, I'm not a bad illustrator, but getting a job is difficult these days. And I'm happy here, being close to them." She gestured to Stronghold. "And I get to see Prowl every now and again."
     "You understand you really can't stay here. Not permanently."
     The young woman lowered her gaze sadly. "I know. And I know what I'm doing is just... daft. But right now I have nothing else to do."
     "Hm. What else can you do?"
     Rowan stared at her, puzzled, for a moment, then shrugged. "The usual. I did part time work in an office for a few months last summer, just basic secretarial stuff. I can't cook to save my life. Not much good with plants... Really, I just draw and design."
     "I see." Poppy was silent for a moment. "You have a phone?"
     "Let me have your number." As Rowan wrote it down, Poppy frowned. "How do you mange for a power supply? For your phone? And how do you use the internet from a tent?"
     Rowan blushed. "My aunt lives in Winchester. She lets me use hers."
     "And how do you get there?"
     Rowan gestured behind the tent, where Poppy could just see a bicycle tyre poking out. "I bike it."
     Not afraid of exercise then. That was good.
     "And your aunt's address?"
     Rowan bit her lower lip.
     "She won't get into trouble, will she?"
     Poppy smiled reassuringly. "Of course not. It's just useful to have a contact address."
     "Oh. Oh, right." Rowan duly handed over the information, and Poppy nodded.
     "Thank you." As she placed the slip of paper in her wallet Rowan eyed her, part apprehensively, part hopefully.
     "So... uh... do you want me to leave, then?"
     Poppy regarded her appraisingly, then grinned. No harm in indulging the young woman's fantasy a little.
     "We'll be in touch."

That had been four days ago. Ramp and Eric Sanders had researched the woman, and everything had come up clean. Poppy chuckled to herself and turned to her PA.
     "Could you use a hand in the office?"
     Beverley shoved a hand through her hair and huffed. "Do you know a PA who couldn't?
     "She's untrained..."
     Beverly shrugged. "So were you, if the tales are true. We all had to start somewhere."
     Poppy grinned and turned to Ramp. "Is Prowl available?"
     "Your timing is excellent - he's just out of recharge and taking his energon."
     "Ask him to meet me in the foyer when he's finished?"
     "Already done."

Poppy debated just sending Prowl to bring Rowan in - then decided it would be more sensible if she went along as well. To save everyone embarrassment, if nothing else.
     Rowan stared as Poppy climbed out of the Nemesis, mouth agape and eyes huge as he transformed.
     Poppy tapped her on the shoulder. Rowan reluctantly dragged her attention back to the Consul - in fact, to Poppy's surprise and approval, she turned her back on him and fixed her attention on the human.
     "Rowan Skinner, I am here to offer you a post at the Consulate, as secretarial assistant to the consul PA. This will require you to sign and adhere to the Official Secrets Act, along with the official Consulate regulations. Are you interested?"
     Was she interested?! Was she hell!
     Poppy watched from Prowl's driver's seat as Rowan slid slowly and tentatively into the passenger seat, beaming smile threatening to split her face in two.
     "You won't regret this, Ms Moss, Prowl sir..." Trembling hands cautiously stroked the black leather of the tactician's interior. "I really appreciate it."
     Poppy nodded as Prowl drove off, silently and smoothly. "We'll send someone to collect your things as soon as we get back. We have a room ready for you. I'll introduce you to my PA, and she will explain your duties. We try to all eat together in the evening; you'll meet everyone else - human - there. Tomorrow I'll formally introduce you to our alien guests. There are more of them than just the vehicles you've seen."
     Rowan squeezed her hands together, almost unable to contain her excitement.
     "Thank you..."

Rowan had spent the first twenty four hours at the Consulate almost speechless. Steamy had enchanted her, 'Spin, Vault and Sinewave unnerved her, Ramp she found scary - especially when she realised she'd be working with him all the time (Beverley and Ramp himself assured her he was fine and didn't bite, or electrocute, or anything like that), and as for the vehicles...
     Oddly, she was more at home with them than any of the other transformers. Prowl remained her first love, but she found Blue charming, and quickly developed a cautious friendship with 'Beat and Stronghold as well. After a couple of days she felt like a member of the family.
     Poppy was pleased, but she had other matters to concern her. Phil and Graham were coming home tomorrow.
     The prognosis was good, she'd been told, but they wouldn't know for certain until after the bronchitis and pneumonia had completely cleared up. In the meantime, taking it easy, staying warm, good food and fresh air when it wasn't too cold, avoiding stressful situations or anyone who was ill - all the basics for a return to full health. Neither of them was to exert themselves in any way until the consultants said they were cleared for work.
     That, Poppy knew, might pose a problem. But she was determined, and had got in a variety of games for them to indulge themselves in while they were waiting. Chess, Monopoly, The Awful Green Things from Outer Space - all board games as she wasn't sure if the more violent video games recommended for their demographic might be too stressful for them in their state of health. Heh, if she was wrong it wouldn't be difficult to get some in...
     Steamy had already researched what would be most suitable for the invalids and made sure he had plenty of ingredients. Though Poppy was a little worried about the amount of organic garlic he'd ordered. He'd waved away her uncertainties.
     "Garlic is everso good for humans. It has antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiseptic qualities, is loaded with all those strange vitamins and minerals you need, and is supposed to be excellent for ailments of the chest."
     Poppy nodded. "I know all that, Steamy, and I'm sure it'll do them a whole lot of good. But garlic is very strong smelling..."
     Steamy waved away her worries.
     "I have new filters installed - we did it while you were on the moon."
     "Honestly Poppy, it will be fine."
     Unconvinced, Poppy decided to let it go for now. Steamy did usually know what he was doing...

"They'll be here in ten, Poppy."
     "Thanks, Ramp." Poppy grinned at Beverly and the pair left the office, making their way down to the foyer. There was a thin drizzle falling from the grey sky, and a chill wind made it feel colder than it really was: they'd need to get Phil and Matthew indoors as soon as possible.
     At the allotted time Stronghold pulled up as close to the house as he could, and Poppy stepped forward with a large golfing umbrella. Phil - looking thin, pale and tired - slid out of the passenger seat and smiled at her, rolling his eyes at the brolly. His voice was still a little hoarse.
     "We're not complete invalids, you know."
     She chuckled and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. "All part of the service. Welcome back."
     Graham - who didn't look much better - mock-scowled and tapped his own cheek. "Hey, don't I get one?"
     A moment later he was staring, open mouthed, at Beverly, who smirked at him. "You said you wanted one."
     He grinned broadly. "I did, didn't I? Thanks!"
     Laughing, Poppy held the umbrella over them both and shooed them into the house.

Phil sighed happily as he stretched out on the sofa and wriggled his toes. Both men had gone straight to their rooms, changed into casual clothes, and come back to the lounge for coffee and an update on the news. Not that there was much: Poppy had been keeping them appraised of everything once she'd been allowed to see them.
     "This is wonderful. You have no idea how good it is to get back to normal."
     Poppy perched on the chair opposite. "Can I get you anything?"
     "No, we're fine. Laura's bringing coffee in a minute."
     And indeed, Laura appeared from the kitchen, a tray in her hands and a slightly worried expression on her face. She glanced apprehensively at Poppy before lowering the tray for Phil and Graham to take their mugs and a handful of Steamy's home made biscuits. Poppy frowned. Had Laura left the kitchen door open? She was sure she could smell garlic...
     Phil took a slurp of his coffee and immediately spat it back out. "GAH! That's disgusting!"
     Graham took a sip of his own and did the same. Poppy leaned forward anxiously.
     "What's wrong?"
     "Garlic. It tastes of garlic." Phil grabbed for a biscuit in the hope it might ease the taste - but spat that out as well.
     "It all tastes of garlic..."
     Poppy slid a hand over her face.
     "I'm sorry. It's Steamy. He found out garlic is good for you and has obviously gone too far. I'll go and speak to him. Laura, get the coffee from the office and make fresh, please. In fresh mugs."
     She marched determinedly to the kitchen, to find Steamy humming happily to himself while grating raw garlic into the tea caddy containing the Earl Grey.
     "Steamy, stop. Right now. That's an order!"
     "But Poppy..." The little transformer carried on grating until Poppy snatched the grater and garlic bulb from his servo.
     "I told you garlic smelt strong. You've just made Phil and Graham spit out their coffee. This has got to stop. If it doesn't, they'll be asking to go back to hospital for some decent food!"
     "But nothing, Steamy. I'm serious. Garlic is used in main meals, not in just anything and everything. You can use it in one meal a day. If it doesn't automatically go into a dish, then you can make garlic mushrooms with garlic mayonnaise for them for lunch or supper. But that's all. Otherwise you're going to make them ill. Are we clear?"
     She could swear Steamy was sulking.
     "Oh, all right..."
     She sighed. "And you'd better tell the others what else you've put it in, so we don't get any unpleasant surprises."
     A definite pout. "OK."
     Poppy returned to the lounge and the smell of proper coffee, rubbing at her forehead. She had a headache coming. But at least she'd stopped the shenanigans before it became a real problem...

Once again James Zender faced Oliver Black over a bone-china cup of fragrant Earl Grey and smiled slowly. On the screen behind them were images of Soundwave, Knock Out and Barricade.
     "So we're decided then."
     Black nodded. "It seems by far the best plan. I just don't know how we're going to implement it."
     "Leave that with me. One way or another we will get them back."

© JAT 3.2.13

Part 4 - Operations

It had taken four days for Starstream to feel relaxed enough to visit the 'Cons, and by that time Ratchet had fitted the inhibitors in both Soundwave and Knock Out - and Soundwave had been allowed access to the comms system. Incoming only - they weren't ready to trust him with transmissions yet - but it was enough to ease his claustrophobia for the moment.
     Barricade was another matter. His mania and paranoia was definitely getting worse, and Ratchet was sure there had to be some underlying physical reason for it. He researched as much as he could, and had Wheeljack design and make a couple of new diagnostic tools before clearing his schedule for the day and reinforcing the bonds he used to secure difficult patients. The day that Starstream was to visit their Decepticons Ratchet had had Optimus, Sunstreaker and Sideswipe wrestle Barricade to the medbay and hold him down long enough for the medic to force him into stasis and strap him down securely.
     ::You going to be able to cure the fragger?" Sunstreaker stared down at the old enemy curiously. ::I mean, if you can we could use a fighter like him::
     ::Won't know until I've had a chance to examine him - which will be better accomplished with less people cluttering up my medbay:: The medic glared at the twins. ::Don't you have something more important to do?::
     ::Yeah, I guess. Making sure Starstream and Knock Out don't tear each other to shards::
     Ratchet glowered at them. ::So why are you still here?::

"So you're Starscream. I mean Starstream. You certainly don't look like your old self."
     The jet gestured to Soundwave. "I am not the only one. I am content in this frame."
     "Touché." The Aston Martin rested a clawed hand on one tilted hip and ran his gaze up and down the jet's slender frame. "It suits you."
     There was a long, awkward silence. Glad of the frontliners' solid presence behind him, Starstream fought not to tremble: the pair's scrutiny was vaguely alarming, especially with Soundwave's lack of face. Eventually Knock Out broke the silence.
     "So what's it like, being an Autobot?"
     "I am not. We have no factions here."
     "That's what the big boss said. I find it hard to believe."
     "But it is true." He raised his servos, palms upwards. "We are all equal. We have the opportunity to be what we want to be. Well, within the limits of what is available, of course."
     "Do you remember what you used to be like?"
     Starstream shuddered. "I recall some. Not all. I remember fighting and killing. Death and destruction. I remember being used."
     Knock Out nodded slowly. Megatron's mistreatment of his 'second in command' was legendary.
     "That no longer happens. Here, I am respected. My talents are appreciated - I work with Wheeljack and Ratchet in their laboratories, and fly with Skyfire. I have a good working relationship with the humans. And..." He hesitated, but they already knew about the hatchling. "I have sparklings. Ratchet is the co-creator of one of them - though from a long time ago."
     Knock Out stared, speechless. Ordinarily he would have accused the jet of treason - but this situation was completely novel. He had enough of an instinct of self-preservation to make him cautious.
     "It's possible? The production of offspring?"
     Starstream looked back, to where Wavefront was hovering at the doorway, and gestured him forwards. "This is Wavefront."
     "He's yours? Who was the co-creator? Not an Autobot, surely?"
     "No. Given the circumstances, I... we... have to assume either Megaton or the Fallen..." He quivered and shook his helm minutely, and Knock Out flinched in sympathy. "Nova is Ratchet's co-creation. Little grounder who's already decided he wants to be a medic."
     Knock Out nodded slowly, doing his best to force his processor out of its engrained routes and into a new format, one where Autobots and Decepticons were not enemies but simply Cybertronians. With a future, despite the AllSpark being no longer in existence.
     It was going to take some time. In the meantime, keeping quiet and learning all he could would serve him best.
     "And everyone lives in peace? Difficult to imagine."
     "Then don't. Join with us. Find out what it feels like to recharge safely, without fear of onlining with a blade or blaster at your spark, and to know that if you should wake with the memories of the past clawing at you, that there is always someone there to soothe you. To share with others of our kind - ideas, insights, worries, joys - without fear of mocking or recriminations or future blackmail. To never go hungry again."
     "You've gone soft."
     "Maybe. I prefer to call it wise, rather than soft. And it makes us stronger than ever before." He smiled. "It's a good existence."
     And put like that, they could hardly disagree. The suspicions of millions of years wouldn't be set aside so easily though.
     "And if we transgress?"
     "Then you get a second chance - but with restrictions until you have proven yourself trustworthy. A third, however, is not an option. Optimus would - regretfully - order your permanent stasis."
     "Stasis? Not termination?"
     "The Prime prefers not to take irreversible action unless forced to it."
     "Are you ready to join us?"
     "We don't exactly have much choice." He raised a servo as Starstream frowned. "That's a yes, not a no. Be patient with us. It's asking a lot."
     The jet inclined his helm and gave a small smile. "It is. But it's worth it. The Prime will come and discuss your appointments with you shortly."

Wheeljack peered over Ratchet's shoulder into the open mass of cabling, microchips, and clusters of submicroscopic processor cores that was Barricade's brain.
     ::Found the problem?::
     ::Yes. Whether I can fix it is another matter::
     ::What is it?::
     Ratchet initiated a tiny laser from a foredigit and used it as a pointer. Wheeljack peered in, adjusting his optics to better view the small area deep within the Ford's processor. Something there was sparking intermittently, minute flashes of arcing purple light.
     ::There's an erroneous linkage here - well, a partial one. It looks like at some point the neural cabling split and re-bonded, making a link between his behavioural modules and his emotion control core::
     ::And there shouldn't be one?::
     ::Not there, no. It should be at a much higher level::
     ::So what? You cut it and weld the correct ends together?::
     ::Not that easy. The polymaxons have grown together and the lines are now so intertwined and co-dependent that I could easily fry something vital and irreparable. But if I don't act it will just get worse until his processor simply... tears itself apart::
     ::And that's why he's so violent and irrational?::
     ::Part of that is natural. He was designed as a warrior. But this inability to listen to anyone who tries to tell him anything, or reason with him, I believe that's been caused by this... break::
     ::So what you going to do?::
     ::I'm going to keep him in medical stasis until I can come up with a repair option. And since Knock Out is now nominally one of us and self-proclaimed better at breaking than mending, I'll ask for his input::
     ::Have fun with that!:: Wheeljack 'snickered', then left speedily as Ratchet glowered at him. Hesitating for only a klik the medic commed Knock Out.

Knock Out had only just finished speaking with the Prime - and internalising the group's rules and guidelines - when the ping arrived from Ratchet. He glanced up at Optimus, optics wide.
     "I'm being summoned to work already? No probationary period?"
     "This is your probationary period. Ratchet will oversee."
     "Very well. Sir." The Aston Martin headed for the exit, looking back as Optimus made a sound similar to a human cough for attention.
     "Do not waste this opportunity."
     Knock Out turned to fully face him and saluted, servo to spark chamber.
     "I'll do my best..."

Ratchet spared him barely a glance, growled, "What kept you?" and without giving him a chance to reply launched into a highly technical description of the problem. Obviously a test. Knock Out listened carefully and at the end nodded his understanding.
     "Well, it's not something I have much experience of - despite what you might think, we didn't usually mess around with the processors of our soldiers - and I'm no specialist, but I suggest we consider a partial resection and microweld coupled with a cyberglial sheath to keep the polymaxons apart."
     "That won't fully repair the damage."
     "No, but it won't kill him either, and it should at least alleviate the symptoms. Once the first cyberneural pathways have realigned, it should be possible to perform the procedure again, and possibly a third time, until everything is functioning correctly."
     Ratchet nodded slowly.
     "That would work."
     "It didn't occur to you?"
     "It did, but it's not something I have ever performed, and I'm used to completing surgeries at any one time rather than spacing them out."
     Knock Out nodded understandingly. "Yes - in a war it's usually the only way. But as everyone keeps pointing out, the war is over. We have the leisure now."
     "True. Very well. You will assist me. You've done this before?"
     "Just once, a long time ago."
     "And the patient?"
     "Survived. Went on to fight in many many more battles."
     "Good. Make a list of what we need. If there's anything we don't already have to servo we'll have to make it, but between Wheeljack, Jolt and myself that shouldn't be a problem. We'll start tomorrow."
     Knock Out regarded him, bemused. "Just like that?"
     "Why? Do you think you can't do it?"
     "Oh, no, I'm sure I can. But..."
     Ratchet's optics bored into him. "Did you think we were venting hot air when we told you how things work here?"
     Knock Out smiled. "I can see that you weren't. Very well, sir. I'll start on that list."
     "Good. And it's Ratchet. The only one who gets called 'sir' around here is Prime."

Optimus had hovered, well out of the way, as Ratchet and Knock out worked over Barricade. It took a while, a couple of earth hours, with both medics concentrating tightly, strange and wonderful minute tools appearing and disappearing from their digit-tips. The Prime couldn't see what they were doing - they were far too deep inside the Ford's helm and working with almost microscopically small components, and he couldn't make sense of the images on the screen of the monitor that was scanning and recording every tiny move the pair made - but both seemed to be reasonably happy with the way things were going. Finally Ratchet pulled himself upright with a crunch of grinding gears and nodded at his colleague.
     "You did well. Meticulous work, performed with precision."
     Knock Out stared, then smirked.
     "Thank you, doctor. It was an honour to work with you."
     Ratchet waved the compliment away dismissively, but his field peaked sharply for a moment with pleasure and appreciation. Most of his fellows had no idea of the complexity of some of the miracles he pulled off: it was nice to be with someone who understood them.
     "I want him to stay in stasis for a whole earth rotation to let the repair nanites get to work, then we'll bring him back online, at... ten percent of normal, I think, until we see the results. Your thoughts?"
     Knock Out nodded his agreement. "That would be best, yes."
     "Good. We'll leave it there for now." Ratchet glanced at the Prime. "I'd like him guarded, just in case. Can one of the twins stay with him?"
     Optimus inclined his helm. "I'll take care of it."
     "Thank you. In the meantime..." he turned back to the Aston Martin "I'd like you to try designing a series of tests for him along with a schedule of gradual increments in operational ability. We need to know if the procedure is working, but we also need to take this slow."
     Knock Out grinned and gave him a casual salute. "Will do, doctor."

Optimus accompanied him on his walk to the rec room. ::I believe you have what the humans call a 'fan'::
     Ratchet was silent for a klik while he looked up the reference, then snorted.
     ::We'll see. It was a good start though::
     ::And Barricade?::
     ::We won't know for a while, but I am hopeful. The surgery went very well::
     ::That's good news. I would be very happy to see Barricade working with us::
     ::Better than having him fight against us. So, what's next on the agenda?::
     ::Soundwave will be assuming his agreed post on the comms team, under Chatter and Ramp's surveillance, this afternoon. Then I have the weekly briefing conference with the general scheduled for two hours' time. I am hoping he doesn't have any bad news for us...::

© JAT 09.02.13

Part 5 - Operations 2

"Well I think a run down to the sea would be good for you. Healthy air, lots of ozone - isn't that good for humans?"
     Phil grinned up at Bluestreak. The Porsche Spyder had become extremely solicitous since his human been allowed back to the Consulate, checking on him every hour at least and staying with him as much as was possible. It should have been stifling, but Blue was so circumspect about it that Phil actually rather enjoyed the attention.
     "OK then. Let me get my jacket and a flask of coffee."
     "Already done, Mr Phil." Steamy waved the thermos from his position at the kitchen door.
     Of course it is... Phil chuckled quietly. There were advantages to living with aliens with internal communications. He rose to his feet, took the thermos - and a small box of Steamy's home made biscuits (without garlic: fortunately the little transformer had obeyed Poppy's orders), and with Blue following headed for the door, snagging his parka from the stand in the hall.
     It was cold outside, and Phil was happy to climb into the transformed Blue's interior. The heat gently enveloped him, warming him thoroughly as he relaxed into the driver's seat.
     "Would you like music?"
     Phil nodded. "The... let's see... blue highways playlist."
     As Springsteen's Born to Run began to play, the car shifted smoothly into gear and headed for Eastbourne and the windswept beauty of Beachy Head.

Jacinta grinned from the screen. Her hair was pulled back severely and fastened into place: it made her look quite different but kept it under control in the moon's lighter gravity. Poppy smiled and gave her a small wave.
     "How is everything?"
     "It's great!" The Australian was brimming over with enthusiasm. "I love it here! Val's been fitted out with air tanks and has made himself airtight, and we've gone out driving! It's fantastic!"
     Poppy laughed. "I didn't think of that! I'll have to speak to 'Beat about doing it next time we're up there."
     "You must - it's wonderful..." Jacinta settled back in her seat and muted her grin a little, her eyes tracking the faces of the other Consuls on their multiple screens. "Sorry. Ready now."
     There was a chorus of chuckles, half amused, half envious, from the others, and Poppy called the meeting to order. From the new and so-far successful hydroponics project in the Australian outback, through the use of new transformer technology to ease the problem of over-fishing in the North Sea, to the ever-present simmering anti-alien sentiment in the Middle East, they had a lot to discuss.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Sunstreaker and Sideswipe were in Ratchet's Lair, armed and alert but out of the medics' way as Ratchet released Barricade from stasis. The 'Con had been through two more surgeries since the procedure had first been mooted, and the initial results had looked promising. This time Ratchet had decided to bring Barricade online at seventy-five percent capacity - hence the twins' presence.
     Knock Out hovered by the older medic's shoulder, watching the monitor's data channels intently. Ratchet's hardline was plugged into the 'Con, controlling the process precisely.
     "Cognitive functions first. We'll see what mood he's in before we give him back any motion."
     Knock Out nodded, watching as the indicators climbed slowly but steadily and the resting thrum of Barricade's internal system slowly increased. Blank optics flickered, then the light steadied and brightened, staring up at Ratchet.
     "Where am I?"
     Not frag off you fragging fragger. That was a good sign.
     "Med bay. How do you feel?"
     "Like Pit." The 'Con wriggled against the restraints. "Gonna let me up?"
     "In a while. Maybe." Ratchet was focussed on reading the multiple scans he was running, and answered distractedly. Knock Out grinned at his old comrade.
     "He's always like that. When he's sure you aren't going to attack us he'll release you."
     Barricade growled. "Not much I can do with this inhibitor inside me."
     Ratchet paused and gazed down at him. "You know it's there?"
     "Yeah. Can feel it. Clever doc - self-destruct unless removed by you."
     "We have to be sure."
     "Yeah, I know. I'd do the same." He smirked. "But I'm not completely stupid. Rather serve on the winning side than be terminated."
     Ratchet stared at him.
     "That's rather sudden."
     "I guess." He shrugged as best he could. "Can see clearer now. Whatever you did - it's changed me. Feel like I got some control now."
     "Good..." Ratchet glanced at Knock Out. "Any contraindications?"
     "Nothing here, Ratchet."
     "Very good." The medic gestured the twins closer then looked back at Barricade. "I'm pleased with the improvement. I'm going to let you up in a moment. Understand that your weapons' systems will stay offline until I'm completely satisfied, and you'll be on probation for a while. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker will be your...mentors while you're here."
     The 'Con turned his helm and stared at the grinning twins.
     "Don't worry. We'll go easy on you."
     Barricade's gaze swivelled back to the medic, who vented a sigh and glowered at the frontliners.
     "Behave!" He patted Barricade's shoulder. "You have any problems with them you tell me or Prime."
     The 'Con nodded hesitantly, and Ratchet unfastened the restraints. Warily, optics never leaving the twins who were fondling their weapons with obscene glee, Barricade slowly sat up, servos open and resting on his thighstruts. Knock Out nodded as the indicators peaked then settled at a slightly less than optimal but acceptable level.
     "Looking good, sir."
     "Excellent." Ratchet unjacked from the medical port and straightened up. "I'll leave him to you to run those tests: let me have your report later. And it's Ratchet, not sir."
     "Sorry, Ratchet."
     They watched the medic leave, then Barricade turned to Knock Out.
     "To check how well the operations have succeeded." He smirked. "Don't worry, they're nothing painful."
     The Ford growled. "If they involve thinking they will be!"
     Sideswipe chuckled. "If you want pain, just call."
     Knock Out rested a servo on one hip and glared at the frontliners.
     "Ratchet told you to behave."
     "And since when do we do what Ratchet tells us?"
     "Or Optimus?"
     A klik's silence. "Yeah, OK, him we'll listen to."
     Knock Out waved his servo dismissively and turned back to Barricade.
     "Just ignore them. We have enough to get through..."

::All is well?::
     Ratchet handed the datachip to Optimus and nodded.
     ::Better than expected. I don't think rehabilitation will be too much of an issue:: He paused for a moment, then regarded the Prime solemnly. ::I am considering introducing him to the hatchlings. Nova, first. Obviously taking all due precautions and not letting them within touching distance::
     Optimus frowned.
     ::I'm curious as to whether the presence of young ones has any effect on... extreme behaviour. Not that Barricade's will be that extreme in future, but the capacity is still there::
     ::Won't that be dangerous?::
     ::Not if we take the proper precautions::
     ::And Nova is in agreement?::
     Ratchet vented a sigh. ::Nova suggested it::
     The Prime's EM field registered something extremely rare - startlement.
     ::He did?::
     Ratchet nodded. ::I think we have a processor-systems specialist in the making::
     ::That's... excellent. Is he not a little young though?::
     ::He is, as the humans would say, coming along in leaps and bounds. And that in itself is interesting:: without realising it, Ratchet reverted to scientific mode. ::He's at a far more advanced mental age than the seekerlets are. I'm running comparisons with a view to determining if frame type and function influences development. Since grounders have to be more self-reliant from an earlier stage of maturity, it's quite possible. Of course, I need a much larger population for any truly valid results, but even the data I can gather from such a small sample will be helpful...::
     He caught himself and offered an apologetic :smile:. ::Sorry. I've never had the chance to study a new generation on a different planet before. My enthusiasm runs away with me::
     Optimus laid a servo on his shoulder. ::It is good to see you so enthused, old friend. With luck, you may yet have a 'larger population' for your analysis::
     ::That would do this old spark a lot of good. But in the meantime... Do I have your permission to try the experiment?::
     ::Of course::
     ::Thank you. We'll let you know the results as soon as they're available::

Walker walked into the old steelworks carrying a large metal suitcase. Ellen Roberts smiled brightly at him.
     "Can I help you sir?" Her eyes flicked to the suitcase. You could get a lot of money in that...
     "Walker. Here to see Black. I don't have an appointment, but he'll see me. Just tell him I have a sample of the merchandise for him."
     It wasn't her place to argue. She rang Black's number, passed on the message, and moments later a young man appeared at the inner entrance to the facility.
     "This way, Mr Walker."
     James Zender and Oliver Black were poring over a rough map and several satellite images of Diego Garcia when Walker was ushered in. They both looked up and glared.
     "What are you doing here? You lost us those blasted 'Cons!"
     Walker grinned and slammed the suitcase down on the table, scattering the papers.
     "You could never have used them. Too big, too powerful and too self-aware. Too well-known, and too... treacherous. What I have here" he tapped the suitcase. A muted scraping and banging noise came from inside "is worth far more than them."
     Zender frowned and stared at the case.
     "What is it?"
     With a flourish, the ex-NEST officer opened the case. Inside was a small transformer, tightly wrapped in barbed wire and heavy chains, its pale blue eyes wide and sparking in fear as it struggled uselessly against its bonds.
     "Caught it myself. As far as I can tell its presence on earth isn't known yet, and its size means its EM field will be so small as to be untraceable. But it has all the abilities of the bigger ones, without the heavy weaponry."
     Zender and Black watched it with avaricious stares, then Black turned his gaze to Walker.
     "And what do you want for it?"
     "Access to everything you find out, and a place in the attack force when you're ready to move."
     Zender and Black had already determined there were far more productive uses for the aliens than simply destroying them, but it was expedient to keep Walker on their side for now. Zender nodded.
     "I see no problem with that. As long as you agree to take no precipitous action."
     "Oh, don't worry. For a chance at payback, and bed and board, I'll behave." He pushed the case forward, leering. "Have fun!"

© JAT 12.03.2013

Part 6 - Operations 3

Ellen Roberts wasn't the most observant or sensitive of women, but she was beginning to wonder about the Trust. It was nothing obvious, just a sort of... change of atmosphere. She'd loved working for them at the beginning. She'd felt as though she was finally doing something truly worthwhile with her life, working towards mutual understanding and tolerance. Now...
     She felt as though things were being kept from her - from all of them. It wasn't even anything she could really put her finger on; a murmured conversation, cut short when she appeared, letters arriving that were intercepted by someone she hadn't been introduced to before they reached her, the odd computer file that her password couldn't access...
     It had all started when Mr Zender and Mr Hawkins had arrived. She didn't know why, but she didn't like them.

In a soundproofed room in the hidden maze of tunnels and chambers under the steelworks main building a little transformer was screaming.
     No one could hear him - one of the first things they had done was cut out his vocaliser, and the walls of the room were lined with anti-detection hardware (and lined with lead, just to add an additional level of protection). But he was screaming nonetheless.
     Walker was hovering behind the two-man team working on the little transformer, grinning sadistically. So far they'd removed the creature's limbs - four 'arms' and two 'legs' - and peeled off part of its 'chest' plating. Newman (a physics graduate so desperate to earn enough to pay off his crippling student loans he was prepared to do just about anything) was examining the 'skin' under an electron microscope while Johnson monitored the transformer's reactions. A sturdy steel spike, driven through the creature's midsection, held the writhing frame in place, if not exactly still.
     Newman glanced at Walker, and beyond him to the camera through which, from a safe distance several floors above, Zender and Black were scrutinising the operation. Never able to mask his emotions, the young man looked excited.
     "It's... the closest analogy I can come up with is it closely resembles silicon nitride - millions of tiny scales and links of it. It's amazing... It explains why they're so tough, and how they can transform. Physically, I mean - these scales can be reshaped into just about anything. How it happens we haven't yet discovered... Sirs, this is extraordinary. If we could replicate this material... The possibilities would be endless."
     Zender clicked on the intercom.
     "Calm down, catch your breath, and elucidate."
     Newman actually did take a deep breath and pause for a moment, before gesturing to the microscope.
     "This is a metal rather than a ceramic, but it has the same qualities as silicon nitride, superb thermal shock resistance, wear resistance, overall... strength - but magnified a hundredfold..."
     Zender's eyes gleamed as he smiled at Black. "Now we know why they don't let their bodies fall into enemy hands." He clicked the intercom. "We'll examine the applications and corollaries later. Take one of the eyes next."
     It took Johnson a considerable amount of trouble - the creature obviously wasn't keen on having an eye ripped out, whipping its head from side to side and trying to close some sort of shutter over the organs - but the man finally managed to pry the pale blue orb from its socket. Shimmering blue liquid splashed over his hand, burning like acid: he hissed and ran to the sink, washing it off before it had a chance to do any real harm.
     "Little bugger." He glared at Walker. "You could have bloody well warned me!"
     "But where's the fun in that?"
     "Bastard." But Johnson said it under his breath. He returned to the table, handling the eye carefully. Propping it under a powerful magnifying glass he inspected it minutely.
     "This is a very nice piece of equipment. Similar tolerances as the plating, filters to reduce or enhance... well, just about any wavelength. Microscopic and telescopic lenses, - what the hell would a tiny thing like this need with those? Do we know what function it performed?"
     Walker shrugged. "Nah. Wasn't important, was it."
     Johnson shot him a dirty look. "It would have helped us determine the function of some of these other lenses. So yes, I'd say it was important."
     Walker waved a hand dismissively. "Well, you want to try putting the thing back together, be my guest."
     Zender frowned at Black. "Is he a liability yet?"
     "Oh, he's always been a liability. But he's also useful as a scapegoat. We'll keep him around a bit longer."
     Zender flipped the switch again.
     "Open up the chest. I want to see this 'spark' thing that powers them..."

Blue stayed just within the speed limit for the drive down to Eastbourne, then drove sedately through the town and up to the Beachy Head visitor centre. It was one of those rare British January days when the sun was brilliant in an almost cloudless sky, and even the wind wasn't quite as strong or cold as usual. There were just a handful of well-wrapped walkers striding out along the cliff.
     "Don't forget your jacket."
     Phil chuckled and obediently pulled the heavy winter parka around him, then pulled on a woollen hat and gloves.
     "OK, mum? Can I go out and play now?"
     Blue was silent for a moment, then his engine revved quietly in amusement.
     "Sorry. Don't mean to be overprotective."
     "It's OK. It's cute, really." Phil swung himself out of the car: moments later Blue stood beside him. "Are you sure that's a good idea? You know how much attention you attract."
     "I know, but I'd like to see this place in my root mode. There aren't many people here, and they're mostly... mature adults. They are likely to 'mind their own business', as you say, and leave us in peace. I estimate we have about an hour before word gets out and the crowds begin to gather, long enough for a bracing walk and some good sea air before you're tired enough for us to head home."
     "You have this all planned out, don't you?"
     "Of course."
     Phil slapped the Porsche's leg plating lightly.
     "Let's get going then."

Along the South Downs Way the view out over the Channel was splendid, the sea a rippling sheet of shimmering blue, the gulls soaring and gliding below them. As predicted, the other walkers kept their distance, nodding politely as they passed in typical British fashion. Phil walked leisurely along the top of the cliff, Blue pacing to the landward side and slightly behind his human. It was cold, but exhilarating, and Phil could almost feel the lingering weakness in his lungs healing as he breathed the cold crisp air.
     It was just a pity Poppy hadn't come with them.
     ... Poppy...
     He really couldn't deny it any longer. She kept popping into his thoughts at odd moments. He'd pretty much memorised everything about her, from the way her right eyebrow twitched when she was annoyed, to the tiny dimple on the left beside her mouth when she smiled, to the faint fresh citrussy perfume she wore. He always felt happiest when he was with her.
     The thought of her finding someone else was... painful. And it could happen - she was in contact with a lot of powerful and influential people. He'd seen the way some other men, and several women, looked at her, respect and desire mingled, and it raised his blood pressure. OK, she'd shown no interest in anyone so far, but...
     "You should speak to her."
     He jumped, startled, and glared up at Blue.
     "And when did you learn to read minds?"
     The Porsche smirked. "Just reading that tiny em field you produce. It peaks interestingly when you're in her presence, and it just did the same. I assumed - rightly it seems - you were thinking of her. And I've seen the way you look at her, heard how your vocal harmonics change when you speak to her."
     Phil sighed and pulled his collar up a little higher.
     "I have no idea whether she's interested."
     "Then ask her. I've seen the way she looks at you too, and while her field is more difficult to read than yours, she is certainly not uncomfortable in your presence."
     Phil paused and gazed up at the transformer.
     "This is wonderful. I'm taking romantic advice from a robot. You've gone from my mum to my agony aunt in two easy steps."
     Blue took a moment to look the term up, then revved a chuckle.
     "You're ideally suited to her, and she to you - and she needs someone. Someone to rely on. She's lonely."
     Phil stared. "How'd you make that out?"
     "She has no-one really close she can talk to. No mate. That is a lonely way to be."
     "I hadn't noticed her complaining!"
     "Poppy wouldn't. She's not that sort of human." The Porsche's engine growled. "Just talk to her, would you?"
     "And if we're wrong, it spoils a beautiful friendship."
     That gave Blue pause.
     "You have a point. But if you don't, you risk never knowing. I suppose you have to decide what's more important."
     Phil sighed and nodded. "I'll give it some serious thought."
     "Yes. On the way back."
     "Good." Blue turned to look behind them, and vented a sigh. "Ah well. It was nice while it lasted."
     Phil looked over his shoulder: half a mile away but heading determinedly in their direction was a straggling crowd of people. He glanced at his watch: yep, as Blue had predicted, an hour.
     "You want to say hello?"
     The Porsche considered it for a moment, then nodded.
     "It would be courteous."
     "OK then." Phil resigned himself to half an hour of answering questions while the crowd ooohed and aaahed over Blue. It was, after all, good public relations.

Poppy stretched and looked up from her desk, frowning. The silence was almost alarming.
     "Cable?" There was no answer. "Ramp?"
     "Yes Poppy?"
     The sense of relief was overwhelming - then she caught herself with an embarrassed giggle.
     "Sorry. I thought for a moment..." that I'd dreamed the last few years? "Where is everybody?"
     "Cable and Livewire are with 'Spin undergoing regular maintenance. 'Beat and Stronghold have retired for a little... private time. Steamy is in the kitchen researching new recipes. Vault and Sinewave are torturing - sorry, teaching - the latest intake. Castle and Highdive are patrolling the grounds. Prowl is on the comm to the Prime, discussing security matters. And Bluestreak is out with Phil. Why do you ask?"
     "Oh, no reason. It was just... unusually quiet."
     "I'd have thought you'd enjoy that."
     She chuckled. "Not any more!"
     Ramp was silent for a moment, then hummed approvingly. "It's good to know you are happy with the situation."
     And she was, she really was. She had just about everything she'd ever wanted.
     Just about.

© JAT 16.03.13

Part 7 - Proposals

Ratchet's field was bristling with apprehension and anxiety. Even the Prime's servo on his shoulder wasn't helping. He knew, intellectually, that Barricade wouldn't hurt Nova - couldn't hurt the young one, the slightest peak in the aggression spectrum in his field and Sunstreaker would be on him faster than a human could see, while Sideswipe would pull the sparkling to safety. But knowing something and feeling it were two completely different things...

Nova had grown quickly: he now came up to Ratchet's waist, and his mature colours were coming in - a rich deep emerald green with old gold accents and, to Ratchet's surprise and alarm, faintly glowing golden lines along the surface tracks of major interior cabling, a little like those on Knock Out and Soundwave. Something similar was beginning to appear on the Seekerlets too: the doctor was wondering if it might have something to do with one of the creators being a Decepticon, as no Autobot had them. As far as he knew, at any rate.
     They were attractive - but, he thought, they could also be dangerous. A shot or slice along the line could sever something vital. He'd said as much to Knock Out, who had nodded.
     "I've heard them called 'biolights', which, while not completely accurate, has a certain... charm. They're useful to medics as well as would-be assassins though."
     "Hm. What purpose do they serve?"
     "Do you know, I'm not exactly sure?" Knock Out rested an elegant servo against a tilted hip, fine browplates drawn down into a frown. "We didn't all have them. Barricade doesn't. Starscream didn't." He glanced apologetically at his mentor. "We were... a little too busy with the war to delve into such mysteries."
     "That's something we'll have to put right, now the war is over." Ratchet eyed the glowing lines on his companion. "You'll both have to volunteer."
     Knock Out was about to object, but the severe and steely glint in Ratchet's optics gave him pause.
     "Will it hurt?"
     "I'm a doctor. It's my role to heal, not to hurt."
     "That wasn't a 'no'."
     "I will do my best not to hurt. And if I do, and it gets too much, scream and I'll stop."
     "That's not very... persuasive."
     Ratchet's grin might have looked malevolent in certain lights.
     "Don't worry. You're too good a medic for me to even dream about harming you. Permanently."

But that was yet to come. Today Nova was going to interact with Barricade for the first time. And Ratchet was terrified.
     But as it happened he needn't have worried. The Ford was seated, but not restrained. Ratchet hadn't been happy about that, but Nova had insisted - and had been able to refer his creator to the texts on human psychology that he had been studying for the last two months. He didn't want the ex-Con's first encounter to be associated with him being a captive. Ratchet had pointed out they weren't human: Nova had countered with the fact that there were so many similarities between the two species that he believed the workings of mind and processor had multiple analogies - and this was a good way to start exploring them. Ratchet had expressed his doubts: Nova had blithely waved them away. Ratchet opined, to himself, that Nova was becoming, as the humans would say, a 'handful'...
     The little grounder kept his field placid and friendly, and approached slowly but without trepidation. Barricade regarded him warily.
     ::You're Nova::
     ::Yes. 's good to meet you::
     The Ford grunted and narrowed his optics. Nova moved to stand in front of him and smiled up into his face.
     ::It is good, though, sir. You're a great warrior aren't you? Can you tell me about some of the battles you've been in?::
     ::War's over. No point in rehashing it::
     ::But we need to learn from it. How not to let it start again, if nothing else::
     Barricade paused and frowned. ::How is me reliving old battles going to do that?::
     Nova inclined his helm, expression pensive. That track wasn't going to work, obviously. Although the fact that the Ford was reacting positively was a very hopeful sign. ::You're probably right. What would you like to talk about?::
     "Talk?" Barricade stared at the youngling. "Never did much talking."
     Nova grinned.
     "Then maybe it's about time. What do you think of earth? I like it here."
     For a moment it looked as though Barricade might answer angrily, but then he vented quietly and relaxed a little.
     "Not really seen much of it so far - been too busy fighting."
     "But you've been to lots of places. That must have been exciting. And you took care of Soundwave too, didn't you?"
     Barricade stared down at the little grounder for a moment, then glanced at Ratchet and chuckled dryly.
     "He's not going to let up, is he?"
     Ratchet inclined his helm. "No. He's genuinely interested."
     "And I've never seen a sparkling. OK. I'll play." He managed a half-smile as he turned back to Nova. "Yeah, I looked after Soundwave. There wasn't much left of him after Chicago. But I managed to get him to safety. We stayed in a cave until Knock Out came..."
     Nova moved a little closer and settled himself on the ground, listening attentively, passively recording every element of the 'interview' for later analysis...

Meanwhile, Starstream was making the first tentative attempt at developing some sort of... it would probably never be a friendship, but acquaintanceship didn't quite cover it as they would most likely be working together in the future... with Soundwave. And as they were both flyers, taking a flight together was the first step.
     The Reaper's lack of a face was a little unnerving, as was his refusal - inability? - to vocalise: Starstream wasn't comfortable opening a line for internal comms to a potential enemy. However, as he had no choice, he was determined to make the best of it - and not talk too much.
     The sky was cloudless, the day hot, the sea sparkling. The few humans on the base waved at them both and stopped to watch as they walked the short distance to the runway.
     Starstream paused and gestured to his companion. Soundwave hesitated for a moment, then transformed - slowly and with a grinding of metal that made the jet wince - and hovered, waiting for the Seeker.
     ::That sounded painful::
     Soundwave's :voice: was emotionless. ::It is::
     ::Have you told Ratchet?::
     Hesitation again. ::... no...::
     ::If you won't, I will. Pain is inefficient, disabling and unnecessary. Ratchet and Knock Out will be able to fix you::
     ::Trust - not easily given::
     ::I know. But look at it this way - they have no reason to harm you. And having you in optimal working condition will benefit us all:: He inclined his helm. ::Do you still want to fly? Will it hurt?::
     ::Yes. And yes::
     Doubting the wisdom of it, Starstream nevertheless transformed and led the way up into the cloudless blue.
     They kept the flight short, but even so Starstream could :feel: the tension bleeding out of the Reaper's frame. Injured or not, no flyer liked being denied the freedom of the skies.
     When they landed an hour later, Starstream led the ex-Con to Ratchet's Lair. Inside, Barricade and Nova were just finishing up their chat, with Ratchet and Knock Out both looking satisfied: the jet waited until the Ford had been escorted back to his quarters then ushered Soundwave forwards. Both medics regarded him enquiringly, but it was Starstream who spoke.
     "Soundwave is experiencing pain on transforming." He glanced at Knock Out. "No slur on your work, doctor. Given the conditions you must have been working under you accomplished a miracle. But there's no need for anyone to suffer."
     Ratchet nodded and gestured to a diagnostic berth.
     "On there and we'll run some scans. We have plenty of materials now for repairs." He smiled at the jet as Soundwave eased himself carefully onto the berth. "Good flight?"
     "I enjoyed it." He glanced at Soundwave, who nodded his helm once. "We both did."
     "Well, once we've got Soundwave back to full functionality - and he's proved he can be trusted - you'll be able to fly together whenever you want. Take the hatchlings too." He turned to Nova for a moment. ::Please report to the Prime. He'll want to review everything you recorded - there was information there about the human Walker that we didn't know and may be able to use::
     ::Yessir pops!:: The youngling saluted cheekily, grinning, then scuttled off before his creator could respond. Ratchet shook his head in mock despair and turned back to Starstream.
     "Leave him with us and we'll see what we can do."
     Nodding his thanks, Starstream left the Lair. He'd promised Cloudrunner and Windchaser a family flight, and since none of them had anything scheduled for the afternoon, now was as good a time as any.

Bluestreak regarded Phil with narrowed optics.
     "You still haven't said anything, have you?"
     Phil sighed. It had been a week since their trip to Beachy Head and Phil hadn't yet managed to talk to Poppy. It wasn't altogether his fault - she was, as ever, very busy - but on the couple of occasions they'd both been in the same place at the same time with no-one else demanding their attention, he'd chickened out. (Blue had objected to the phrase, saying that chickens weren't cowardly birds at all, and maligning them in such a way was most unfair... Phil wondered sometimes about his guardian's logic circuits. Though it may have been Prowl's influence.)
     "No. I haven't. Sorry. Just haven't found the right opportunity."
     "Why don't you take her out for a meal? My research has shown that that is a very popular way for humans to get to know each other."
     "Yeah, but after what happened last time... Bad memories."
     "Aren't you supposed to overwrite bad memories with good ones?"
     "Yes, well, sometimes that works... and sometimes it feels like tempting fate."
     "But Knock Out and Barricade are now on Diego Garcia. There aren't any large or dangerous Cybertronians left in this country."
     "That we know of."
     "I'm sure we'd know if there were. Don't underestimate Ramp and Chatter. Or Prowl."
     Phil considered the Porsche's argument, and had to admit the possibilities of a repeat performance were remote. But he wouldn't take Poppy to the same place. There were plenty of other nice restaurants they could try.
     In fact... he'd seen a place while in the town, back last year... ah yes. The Chesil Rectory. Fifteenth century building, and he vaguely remembered it having a very good reputation for both the quality of the food and the atmosphere.
     "OK. I'll ask her. And if we can find an evening when we're both free, I'll take her out to dinner."

© JAT 19.04.13

Part 8 - Considerations

Bluestreak regarded Phil narrowly, then smiled.
     You spoke to her."
     "You can tell?"
     Your field - what there is of it - is content. Smooth. Not troubled or spiky."
     "No secrets with you lot, is there?"
     "You already knew that."
     "True." The human paused for a moment then grinned. "Yes. We have a reservation for the Chesil for Sunday evening."
     "That's excellent!"
     "It's just dinner. No strings attached."
     Blue's optics flickered and he inclined his helm. "What do strings have to do... oh, I see. Another of your Western human idioms. Nevertheless, it's a start. I will drive you. No doubt Stronghold and the Wing Commander will come too."
     Phil rolled his eyes, but nodded, resigned. An armed guard went with the territory these days.
     "So - three more days."
     "Are you getting her a present?"
     Phil frowned.
     Blue shrugged. Phil noted absently that his shrug was almost silent, the plates of his frame sliding smoothly over each other - a trait he shared with the other sniper Cybertronians.
     "I read that it's usual to give your 'special friend' a little gift when taking them out for a special meal. Flowers seem to be the usual thing, although I don't understand why anyone would enjoy being given dying vegetation..."
     Phil chuckled. "No, me neither, thinking about it. But I don't think we're quite at that stage yet. And I don't want to rush things."
     Bluestreak huffed noisily. "And how long have you known each other? Two years? Three? How is that rushing?"
     There was no arguing with that. Phil sighed. "OK. I'll try to find something."
     "You could always give her a ring. I gather human females like gold and diamonds..."
     "Bluestreak!" Phil wasn't sure whether to laugh or slap the Porsche. Since slapping would have hurt his hand, he opted to laugh. A somewhat embarrassed laugh, admittedly. "That's not the sort of thing you just spring on someone."
     "But they do on the telly."
     Phil stared up into guileless blue optics.
     "What have you been watching?"
     "I think they're called 'romcoms'? Or 'chickflicks'? I haven't been able to determine the difference, myself."
     Phil metaphorically slapped his own forehead. "You do know those are just fiction, don't you?"
     "... they are?"
     "Yeah, they are."
     "But it sometimes happens in real life too. I've seen documentaries."
     Phil held his hands up. "OK, but those people have usually been going out for a while beforehand. They're already in a relationship."
     "Oh. I see. So you need to take Poppy out more first."
     "We need to be in a relationship."
     "But you're already friends."
     "Yes, but that's friendship. It's not a... romantic relationship."
     Blue tilted his head, optics half-shuttering. "I need to look into this a bit further, obviously."
     Phil patted his flank. "You do that. And in the meantime, I'll try to find Poppy something... funny, I think. Something a bit different." He grinned and shrugged. "Not jewellery. I can't afford to buy her anything really good, the sort of thing she deserves."
     Blue nodded. "Do you want to drive down to Southampton? We'd be sure to find something there."
     "Good idea. Give me an hour to finish up this report and I'll meet you out front..."

Knock Out found Ratchet outside for once, standing at the end of the runway gazing up into the sky. It took him a moment and a careful refocusing of his optics, but finally he saw what he thought the older medic was looking at - Starstream and Soundwave, spiralling around each other as they flew.
     Ratchet's field shimmered with an odd mix of emotions, among them appreciation, longing and regret. It was very strange, and not at all what he had come to associate with the irascible doctor...
     Then he remembered that Starscream was Nova's co-creator. He and Ratchet must have been very close at one point for that to have happened. He laid a servo gently on Ratchet's shoulder armour.
     ::If you ever want to talk about it, I promise I will listen and keep anything you tell me confidential. I'll even try to keep the sarcasm to a minimum::
     Ratchet snorted. ::I'll believe that when I see it!::
     Knock Out chuckled, then sobered. ::I mean it though::
     Ratchet's helm swivelled and the medic peered at him suspiciously. ::Blackmail material is no use any more::
     Knock Out smirked. ::Suspicious, doctor?::
     ::With you, always::
     ::Oh come now. I'm trying to behave::
     ::And mostly doing a good job:: Ratchet paused, then vented a sigh. ::Very well. If I ever feel like talking about it you'll be my first choice of confessor::
     ::Thank you. I'd be honoured:: He hesitated, then, genuinely curious, tentatively asked, ::What was he like, back then?::
     Ratchet turned to him, optics narrowed, but the Aston Martin's field was free of anything nefarious. He smiled, a little sadly.
     ::He was beautiful. Strong, confident, dedicated, skilled, driven... he had to be the best at everything he tried::
     ::He made you feel... small?::
     ::No. There was a sort of equality between us... I was the best in my field, he in his, which gave us common ground even though those fields were wildly divergent. We were friends, and we respected each other:: He glanced back up into the sky, where the Seeker and the comms expert were now flying more sedately side-by-side, then half-smiled at Knock Out. ::You ever have anyone special?::
     ::No. A fact I regret, but what can I say? Megatron. Decepticons. Blackmail. Not to mention it would give others far too much power over me. Safer not to risk it::
     ::And now?::
     Knock Out's field was suddenly overlaid with wistfulness. ::I don't know. I see how close you all are, here, and realise how much I'm missing. But it's too soon. I need to assimilate fully first::
     Ratchet gently patted his shoulder. ::Sensible. Give it time::
     Knock Out's smile was grateful. ::Thank you::
     They were both silent for a few minutes, watching as the two flyers circled lazily lower and lower, until they transformed and landed half way down the runway. Ratchet gestured to the pair.
     "Time to run some diagnostics. I'm still not completely happy with Soundwave's operational parameters. We can do better."
     Knock Out nodded: the moment of near-intimacy was over. Back to work. "I'm sure he's still experiencing pain, too, though he's being as stoic as ever about it. I'll try to nag him into confessing."
     Ratchet chuckled. It was surprisingly pleasant having Knock Out on their team...

Phil stared, eyes widening. "Wow. You have legs!"
     Poppy glanced down at herself. Just for once she'd opted to wear a skirt, a swirling affair of soft black velvet that came to just below the knee, and black court shoes with a two inch heel, the outfit topped with the tunic her Cybertronians had given her for Yule. She looked back up at Phil and laughed.
     "I'm glad you're here to tell me these things!"
     He swallowed. "You look... wonderful. Beautiful."
     She stared at him, lips parted, for a moment - then blushed.
     "Thank you. You're not so bad yourself..."
     The ensuing silence could have been awkward, but Phil shook himself and grinned, and handed her a small package. Well, a brown paper bag with the top sealed with Sellotape. Raising an eyebrow she took the bag and opened it - and giggled. (Phil felt his heart skip. It had been a long time since he'd heard that. He'd always loved her giggle.) Pulling out the 'Beat 'plushie', she beamed at the officer.
     "Where on earth did you get him?"
     Phil grinned. "Toy shop in Southampton. Someone has made a series of them - Prime, Ratchet, Ironhide, Prowl, Blue, Stronghold - and 'Beat. Shop said there were more on the way too."
     "I didn't know anything about this." She frowned momentarily. "I hope they got the correct licences first. I'd better have Beverley speak to Sanders..." She grinned down at the little 'Beat. Whoever had designed him had managed to make him look doleful and cute at the same time. "It can wait. He's gorgeous. Thank you!"
     "You're welcome." He glanced at his watch and frowned. "We ought to get moving. Don't want to be late."
     She propped mini-'Beat on her usual armchair and grabbed her wrap and shoulder bag. "Then we'd better make tracks..."

The smoked salmon with shallots, pomegranate and coriander had been delicious, and the lamb was mouth-wateringly appetising. Poppy sipped her Shiraz between mouthfuls and smiled happily at Phil.
     "This is lovely. The place, and the food." She paused for a moment, then gently clinked her glass against his. "And the company."
     He smiled back warmly. "Oh yes. We must do this again. Regularly, perhaps."
     She tilted her head, then nodded slowly. Her voice was soft and a little deeper than usual. "I'd like that."
     They gazed at each other for a moment, then Poppy blushed and lowered her gaze, taking another bite of lamb. Content, for the moment, with the unspoken promise - and not wanting to pressure either of them - Phil sipped his wine and took another mouthful of his roast pork. Poppy put down her fork, and smiled at him.
     "So, lieutenant, what made you join the army?"
     He took another sip and shrugged. "Military family all the way back to my great-grandfather. I never really considered doing anything else."
     "Oh. But you're happy with the decision?"
     "Yep." He nodded decisively. "It suits me - and these last few years have been the best I've ever had."
     She chuckled. "I've rather enjoyed them too."
     "I'm glad." He hesitated for a second. "I wondered - Matthew commented that you were never fazed by any of us. Military types, I mean. I mean, we're used to people either being aggressive or wary. It's not often we're just... accepted..."
     She smiled. "My father was a Sergeant in the army. We moved around a fair bit when I was little, and I suppose I got used to 'army life'."
     "That would explain it."
     "Mm. At any rate, it never scared me." She eyed him, sensing his unspoken question. "Dad was killed in the Gulf War when I was eight."
     Phil took her hand, squeezing her fingers gently, without realising it. "I'm so sorry."
     She nodded sadly. "So was I. Mum was devastated. Took us both ages to come to terms. Dad was... brilliant." She half-chuckled. "Loved science fiction, absolutely adored it, and swept me along with his enthusiasm. We saw all the classics - including a whole load I should probably never have watched at such a young age! 's probably why I found it so easy to accept our visitors. I sort of grew up with them."
     "You didn't do... girly stuff?"
     She frowned pensively. "Not really. Never really interested in it." She rolled her eyes. "Made it a bit tricky at school. All the other girls wanted to talk about dolls, or, later, clothes and boyfriends, and I'd rather discuss the latest sci-fi blockbuster. I ended up going to the cinema by myself a lot when I was a teenager."
     "Made you pretty independent though, it seems."
     She chuckled briefly. "There is that. How about you?"
     "Like you, moved around a lot. Did some sport, but I was never really that competitive on the playing field. Took me a long time and a lot of effort to learn to be a team player. I'd still rather work by myself or in a small group. Mum was sweet but a bit on the dim side, dad was... distant. Major Collier. Expected the family to run like one of his units. I'm not ashamed to admit I was glad to leave home."
     "You still in touch?"
     He shook his head. "Not really. Dad suffered a stroke in his late fifties. Mum looks after him. I hardly ever see them, though I try to ring once a month. They seem fine with it. My sister visits them every couple of weeks."
     "Christine. We were never close. Exchange birthday cards, speak on the phone if she's there when I ring the old uns, but that's about it. You?"
     "Only child. Mum moved to the States once I left home. I ring her every fortnight, and she rings me if she has anything interesting she wants to share. We're friends, but I was closer to my dad."
     Phil half-grinned. "Families. Who'd have 'em, eh?"
     Poppy giggled then forked up the last of her meal. Phil followed suit, and moments later the waiter arrived to take their order for dessert. As she left, Phil sat back comfortably in his chair and eyed his companion appraisingly.
     "Have you thought about the future much?"
     "Not in any great detail. I assume I'll carry on as Consul for a while, at least. Hopefully for a very long while. I love what I'm doing, and being part of this world - it's exciting. My absolute top dream job." She inclined her head. "Why do you ask?"
     He hesitated. Was it too soon? Say it and be damned...
     "Because I want to stay with you. Share this life with you."
     There. Suitably ambiguous. But he could feel his hands going cold and stiff with nervous tension as he waited for her response.
     She gazed at him for a long moment, expression neutral. Then she smiled and took his hand.
     "I would like that."
     He ate dessert in a daze, and Blue played romantic music - quietly - all the way back as the humans, unconsciously half-turned towards each other, shared memories of favourite holidays and happy events. They didn't even notice Stronghold, Matthew grinning happily in the driver's seat, following them home.

In the depths of the steelworks, Zender leaned towards the screen, Black peering over his shoulder. Newman, his hand shaking slightly, pointed out the tendrils flickering outwards from the central spark floating within the electromagnetic field above the solid table.
     "We're still working on it, but I believe we can craft these into connections for peripheral devices. Now we know how to keep the spark... alive, we can use it as an almost limitless power source."
     "Excellent work. Expect extra remuneration this month."
     Newman smiled hesitantly as Zender switched the mic off and turned to Black.
     "Imagine if we could harness all their sparks. Infinite energy, infinite power."
     Black nodded, although he looked less happy about the idea.
     "I think they might object."
     Zneder chuckled. "Oh, no doubt. But with what we're learning from that little thing - and the anti-alien sentiment we're slowly stirring up across the globe - I think it may be feasible, given a little time. They aren't invincible. Let's bring Walker in, he has first hand experience with the creatures."
     Down in the lab the little transformer's spark was screaming, begging for termination to end its pain. No-one there was equipped to hear it, and wouldn't have cared if they could.

© JAT 05.04.13

Part 9 - Consternations

Ratchet tutted quietly and frowned at his sparkling: Nova had been squirming and scratching at his plating intermittently for a couple of hours now.
     ::What's the matter, bitlet?::
     ::I'm... itchy. And uncomfortable. My plating feels too tight::
     Ratchet laid down the laser scalpel he'd been using to pare away micro-slivers of cybertronium to use as patches for minor injuries and focussed on the youngster.
     ::How long have you felt like that?::
     ::Couple of days now. It's very irritating::
     ::Hm:: Ratchet gestured towards a med berth and the scanner that stood beside it. ::We'd better take a look...::
     It didn't take the medic long to work out what the problem was - Nova's protoform had grown and he no longer fitted his frame. It was time for an upgrade, and quickly. The discomfort was only going to get worse. Patting his hatchling sympathetically on the shoulder, Ratchet headed off in search of the Prime.

"You feel that you and Knock Out would not be able to handle the upgrade yourselves?"
     Ratchet hesitated, then shook his helm. "If it was anyone but Nova, I'd say yes. But... my own hatchling... I'd prefer Sparkspinner to be here."
     "Then I shall contact Poppy and see what can be arranged."
     "Thank you, Optimus."
     "Do you want to wait while I see if she's available?"
     "No, that's fine. I need to get back to the lab."
     "Very well."
     As Ratchet left, Optimus turned to the monitor wall. Two p.m. on Diego Garcia - it would be nine a.m. at Iacon House. Poppy had probably been at her desk for an hour already.
     Chatter eagerly put through the call...

'Spin hadn't been exactly pleased to hear the news, but resignedly agreed to travel over to help with the design and construction of Nova's new frame. Well, expansion of the old one anyway, Poppy had only half followed 'Spin's explanation of what would be required: she was debating with herself whether she could be spared and go over with him. It was so tempting. Bad memories of the abduction aside, she loved the island, and the warmth would be good for Phil. And Matthew. They were now both fully recovered, but a brief spell of tropical heat wouldn't do any harm.
     Beverley had been watching her, smiling.
     "I can handle things here. You should go."
     Poppy frowned at her. "You can read minds now?"
     The PA laughed. "Your face is very expressive when you aren't being 'official'."
     Poppy chuckled. "I shall have to do something about that... are you sure? I know we're fairly quiet at the moment..."
     Beverley flapped a hand at her. "Go pack. I'll comm the boys."
     Ten minutes later Blue, 'Beat and Stronghold, their respective humans behind the wheels and 'Spin in the back of the Defender, were speeding towards Brize Norton where Skylynx 1, their new consulate aircraft, was being readied for flight.

The sun was still high as they stepped out into the heat of Diego Garcia, and Poppy sighed happily. Wavefront was waiting to greet her - carefully, he had grown since she'd last seen him and now towered over her - along with Ratchet and the Prime, and an elegant red Cybertronian she recognised as Knock Out.
     "Hello everyone! It's good to see you all again."
     The Prime inclined his helm and smiled.
     "It is good to see you too Poppy - and the Lieutenant and the Wing Commander. We are relieved that you have fully recovered from your ordeal."
     Both officers saluted respectfully as Wavefront, with 'Beat watching anxiously, gently lifted Poppy up to sit on his shoulder. Matthew grinned up at the Prime.
     "Thank you, sir. And you have our thanks, too, for the rescue."
     "We do not leave our own behind - not any more." He gestured to Ratchet and Knock Out. "I will leave you with our medics, who will advise you as to what is to happen over the next few hours. Please, make yourselves at home. We have prepared the usual accommodations for you."
     That meant the hooches on the beach. Poppy grinned happily.
     "Thank you, sir."
     The Prime nodded and turned to head back to his office. Poppy patted Wavefront's face. "It's wonderful to see you, but could you put me down now?"
     The youngster gave an electronic chuckle and carefully set her back down.
     "It's good to see you too, Poppy. Perhaps we can talk before you go back?"
     "I'll certainly make time. Say hello to your carrier for me?"
     "Of course."
     Ratchet harrumphed. "Could we get started? I don't want Nova to suffer any longer than he needs to."
     "Oh! Of course. I'm sorry." Poppy ushered 'Spin forward then turned to the officers. "We should leave them to it. Let's get settled."

As the three guardians transformed back into alt mode and drove their respective humans to their temporary living quarters, Ratchet, followed by Knock Out, ushered 'Spin into the Lair. Rather to the others' surprise he activated the locking mechanisms. Knock Out raised a browplate.
     "Something you're trying to hide, Doctor?"
     The medic remained silent until they had reached the lab, where Nova was waiting, then turned to address them all.
     ::I need your sworn word that what I am about to show you - and suggest - remain a secret, at least until or unless it proves a success::
     Puzzled but trusting the doctor, 'Spin nodded. ::You have it::
     Ratchet regarded Knock Out, optics narrowed. The ex-Con exvented. ::Very well. You have my sworn word::
     Ratchet beckoned them to follow him as he turned and headed for the door that led further into his complex. Unlocking it, he strode forwards. They all followed, Nova included.
     Another, heavy door led into the inner lab. Stacked on heavy duty shelves along three walls were... pieces. Metal pieces, arms and legs and servos, parts of terminated Cybertronians, fortunately unrecognisable in their disassembled state. But Ratchet's focus was on the third wall, and the heavily protected containment unit set into it. Entering the complex code that opened the door, he stepped aside to let them look.
     A spark chamber, with a spark pulsing weakly but steadily within it, was hooked up to all manner of feeds and monitors. Knock Out frowned at the medic.
     ::What... who is it?::
     Ratchet gazed at them. ::His designation is Jazz::

'Spin stared.
     "But... I thought Jath wath terminated. By Megatron. Early in the war here."
     "He was. But his spark survived. In all the confusion at the end of that battle I was able to rescue his spark chamber and lock him in stasis." He gestured at the somewhat grisly supplies around them. "And I now have enough material to rebuild him. I've made a start, but I need help." He gazed down at 'Spin. ::Will you help, Sparkspinner?::
     'Spin nodded. ::Of course. Though I'm not promising anything::
     ::I wouldn't ask it. Just that we make the attempt. Jazz was... is... a fine officer and a good friend. But we'll attend to the living first, and get Nova's new frame constructed::
     "No time like the present." Knock Out grinned. "Shall we choose what we need and make a start?"
     Ratchet looked at Nova, who was wriggling and scratching. ::That all right with you, bitlet?::
     ::Oh yes please, creator. This itching is horrible::
     "Sparkspinner, could you get Nova settled in the main lab while we gather materials?"
     'Spin nodded and ushered the youngster back through. Knock Out turned to Ratchet and shrugged.
     "OK. What do we need?"

Nova's upgrade was carried out with speed and meticulous care. He'd decided on a Vauxhall Zafira as his alt mode, at least for the moment - large enough to handle his new bulk and size, and speedy: they were often used as rapid response vehicles in the UK, which appealed to him. Ratchet had medically overridden his pain receptors as he'd insisted on being online for the procedure, much against his creator's wishes, but the doctor had learned there really was no point in arguing with his creation...
     And actually it did make the operation smoother, as he was able to turn and move himself instead of having to be positioned by the medics. Little by little his current frame was enlarged and expanded, the additional material laser welded invisibly to the original metal. 'Spin monitored closely, especially when it came to enlarging his spark chamber, but all went well and after twelve and half hours the young medic was a good five foot taller and considerably bulkier. It would take a little while for him to grow accustomed to the new frame, but at least that damnable itching had stopped!
     He thanked his creator and Knock Out and immediately asked what he could do to help with Jazz's reconstruction. Ratchet slapped his helm - gently - and told him he was to rest and recharge for a further twelve hours to ensure the upgrade was operating correctly.
     This once, he didn't argue...

::How long do you estimate the build will take?::
     Ratchet inclined his head, regarding 'Spin intently. ::Ah. Of course. Ms Moss will be expecting you to travel back with her... I'll use checks and possible upgrades on the Seeker hatchlings as an excuse to have you stay. The rebuild will take about two weeks, but I'd say that once the spark chamber is installed and you're happy with the connections, we can finish up the rest without you. So... say... a week?::
     'Spin nodded. ::I can be spared for that long. But it rankles, not being able to tell Poppy::
     ::I know - but just think of the spark-ache if everyone knows and we fail...::

"So we have a week?" Phil grinned. "Unexpected but much appreciated."
     Poppy grinned and stretched out on her towel, resting her head on her crossed forearms. Thinking they only had a day or two, they'd all taken advantage of the lagoon and gone swimming, then settled down to soak up the sun. 'Beat had brought the news of the delay, and at the same time reassured Poppy that he'd contacted Beverley and she was fine with it.
     "Mm. The break will do us all good."
     Matthew grinned at Phil over Poppy's back and tossed him a bottle of sun tan spray, nodding at the reclining woman. Phil raised a sardonic eyebrow and stuck out his tongue in a 'yes, thanks, I don't need your help' sort of way, then smiled down at Poppy - who, perhaps fortunately, had her eyes closed and was oblivious to the exchange.
     "Shall I do your back?"
     Poppy opened one eye and smiled up at him.
     "Mmmm yes please."
     Matthew licked his forefinger, smirked, and made a 'one' gesture in the air. Phil glowered at him and mouthed a silent "fuck off", at which the Wing Commander grinned widely and lay down on his back to enjoy the evening sun. Phil turned his attention to Poppy, spraying the lotion over her back. She had a cute little... constellation of tiny freckles just below her left shoulderblade, and he had the sudden almost irresistible urge to kiss it...
     He shook himself and moved the spray to the backs of her legs, but not before he caught Matthew smirking broadly at him.
     He made a mental note to have words with his fellow officer later. And also to make sure they never went on holiday together...

Beverley looked worried. The reports from Hydrax House, Port Said, weren't good.
     "Do we have any idea who's behind this?"
     Kanya shook her head. "We believe it is a fundamentalist group, again. It is an absolute tissue of lies, but the people here are believing it. We may have to be moved."
     "We can provide extra security..."
     "That will not help. The fools will believe it to be part of the 'plot'."
     "If they are seen, you will hear the shrieks of 'White Oppressors!' all the way to Iacon House."
     No one could pin down who had started the rumours, but whoever it was had known what they were doing. The alien 'visitors' had their eyes on the whole planet, wanted to take over and make the human population their slaves. Standard twentieth century conspiracy theory: Beverley couldn't believe that, in this day and age and after all the benefits the Cybertronians had brought to the planet, anyone could actually believe such bilge. She supposed it fed into human fears of losing autonomy - not that the vast bulk of the world's population had much in the first place, but those with minimal power desperately feared losing what little they had. What was it that film had said? "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals..."
     She should contact Poppy... but her boss worked so hard and took so little time off... She eyed Kanya sombrely.
     "What do you want to do?"
     "For now, we will wait and watch. And ensure Skylynx 3 is made ready, just in case."
     "Shall I alert Ms Moss?"
     "No, I do not think that will be necessary. We have advised the General: he has told us he will have 'troops' available at short notice, should they be needed." The elegant, solemn Consul offered a half-smile. "We will be fine. Sunrise will keep Ramp constantly appraised of the situation."
     The Hydrax House counterpart of Ramp and Chatter was absolutely paranoid about security, Beverley knew. She had to assume 'Sunrise' meant something different in Cybertronian, because it most certainly didn't describe the transformer's nature. On the other hand he was the perfect choice for such a dangerous part of the world. The PA nodded.
     "We'll monitor things from here, too. Take care."
     As the screen blanked, Beverley organised a teleconference with her fellow aides around the world. Everyone needed to be apprised of the gravity of the situation.

© JAT 10.06.13

Part 10 - Loss

Starstream was flying with Soundwave, with Wavefront and Windchaser shadowing them from above, out over the ocean. Poppy could just make them out: Phil nudged her and handed her his binoculars. She grinned and thanked him then adjusted the bins and watched the two ex-Cons soaring. It was quite a sight.
     "Soundwave is very elegant, isn't he? I mean, I know a drone alt. mode is a bit controversial, but it looks very good. Think Optimus will introduce him when they land?"
     Matthew humphed. "I don't know. I don't know if he's fully trusted yet. But you could try asking."
     Phil leaned back, resting on his hands: all three had climbed up to Starstream's nest to watch, and to talk to the Seekers when they returned. "Soundwave doesn't speak, from what I've heard. He communicates through recorded sound files - a bit like Bumblebee uses radio clips." He shrugged. "Whether it's because he can't speak - Knock Out had to rebuild what was left of him after Chicago, maybe his vocaliser couldn't be salvaged - or because he chooses not to no-one will say."
     "Mm. I'd still like to speak to him, if it's allowed." Poppy lowered the binoculars and gazed at the two officers. "He's fascinating."
     Phil chuckled. "You think they're all fascinating."
     Poppy nodded, perfectly serious. "They all are, and I think it's important not to get blasé about them. But there's something about Soundwave. I mean, Ramp showed me the images of what he used to look like, what little footage was taken before Barricade spirited him away after the battle, and how he looks now, and... It's utterly different from what Ratchet accomplished with Starstream. OK, Ratchet had more to work with, but the thought of a car alt. mode Cybertronian being reconstructed into a flyer... It's mind-boggling."
     "And it proves Knock Out is one hell of a medic." Matthew glanced down at Ratchet's Lair. The medics and 'Spin hadn't been glimpsed for days and the lab was inaccessible to everyone. The story had been that while they had 'Spin here, they'd perform checks on all the hatchlings and needed privacy and security to be most effective - but he'd been watching, and hadn't seen any of the young Seekers entering or leaving the Lair...
     Then again, there was more than one entrance. Perhaps they were going in another way. Or at night, when he was elsewhere...
     He shook his head. It wasn't that he didn't trust their allies - he'd known them long enough for that to be a complete non issue - but his innately suspicious mind had a bad habit of kicking in at odd intervals. Sometimes it was a good thing. Probably not right now though.
     He'd still keep an eye out, just in case...

::Ready to go back?:: They'd been flying for two hours now, and Starstream could feel Soundwave's field flagging. The two had reached a wary but potentially highly beneficial acquaintanceship, and Starstream had become quite proprietary when it came to the ex-Con's health.
     ::Affirmative:: Even Soundwave's comm sounded tired. Starstream 'frowned'.
     ::You are not supposed to strain yourself. You know you are not fully recovered yet::
     Ratchet and Knock Out had spent several days correcting the flaws that the Aston Martin hadn't had the tools or resources to fix prior to arriving on Diego Garcia, and Soundwave was now at optimal operational capacity - physically, at any rate. But he still wasn't used to the new frame, and found it very tiring to fly. Yet he enjoyed the activity very much, and pushed himself, which worried Starstream...
     ::Need to recover with all speed. I am fine::
     Starstream vented quietly to himself, but he'd already discovered how stubborn the drone could be.
     ::Very well. But we should return now::
     ::Agreed:: And Soundwave pulled into a slow graceful barrel roll, immediately copied by the other three flyers, and came in for a smooth landing on the main runway.
     He transformed as he landed, as did Starstream: the hatchlings peeled off to execute some high level exercises further out over the ocean. It was becoming apparent that both of them were going to end up as small starcraft, and Skyfire had begun to involve himself in their training.
     Optimus had said yes. Poppy and the officers rose to their feet as the two flyers headed for the nest. Starstream caught Soundwave around his thin waist and flew them both up to the roof, landing in the nest. Soundwave had taken to spending a little time there every day - why, no-one was quite sure, the silent mech was a bit of a law unto himself , but it had helped the relationship between him and Starstream to develop, so no-one was complaining. Today it gave the humans a chance to view him close up.
     There was, thought Poppy, a distinct difference between the mechs designed for battle - like Optimus and Ironhide - and those who weren't. While still immensely strong and durable as befitted a metal being, Soundwave, and Knock Out and Starstream, indeed, were smaller, lighter and more delicate. Starstream hunkered down to be closer to the three, while Soundwave hesitated for a few moments, then awkwardly lowered himself to sit beside the Seeker. Poppy gazed up at the blank face-place with considerable awe.
     "Greetings, Soundwave. I'm Poppy Moss, First Consul for Human-Cybertronian relations. It is an honour and a pleasure to meet you."
     No reaction. Unfazed, used to Cybertronian vagaries of temperament and behaviour, Poppy smiled, nodded, and turned to Starstream.
     "Hello Star. How are things with you?"
     The Seeker extended a claw to carefully touch her extended hand. "We are all well, thank you Poppy." His optics flickered to the officers. "I see that you are all well too. I am glad."
     "Thanks. And Wavefront and Windchaser are going to be spacecraft! That's exciting!"
     Starstream inclined his helm. "Yes. Although... it will feel... strange, without them."
     Poppy nodded, then grinned. "Well, you could always have some more!"
     That got a reaction- Soundwave visibly startled and turned to the jet.
     ::You have considered breeding?::
     ::Not really - not yet, at any rate. Though I know the Prime would be happy to start increasing the species, we are not yet settled and safe enough. Poppy is making a human joke::
     ::Statement: the hatchlings are physically yours? You carried them, did not just claim them to give them a surrogate family and a sense of stability?::
     ::No. They're mine::
     He assumed Soundwave was staring. His field registered disbelief, grief and an aching loneliness. And Starstream remembered, from the distant past, that he had once had deployers.
     ::I'm sorry. Are they... do you know where they are?::
     ::Ravage killed by humans. Frenzy killed by humans. Rumble missing. Laserbeak...:: One thin, faintly quivering servo went to his torso, pressing over his spark. ::Autobot scout and Witwicky human killed Laserbeak::
     Starstream stared for a long moment. ::Are you... sure? Nothing was salvageable? Ratchet can work wonders with very little...::
     Soundwave hesitated. He hadn't personally seen the destruction of the little mechs who were more than family to him, only been assured by others of his faction that they had been terminated. But... He knew that Ratchet had been scouring the sites of any and all Cybertronian battles, deaths, or even just sightings, in the hope of retrieving the remnants of fallen mechs. He knew too that that was in part to prevent humans getting their hands on them - look what had happened when they'd had access to Megatron. He knew that Ratchet kept everything he found locked away in his Lair.
     ... It wouldn't hurt to ask, would it.
     The exchange had only taken a couple of seconds, and Starstream smiled down at the human female.
     "We will, of course, bear that in processor for the future. But now, if you don't mind, we need to rest for a while."
     "Oh, of course!" Poppy had been aware of something happening between the two flyers, and an odd little jolt to Soundwave's field that she could just sense, and wished she dared to ask what that was about. Instead she smiled and inclined her head, and wished the two a good day, then accompanied the two officers back down to the ground.
     Phil frowned as they stepped down onto the tarmac.
     "What was that all about?"
     Poppy shrugged. "No idea. And I didn't feel brave enough to ask!" She grinned at the others. "We'll find out if it's relevant. For now, I'm going for another swim. Want to come?"
     Matthew shook his head. "I want to check up on what's happening at NEST HQ. You two go ahead."
     "Want me to come?" Phil frowned at the Wing Commander.
     "No, it's fine. It's not a report, just me feeling out of the loop. I'll catch you later."
     Poppy waved as he strolled away in the direction of the main communications base, then turned to Phil.
     "We don't have much longer, then it's back to England and cold water again."
     The lieutenant sighed. "True. Let's take advantage while we can, then. Want to go snorkelling this time?"
     Poppy laughed and nodded. "Yes, that was fun."
     "Let's go, then. And I'll have Blue get us a picnic for afterwards."
     "That would be great."
     Phil grinned and held out his hand, and this time Poppy took and held it as they walked back to the hooches for their gear.

General Morshower looked harassed, Matthew thought as he saluted the screen. And tired.
     "Problems, sir?"
     "Pretty much the usual - with the added complication that the situation in the Middle East is destabilising."
     When is it ever not? Matthew thought to himself. "Anti-alien propaganda?"
     "What else? It's gaining momentum too. Think we're gonna have to get our people out."
     "Optimus won't like that. There'll be violence and humans will get hurt."
     "I know. But I don't see what else we can do. If we stay, there'll be violence, if we withdraw, there'll still be violence but probably less."
     Matthew nodded, reluctantly. "And the Consulate staff?"
     "We can move them easily enough. Build a new Consulate somewhere a little less dangerous."
     "They won't like that."
     Morshower shrugged. "Can't be helped. They'll get over it."
     Matthew wasn't so sure, but kept his thoughts to himself. "What about the rest?"
     "Europe's quiet - they're pretty sensible. We seem to have most of the conspiracy theory idiots over here, but so far there's no real unrest. Our friends have provided our people with too much of a good life: most of them don't want to upset that applecart. Australia, India and Japan seem to be fine, as far as we can tell, but I'm having the network monitor everything - just in case."
     NEST's own Cybertronian computer hub, Magnus, could be relied on to report absolutely anything of the slightest interest. Dour, pragmatic and wholly dedicated to his function, he wasn't quite as paranoid as Sunrise but it was a close thing.
     Matthew lowered his head for a moment, making a mental note to ask Ramp to keep a closer eye than usual on anything coming from Magnus, then looked back up at the General.
     "Well, at least I have fairly good news from here. It looks as though Soundwave is going to prove a valuable asset. Prime is convinced of his trustworthiness, and he is apparently incredibly skilled in comms and espionage. They're keeping him based on the island, and bringing him online soon. That should help make our situation a little easier."
     "Good. Anything else?"
     "Nothing right now, sir. I'll include anything else in my regular report."
     "Then I'll speak with you then." Morshower offered a curt nod, and closed the connection. Feeling a little easier, Matthew headed off to the mess to get himself a decent cup of tea.

James Zender grinned. It was a malicious grin, boding ill for anyone on the other side of it. He'd just had news of a package coming in from the States, the remains of a mech who'd taken part in the battle in Chicago and been salvaged soon after its resolution by an urban bounty hunter who'd been particularly quick off the mark. The body had been severely damaged, but the spark still pulsed, albeit weakly.
     They would soon change that.

© JAT 16.03.13

Part 11 - Success

James Zender poked at the pile of metals lying on the examination table, then frowned at Newman. "It's a lot smaller than I expected."
     Newman nodded nervously. "Some of them are, sir."
     "I know that. But I'd have thought all the fighting machines were large."
     "This one was for aerial assaults. We think it was used for information gathering too - a bit like an armed aerial remote-access camera. Its small size made it less noticeable." He paused for a second, then pulled at a piece of metal that unfolded into something vaguely resembling a wing, albeit broken and twisted. "Also, we think this one looked like a bird, so it would blend in more easily with its surroundings." He shrugged. "Birds are everywhere, a part of the background. No one really notices them. Well, no-one except twitchers anyway."
     "Hm. But we can still use it?"
     "Oh yes. The spark is intact." He gestured to the... contraption on the large bench against the wall, then sighed. "The processor - its 'brain' - is shot to hell though. Pity. I'd have liked the chance to examine it. I believe there may be fundamental differences between the brains of different types of robot."
     "What about this... transforming ability they have?"
     "We're pretty certain that's controlled by the brain, but there has to be another element to the process. I'm working my way through the parts we harvested from the other one, but haven't found it yet." He scowled. "With my luck it'll be that part of it that was impaled to keep it captive. I wish your hired thugs would learn not to damage them. It would make my work a lot easier."
     Zender patted his back. "I'll see if I can impress that fact upon them. In the meantime, carry on. You're doing well."
     Newman brightened and smiled at the rare compliment. "Yes, sir. You'll have today's report in a few hours."

Wavefront and Windchaser were on extended training with Skyfire and Starflare, somewhere out beyond the asteroid belt, and after much asking and considerable training Starwind had been allowed to join Sideswipe and Sunstreaker (and Barricade, who'd been declared fit for duty as long as the twins kept an optic on him) in the states, serving under Ironhide. He'd remained small, and taken on an alt mode that resembled a slimmer, sleeker BD-5J microjet, although, of course, with superior agility and efficiency. Ironhide had been pleased to finally have aerial support and was currently engaged in putting the little jet through a wide range of combat simulations. Ratchet had mentioned, with quiet pride, that his sparkling was doing extremely well.
     All of them were, in fact. Nova was studying psychology, wolfing down the courses at a rate pretty fast even for a Cybertronian, and had been badgering Optimus for anything, no matter how fragmentary, that he could remember about Cybertronian psychology from his time as a Librarian. It wasn't much, unfortunately, but the Prime thought that Prowl might be able to add to the young one's store of knowledge. He was familiar with interrogation techniques: perhaps Nova could... reverse-engineer mental processes from knowing what worked to break them?
     Once the initial horror had worn off Nova had said yes, he could see how that would work, and could he please go back to Iacon House with Poppy and Phil and the Wing Commander to interview Prowl for a day or so.
     Ratchet had vented a sigh, rubbed his optics, and of course said yes, as long as everyone else was in agreement.
     Even shy little Cloudrunner seemed to have found his niche: he'd been fascinated by Soundwave, watched the comms expert from a distance since he'd arrived, and was beginning to shadow him while he slowly integrated into the Cybertronian community on the island. He'd even chosen a drone alt mode for himself, an AAI RQ-7A Shadow with retractable undercarriage - small, but of all of the sparklings it looked as though he was never going to reach anything like the size of his siblings. And while Soundwave was hardly the most approachable of beings, he was gradually showing an interest in his young admirer.
     Optimus hoped that the littlest Seeker would turn out to be a comms expert too. With Soundwave's tutoring - although that was still a way off - it was a distinct possibility. The fact that Cloudrunner would also help make up for the loss of the drone's own 'family', his lost deployers, could work out to everyone's advantage...
     So all in all, things were working out in surprising but satisfactory ways. It gave the Prime a lot of hope for the future.

Starstream was less sanguine about it all. He was perched, birdlike and brooding, at the edge of the 'nest' - now less of a nest and more a rooftop Seeker base of operations with its own comms access - when Poppy hauled herself over the edge and onto the hanger roof. The jet glanced in her direction and beckoned her closer: she strode the yards to his side and seated herself in the shadow of his leg to be out of the full force of the sun.
     "Are you OK, Star?"
     The Seeker was silent for a moment, then vented a sigh.
     "I... not really... I should feel very proud. And I do, truly. But... They are my sparklings, and they are all leaving. I've had no time with them. I should have had centuries, caring for them, teaching them..."
     He fell silent, and Poppy sympathetically patted his leg. It wasn't something she fully understood herself, never having had any maternal urges, but she knew from her female friends that, for humans at least, there was something very viscerally satisfying about the bond between mother and child.
     It sounded as though there was something similar for Cybertronians as well.
     "But you'll still have contact with them all, won't you? It's not like they're gone for good."
     "Yes, but..." He twisted to gaze down at her. "It's... difficult. I know it's partly because they are familiar, and I have very little left in my processor that's familiar. Very little that's pleasant, anyway. And although I'm making new memories - and new friends and colleagues - there is still a vast emptiness in my... mind. It's frightening. Up until now I have had so much to focus on that I've been able to ignore it, but now..." He made an odd clicking, chirring sound. "That sounds very selfish. I don't mean it to."
     Poppy shook her head. "No, it's OK, I understand. It's not selfish at all. It happens to humans too." She hesitated. "But would you really want those memories back? To fill the hole?" From little things she'd picked up from the others his past had been, in the main, thoroughly wretched. And painful.
     Starstream shook his helm. "I can remember enough to know that I do not want to remember any more. And hence I am caught between... how is it you phrase it? The devil and the deep blue sea? A rock and a hard place?"
     Poppy nodded. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't... I'm sorry, Star. Will you be OK?"
     "Yes." No hesitation or indecisiveness there. "I have a purpose, and work to do. Friends and family. I will be fine."
     Poppy chuckled. "And you can always have more sparklings, later."
     "I think that's great."
     "It's certainly encouraging. The thought that we might be it - the last generation of Cybertronians... facing extinction was not a happy concept."
     "Well, I'm very happy about it. You have a future. Admittedly I won't live to see much of it, but that's not so bad."
     "Yes, I remember how short-lived humans are. I am sorry."
     Poppy laid a hand on his anklejoint. "It's just one of those things. Just means we have to make meaning in our lives that much faster!"
     "You are remarkably calm about it."
     "Unless Ratchet can come up with some way to make me immortal, I've no choice. And I for one would much rather make the most of what time I have than waste it pining after things I can't have."
     Huge blue optics gazed down at her. "Your species is so admirable in so many ways. You in particular."
     "Thank you." She grinned up at him. "So are you. I feel so privileged to know you all, to be part of..." She waved a hand, indicating the island, the Cybertronians, and the universe in general. "... all this."
     "The feeling is mutual." His helm tilted to one side. "The two officers are out of their meeting now and looking for you."
     Poppy sighed. "I'd better go." Pulling herself to her feet, she smiled up at the Seeker. "It's always a pleasure talking to you, Starstream. Thank you for your friendship."
     The big eyes flickered for a moment, in surprise, she thought, then the jet stood upright, carefully picked her up, and took off, flying slowly in root mode the short distance to the large building that housed the island's HQ. Landing smoothly he lowered her down to the ground in front of Phil and Matthew, who waved up at him.
     Poppy laughed delightedly. "Thank you - that was wonderful!"
     The Seeker's mouthplates moved in his equivalent of a smile before he took off again, hovering for a moment. "You are welcome. Have a good afternoon."
     Phil watched enviously as he flew back to the nest, then turned to Poppy. "You have any idea how much I'd like to do that?" He sighed, then grinned. "Eh well. Maybe one day. What do you fancy doing this afternoon?"
     Poppy glanced at Matthew, who had a faint frown on his face. "Perhaps we should grab a picnic, head to the lagoon, and you can both tell me what the general had to say."
     "Yes, I think that would be a good idea." Phil had sobered. "The news from the Middle East is worse. The embassy was attacked. Oh, no-one was hurt," he raised his hands as Poppy's eyes widened in alarm and she opened her mouth to speak. "NEST got everyone out two days in advance, and made sure there was nothing left of any use to anyone."
     "Abla and Kanya are all right?"
     "They're fine. They and the rest of the staff are at a NEST holding centre on Cyprus for the time being."
     Poppy nodded. "That's something... Right. We'll skip the beach. We can talk in the mess. I need to know everything."

In Ratchet's Lair things were going well. Between them, he and Knock Out, with Wheeljack helping out with fashioning the frame and Sparkspinner working on the new spark chamber and the intricate system that would connect it to the rest of the internals, already had the basic protoform assembled and partially functional. Ratchet was now reconstructing the helm, trying to make it look as much like Jazz's last configuration as possible. The espionage expert's visor had survived unbroken, and his processor was slowly coming out of the enforced full-stasis the medic had kept it in since his retrieval. All the signs were good, and Ratchet was allowing himself to hope for a full recovery.
     It would be very good to have their friend back. His wise-cracking banter, love of music and generally fun-loving, optimistic outlook had been greatly missed.
     Knock Out knew nothing about him, of course, except by reputation, and that only as slanted by Decepticon propaganda.
     "Is he really as... pleasant as you seem to imply?"
     Ratchet stared at the Aston Martin, engine grumbling. "To his own side, yes. To others, too, when it helped his mission. Jazz was - is - a... complicated mech. You're probably going to hate each other."
     Knock Out raised a brow-ridge. "Well thank you. That makes me feel so much better."
     Ratchet waved a servo dismissively. "You'll manage. Just remember he was, and probably will be, Prime's third in command after Prowl. Mind your manners and you'll be fine."
     The Aston Martin grumbled quietly then ex-vented a resigned sigh. "Very well." He glanced down at the form on the operation table, where 'Spin was checking connections. "When do you estimate I can look forward to meeting this exemplary mech?"
     "Once we've installed the processor I plan to keep him in partial stasis for another week to allow his own nanites to repair and reconstruct his neural pathways. After that... well, we'll have to see. I'd estimate another two weeks."
     'Spin glanced over his shoulder, fully aware of the conversation that had been going on behind him.
     "Do you want me to thtay 'til then?"
     "I don't think that will be necessary, as long as you're happy with how things are going and your part of the reconstruction is complete. I know you're eager to get back to England."
     "I can travel back at thpeed if I'm needed. But there'th not too much I can do onthe the thpark ith operational. Anything elthe ith not my area of expertithe."
     Ratchet nodded. "Your help has been invaluable. And it's good to know we can call on you if you're needed."
     The small Cybertronian shrugged. "Any time, doctor. Now, I need to make the final connectionth. Can you thtand by to take the thpark off thupport?"
     The two medics moved smoothly to stand by their monitors as 'Spin, digits transformed into minute specialised tools, bent over the open spark cavity and began the intricate, delicate procedure.
     Ten minutes later, spark-support offline, Ratchet ex-vented with relief as the spark pulsed, strong and steady, by itself. He turned to Knock Out and 'Spin and smiled.
     "Well done. Thank you, both of you. We'll take a break now."
     As Knock Out headed for the energon dispenser in the main lab, Ratchet laid a servo on 'Spin's shoulder.
     "I appreciate your being here. I know it's an inconvenience, but there's no one else with your skills."
     'Spin grinned. "I know. It'th my duty to help. And it'th a way of getting Poppy to retht, tho I'm not that bothered. Though if you're now thatithfied, I'll let Poppy know we can go home tomorrow."
     "That would be fine. Please don't tell anyone about Jazz until I let you know he's fully operational and revived."
     "Of courthe..."

© JAT 05.07.13

Part 12 - Echoes

"Welcome to Iacon House." Poppy gestured to the massive front door and grinned at Nova. "Please, come in."
     Prowl was standing in the foyer, demeanour as stiff and formal as ever. He extended a servo and beckoned the Zaphira closer.
     ::Greetings. I understand you wish to study interrogation methods::
     ::Yes sir. If it's not too much trouble::
     ::Why do you want to study them?::
     ::I need to know what will break a mind, so I can learn how to fix it::
     Prowl stared, optics flickering momentarily, then nodded. ::Your request is logical, in the absence of any other procedure. I am prepared to allocate the necessary time, on condition the Prime and Ms Moss are in agreement::
     ::They are, sir::
     Prowl confirmed the assertion, then turned to Poppy.
     "Do I have your authority for sufficient downtime to tutor Nova?"
     "Of course." Poppy smiled. "I understand that your version of our psychiatrists were rare and very valuable, and there are none left alive. I think it's wonderful that Nova wants to go into the field. If there's anything we can do to help, just let me know."
     Prowl hesitated, then glanced at Bluestreak. The Spyder visibly tensed, optics flickering to Phil, and Prowl raised a servo.
     ::I will not ask it of you if it causes distress::
     Blue was silent for a while, then relaxed minutely. "If... if it will help Nova... And maybe it will help me too."
     Phil laid a hand on his arm. "You don't have to, Blue."
     The Spyder half-smiled. "I know. But the memories still trouble me. It may be a way to help purge them, and still get some benefit from the experience."
     "If you're sure..."
     Prowl interrupted. "Both Nova and I will monitor him very closely. If any of us are concerned, we will stop."
     "In that case..." Phil frowned up as his partner. "You'll say if it gets too much?"
     "I will. You have my word."
     "OK then." Phil watched the three Cybertronians walk towards their wing of the house, then turned to Poppy. "Think they'll be OK?"
     Poppy smiled. "Of course. They do know what they're doing."
     He nodded, then glanced at Matthew. "We really need to check the current situation. Can we set up a conference with Lennox and Epps - and the general if he's available?"
     "I'll get right on it. Be useful to have Prime and Ironhide in on it too."
     Poppy raised a hand. "Can I be there?"
     Matthew hesitated, then shook his head. "NEST classified at this point. We'll report back to you though, let you know the salient points."
     She nodded. "Fair enough. I'll see you later, then. I'd better see what Beverley has been up to."

Beverley had been running the Consulate with her usual consummate skill. In the short time Poppy had been gone three new tutors had joined the staff - Sliderule, who, despite his name, specialised in the application of quantum uncertainty, Reagent the chemist, and Retort, the analytical cosmologist. It increased the range of subjects they could teach substantially, and eased the pressure on their current Cybertronian staff - and given the waiting list to attend classes here was now six months long, they really needed the help. The new arrivals were in orientation with Vault and Sinewave at the moment: she'd set up a meeting so Poppy could greet them later.
     The situation in the Middle East was less happy. Hydrax House had been ransacked and bombed, the shell daubed with inflammatory anti-Cybertronian slogans. All the staff had been evacuated and everything of value removed well before any action had been taken, of course, but it was still a political and tactical disaster. Beverley had done a little research as to a new location for the Consulate, but much of Africa was simply unsafe, and the oil-producing countries wanted nothing to do with anything Cybertronian, since the alien technology threatened their interests.
     Though Madagascar was a possibility. Beverley had set a feasibility study in motion.
     More worrying still were the rumbles of discontent reaching them from other parts of the world. The political landscape was undergoing major changes in Russia, with several organisation using anti-alien sentiment to appeal to their supporters. It was horrifying, Beverley commented to Poppy, how gullible and easily led huge swathes of the human population could be. A moment's rational thought was all it would take to show how beneficial the Cybertronians had been to the world, but most people would rather stick with their own imagined conspiracies...

Newman glared at the pile of metal as if his irritation could bring it back to life. There was a glimmer - faint and stuttering - in the chamber which usually held the creatures' sparks, but nothing he had done so far had improved it. In desperation he'd even tried attaching the weak spark to the far brighter one held in the electro-magnetic field to see if that would 'jump-start' it, to no avail.
     Perhaps it needed a 'brain' as well as a spark to maintain its functioning? But that wouldn't explain why the first one - Zender had dubbed it S1 - was strong and powerful. They'd taken the immensely complex device that served as the robot's brain apart, stripped it right down to the nano layer: it was most thoroughly non-functional now. Completely dead.
     Perhaps the new one - S2 - was simply too badly damaged to be of any use...
     Newman didn't want to accept that. Over and above his own not wanting to be beaten by an inanimate object, there was the fact that Zender wouldn't be happy with such a verdict.
     He had no intention of angering Zender. He took several deep breaths and turned back to the table. Perhaps an even higher dose of electricity might shock S2 back to life? It was worth a try...

Ratchet pushed himself upright, venting a satisfied sigh. He and Knock Out had finished Jazz's rebuild to the best of their ability, and the result was looking good. They wouldn't know if they'd completely succeeded until he was brought back online, which wouldn't be for another week. In the meantime, he'd stay in medically-induced stasis while all his systems re-integrated.
     One more week. Ratchet had been strongly tempted to hurry things up - it was becoming harder and harder to keep the secret, and Prime was already suspicious - but that week was crucial to give the espionage expert the best possible chance of recovery.
     Ratchet powered down the non-essentials and left his inner lab, securing the entrance, and turned to see Soundwave hovering at the door to the main lab. He inclined his helm.
     ::You wanted to see me?::
     The ex-Con hesitated, then nodded.
     ::Query - have any parts of Laserbeak been recovered?::
     ::Not by me. Why?::
     ::I have felt... a pulse. Less than a spark-comm, but more than a residual echo::
     Ratchet 'frowned' and transformed his all-purpose scanner from his servo.
     ::Just one?::
     ::No. There have been several::
     Ratchet gazed at his scanner, making a couple of minute adjustments, then looked back up at Soundwave.
     ::Your deployers - were they your hatchlings?::
     Soundwave flinched, then, very reluctantly, commed,
     ::Not hatchlings. But given spark by my own::
     Ratchet stared. ::You created custom protoforms then sparked them yourself? Some would call that sacrilegious::
     ::No, not me. But I'd like the details of how it's done. But later. Your own spark energy is showing a change from the baseline - I've never seen anything like it before. You're going to have to advise me. You think Laserbeak might be trying to make contact? Or could it be one of the others?::
     ::No. Laserbeak. But I believed him terminated...::
     ::We believed the same of Starscream::
     ::Starscream retained a large part of his processor. Laserbeak's helm was completely destroyed::
     ::But if you're right, his spark may have survived. And if so, we must retrieve it. Can you tell where he is?::
     One overly long arm raised, spindly digits pointing north and west.
     ::That direction. I can be more specific if I am closer::
     Ratchet reassumed his scanner back into his servo and nodded decisively.
     ::I'll speak to Prime::

"And you are sure this is genuine?"
     Ratchet nodded. "Soundwave is... not a standard Cybertronian. Even taking into account Knock Out's restructuring, he is very different from anyone I've ever encountered. And he has no reason to lie. We can't risk not following up on this. No unsanctioned humans can be allowed to retain or examine Cybertronian remains."
     "I agree. How are we to determine where the signal is coming from?"
     "Well, we can't track it, but Soundwave believes he can if he's in the right general area."
     "Then we shall mount a mission. He is not strong enough to perform long distance flights yet, I assume?"
     "Not yet."
     "Then we shall arrange transportation to the north. From here, Europe will be our first destination: once there, we will be able to refine the goal. Our space-faring Seekers are currently occupied, so we will need to second a C-17 for our purposes, and I want Starstream to accompany Soundwave. As well as acting as companion and casual guard, it will stop him fretting over the perceived loss of his hatchlings."
     "Good thinking. I will come too."
     "You can be spared?"
     "Whether I can or not I must accompany them. There is no telling what state Laserbeak will be in. If it is Laserbeak. I may be needed. Wheeljack and Jolt are capable of taking over for a short while. I have no critical outstanding projects."
     "Very well. We will treat this as urgent. I will speak to the base commander and have a plane fuelled and ready in two hours. Please advise Soundwave and Starstream. I will contact the Wing Commander and have someone join the mission as armed guard when they reach Europe."
     Satisfied, Ratchet nodded and went to give the others the news.

© JAT 20.08.13

Part 13 - Found

Once in Southern European airspace, Soundwave was able to more strongly feel what he was becoming more and more certain was Laserbeak's spark-pulse. Ratchet had nodded grimly when the comms expert had indicated th UK as the source.
     ::I'm not surprised::
     Prime's :comm.: expressed a certain wry understanding. ::You are not?::
     Ratchet :shrugged:. ::The Trust for Humanity and Alien Brotherhood... Hah! Trust for Humanity and Alien Brotherhood indeed::
     ::You are not very trusting, old friend::
     ::One word. Walker::
     ::... you have a point...::

It was six a.m. when the C-17 touched down at Brize Norton. Poppy, with Phil and 'Beat behind her, were waiting at the edge of the runway; she greeted Ratchet sombrely, glancing briefly at Soundwave exiting the plane behind him before turning her attention back to the doctor.
     "Hello sir. I understand you're heading this operation. Just let me know what you need."
     "Thank you, Poppy. What security has been organised?"
     "Prowl, Bluestreak and Stronghold are ready, and there's a NEST unit standing by."
     "Will that be sufficient?"
     "We believe - well, the Wing Commander believes - that since the THAB are humans, as far as we know, anyway, human military should be enough to deal with them."
     To another Cybertronian Ratchet's field would be redolent of scepticism, but fortunately Poppy wasn't able to perceive it. And even Ratchet would agree that Prowl, Blue and Stronghold together should be enough to handle any transformer presence. He nodded, transformed, and followed 'Beat out of the base, Starstream and Soundwave also following, a couple of hundred feet above.
     Prowl and Blue were waiting at Iacon House, along with Graham in Stronghold, a military truck, and twenty fully-armed and equipped NEST soldiers. To Poppy's consternation they were heading out immediately, Phil climbing into Blue and Prowl preparing to take the lead. The consul turned to 'Beat, expression alarmed.
     "They're going now?"
     The MGC raised his hands in a shrug.
     "The sooner the situation is resolved, the better. If what Soundwave is sensing is Laserbeak - or his remains, at any rate - he must be retrieved. We cannot allow random humans access to our technology or biology. It would not be safe, either for us or the humans."
     Poppy nodded. Of course, energon was dangerous to humans. And it had been clear all along that the Cybertronians did not want their tech used indiscriminately. Bad enough that humans had had access to Megatron for half a century - look what had happened there!
     And she didn't trust the THAB in any case, not after the Knock Out/Soundwave/Barricade debacle.
     "You'll stay in touch? Everyone wants to know what happens."
     Ratchet hesitated, but Prowl had overheard.
     "Stronghold has been delegated to keep the consulate advised as to proceedings. Ramp will alert you to any action or preparations that need to take place."
     "Thank you, Prowl. I'm sure you understand our wish to know that you are all safe."
     "Indeed." The Nemesis looked over the small force: everyone was now ready. He assumed alt mode and led the way out of the gates, Starstream and Soundwave shadowing him from above. Poppy turned to 'Beat.
     "That's going to raise some eyebrows."
     "I think everyone's used to us by now."
     "Well, yes, but it's not often you see a drone flying in this country!"
     "I suppose not..."

The one good thing about the large size of the THAB was that it wasn't feasible to move the organisation in a hurry, even if they'd had somewhere of comparable size to move to. Even if they were forewarned - and Ramp had done everything in his power to make sure no hint of the forthcoming raid had leaked out - there was no way the majority of them could escape. Graham had every hope of this being a quick and easy mission. If they were lucky they might even be able to capture the leaders, though he wasn't counting on it.
     They arrived in the vicinity of the THAB headquarters just before eleven, and parked up some distance away from the old steelworks to avoid being detected. Graham assembled his team quickly: they would be first into the building, leaving the snipers to keep watch outside until they were sure it was safe for Ratchet to enter. Knock Out had provided them with a three dimensional map of the place, noting where he believed Laserbeak was being held and probably experimented upon - down below ground, where he and his fellow ex-'Cons had been quartered.
     Phil contacted the consulate via Cable, who, knowing the place from before, had been volunteered for the mission: Poppy answered immediately.
     "We're about to go in. Wish us luck!"
     "Always. Please take care, Phil..."

The appearance of a squad of armed soldiers entering the foyer caused less disruption than expected, but then, Phil thought, it wasn't the first time. The workers probably thought it was another radiation scare. Graham halted at the reception desk; Ellen eyed him a little nervously.
     "Hello, um, sir. How may I help you?"
     "Oliver Black. Take me to his office."
     "He's in a meeting at the moment, sir."
     Graham frowned. "That's immaterial. Take me to him now."
     Ellen glanced quickly around the foyer and beckoned to one of the gawkers.
     "Ian, please escort this... officer to Mr Black's office."
     Ian, a somewhat overweight young man with a scraggy beard, gestured towards a corridor on the other side of the foyer. Graham followed, two of the squad behind him, while Phil fixed Ellen with an implacable stare.
     "We have orders to search the building, beginning with the underground laboratories. We would appreciate your cooperation..."
     Laboratories? There were labs in the basement? Ellen knew nothing about that. "But..."
     "... but we don't require it. I would advise everyone to remain calm and we will make this as painless as possible." He gestured to the rest of the squad, who immediately headed for the stairs, with the exception of one who remained on alert in the foyer. Phil followed the rest down to the main lab, flinging the door open and striding in without warning.
     The sight brought him to a halt, eyes widening in horror. A young man was half bent over a bench, in his hand a long, vicious-looking device that he was using to prod inside what Phil instantly recognised as a Cybertronian spark-chamber. The weakly pulsing spark was surrounded by crumpled dark metal that he recognised from footage of the battle of Chicago - what was left of Laserbeak.
     "Get back from the bench now."
     Newman swallowed convulsively and took a step back, hands raised. He wasn't the bravest of men, and Zender couldn't pay him enough to compensate for being menaced by a very angry looking officer with a very large gun...
     Phil looked around the lab, frowning at the sight of the other spark, held in its framework of faintly shimmering interlocking energy fields. Approaching it cautiously he spoke into his throat mic.
     "Ratchet? We've found Laserbeak - at least, I'm pretty certain it's Laserbeak - but there's something else here as well. It looks like another spark, but it's not in a chamber. We have to bring it with us. Do you have any way of containing it? It seems to be floating in mid air, but it's obviously being held by something..."
     "Is there room for me in there?"
     Phil looked around. The room had obviously been designed with large frames in mind.
     "Yes - though I don't know how you'll get down to this level."
     "Soundwave does. We'll be there momentarily."
     A minute or so later human screams and the sound of Cybertronian metal scraping against walls announced their arrival. Ratchet forced his way through the door, taking part of the frame with him, closely followed by Soundwave. As the doctor moved to one side, the Reaper strode quickly to the bench, pausing for a moment to stare at the mess of metal before delicately, tenderly picking up the remains of his deployer and cradling them against his torso. His faceless mask turned to Newman, managing to seem to stare accusingly.
     "You. Fleshling. Torturer."
     Two long, sinuous cables slid into view from beneath the plating at his waist, aiming unerringly for the terrified physicist. Phil stepped into their path, holding out his hands.
     "Soundwave, no. I know he deserves it, but we need to question him first. He may know where others are." He gestured to the free-floating spark. "And he can tell us what's going on here."
     The ex-'Con hesitated, then slowly, unwillingly pulled back the cables.
     "Agreed. But retribution must be mine."
     Much as Phil would like to agree, it wasn't his call to make.
     "That will be up to Prime."
     For a moment he thought the Reaper was going to ignore him, then Soundwave turned and prowled out of the door, heading back to the surface. Phil frowned at Ratchet who was examining the spark and the energy bonds around it.
     "Uh, should someone go with him?"
     "Who, Soundwave? No, he'll be fine. Starstream is at the surface, he'll make sure they stay safe." He beckoned to Newman. "You, come here."
     Newman inched closer, trembling in fear and trying to stay as far away from the doctor as possible. Ratchet pointed at the spark.
     "What are you trying to do here?"
     "We... we were trying to... it gives off so much energy, we thought it could provide a source of power..."
     Ratchet stared down at the human in disgust.
     "You thought you could use us as energy generators? Our sparks? What sick mind dreamed that up?"
     "I... it was... Mr Zender..."
     Ratchet frowned at Phil.
     "Who is that?"
     "Not a nice person. Ostensibly legit, in actuality one of the anti-alien lot. Although it looks like his ambitions are more to use your people than simply drive you offworld."
     Newman was cowering as Ratchet turned back to him. "And you agreed to this?"
     "I... I needed the money... and... well, you're machines..."
     He quailed as Ratchet towered over him. "As are you. That you're made of flesh makes your organs and systems no less mechanical than our metal and hydraulics. The same systems drive us both. And to even consider using the hearts and souls of living beings as a source of energy... what kind of monsters are you? No, don't bother answering." He gestured to the spark. "Just be ready to turn off these barbaric devices when I tell you to. And what did you do with the body?"
     Wordlessly Newman pointed to a large drawer in the work unit on the other side of the lab. Phil marched over and wrenched it open: inside were the pitiful, butchered remains of the unnamed little transformer. Phil carefully gathered everything up, placing the metal onto a lab coat then tying it up securely. He didn't know whether Ratchet would be able to resurrect the little thing, but he'd worked miracles in the past...
     In the meantime the doctor had assembled a temporary spark chamber from metal in the lab and components drawn from his own subspace. Cupping a hand under the spark, he signalled to Newman to turn off the power - then gently caught the spark and transferred it immediately into the makeshift chamber. A fast but thorough scan later and he nodded his satisfaction.
     ::There you go, little one. We'll see if we can get you operational again soon::
     A faint pulse - of gratitude, Ratchet thought - shivered against his field, and Ratchet smiled grimly. Zender, eh? A name to be remembered.
     While one of the squad escorted Newman to the surface and into custody, Phil had rifled through the rest of the drawers and cupboards, retrieving anything that looked as though it might conceivably be of Cybertronian origin. He was about to leave when a short, very angry middle aged man barrelled through the door.
     "What the hell do you think you're doing?!"
     Ratchet stared down at him. "And who might you be?"
     Graham entered the lab right behind him. "This is Oliver Black, the head of this little operation."
     The doctor glanced at Phil. "I thought that was Zender."
     "No, Black's in charge here."
     Ratchet glowered. "So you are responsible for this atrocity."
     Black swallowed, then planted his hands on his hips.
     "What do you mean by breaking in here, causing all this damage, stealing our property? I'll have you court martialed for this!"
     Phil looked down at Black, bemused.
     "Firstly, it's not your property. Secondly, we didn't break in, and there's been very little damage caused. Unless someone annoyed Soundwave on his way out. Thirdly, you apparently have no idea what a court-martial entails. Consider yourself lucky we don't take you into custody for misappropriating alien materiel."
     Black stared at him, mouth working, finally managing to splutter "Preposterous!" before Corporal Davison ushered him out of the lab and back up to the foyer, where Graham was speaking to his CO at Brize Norton. He nodded at Phil as the two appeared, and beckoned to Black.
     "You are free to go, pending further investigation. I must warn you, however, that the illegal possession of alien technology carries a significant penalty."
     Black quailed, and glanced around nervously. Graham offered him a frosty smile.
     "I'd advise you not to leave the country."

Outside, Soundwave was hunched down, Laserbeak's remains held protectively in his arms, with Starstream at his side and Ratchet scanning the pitiful metal jumble. The Reaper raised his faceplate to the doctor in mute appeal, and Ratchet laid a servo gently on his shoulder.
     ::I will do everything in my power. I swear it::
     ::Thanks offered. You will tell me if I can help::
     ::Of course. For now, let's get back to Brize Norton and then Diego Garcia:: He transformed and opened his door and tail lift, sliding out the wheeled stretcher. ::Put him in. I'll travel as softly as I can::
     Phil climbed in to help Soundwave settle the weakly moving metal, strapping Laserbeak in as securely as he could. Jumping back out he watched as the doctor slid the stretcher back in and closed the door, then revved his engine, lights flashing but sirens off. Within moments Prowl, Blue - with Phil inside - and Ratchet were racing south at considerably over the speed limit, Soundwave and Starstream following overhead.
     Graham waved them off, then returned to the mission, continuing to search the building and making sure no-one left. The NEST forensic team were on their way to perform a more thorough examination, and the local police had also been advised. It was a mess, and strictly speaking NEST may have overstepped their authority here, but it was tacitly agreed by all the western governments that Cybertronian tech had to be kept out of private hands...

Poppy was waiting at the door when Phil arrived: as he climbed out Bluestreak transformed, saluted Poppy then headed for the alien wing. Poppy dragged Phil into the kitchen and thrust a mug of coffee into his hands. She seated herself opposite, expression sombre and angry.
     "Cable showed us what you found, via Ramp. Will Ratchet be able to repair Laserbeak? And help the other one?"
     "I don't know. His priority was to get them back to Diego Garcia. But Wheeljack and Knock Out are there, and all his supplies." He frowned. "They may well need 'Spin though..."
     Poppy nodded. "Already done. When I saw what those bastards were doing I had one of the squaddies drive 'Spin to Brize Norton: he's waiting for them there, already on the C-17."
     Phil took her hand. "You're on the ball."
     "I try." She sighed. "What will happen to the ringleaders? And that idiot physicist?"
     "Fortunately that's not up to me, though you can be pretty sure NEST will take steps to sterilise the facility and any others associated with it, and ensure Black, at least, can't ever get close to any Cybertronian tech again."
     "Good. And I assume that now we try to find this Zender character."
     "Yes. I assume Ramp is already on the job?"
     "Oh yes. Him and Chatter." She grinned mirthlessly. "And if Soundwave joins them, there won't be anywhere on earth for him to hide."

The C-17 was over the Indian Ocean and only an hour or so away from home when Ratchet's private comm. channel 'pinged'. The doctor frowned to himself. Knock Out...
     ::Go ahead::
     ::Jazz is online::
     Ratchet's field flared for a moment before he regained control of himself. ::And?::
     ::He's asking for you...::
     ::Tell him I'm on my way::
     Ratchet gazed at Laserbeak, nestled against Soundwave's torso, and the bright little spark in its makeshift chamber. Well, if he could resurrect Jazz, there was hope for them yet.

Far out beyond the Oort cloud a massive shape was heading sunwards, slowly, ponderously, its crew in deep stasis...

© JAT 22.04.14

Part 14 - Resurrection

"Yo, docbot!"
      Ratchet exvented silently - it was going to take a while to get used to Jazz's exuberance again. Not to mention his informality and odd speech patterns.
      But... he was whole. Online. And seemingly back to his normal self.
      The Prime was going to be so pleased...
      "Welcome back."
      Jazz gave him a beaming smile and sat up on the mediberth. "So, you can cure death now. Good trick, doc."
      "Don't expect me to do it again. Next time you do something as stupid as challenge Megatron, you can stay dead."
      "Got no plans t'do that again."
      "I am very glad to hear it."
      "Though I heard he's dead..."
      "So were you. We are nothing if not resilient."
      Jazz's smile dimmed. "He could come back?"
      "It's unlikely. His processor was destroyed. Then again, so was Starscream's."
      Jazz's frame jerked back in shock. "He's still alive?"
      "Sort of. He's a new person now. Starstream. I'll have to introduce you."
      "Not too sure 'bout that..."
      "He's a permanent fixture. You'll have to get used to it." Ratchet glanced towards the door where Knock Out was hovering, and beckoned him in. "This is our other doctor, Knock Out. Be nice."
      "Why wouldn't I be?"
      "I think the good doctor is just warning you - I used to be with the 'Cons. Loosely, at any rate. I never took the brand."
      Jazz was silent, regarding the Aston Martin narrowly. "And you're with the 'Bots now?"
      "We've done away with factions, Jazz." Ratchet laid a servo on Knock Out's shoulder. "We're just Cybertronians now."
      "'f you say so." Jazz's field was sceptical.
      "I do. Knock Out and Soundwave, and Barricade in the States, are working with us now." Ratchet offered him a datachip. "This will bring you up to date with everything that's happened in the last few years. Have a look while I go and prepare Optimus for your... resurrection."

"Jazz? Alive? How...?" Prime was rigid with shock - then his field filled with delight and gratitude. "You... 'pulled a Starscream', as Lieutenant Collier might say."
      Ratchet chuckled. "Indeed. Though his processor was undamaged. The task was considerably easier."
      "Old friend, you are a marvel. May I see him?"
      "This way." Ratchet turned and, with Prime following him, returned to the med bay. Jazz paused in ingesting his first energon in a very long time and offered a lazy salute.
      "Yo, boss. How's it hangin'?"
      Optimus knelt down by the side of the berth and took Jazz's hand in his own.
      "Welcome back, my friend."
      There was silence for several long moments as they simply :shared: their reunion, then Jazz asked, quietly, "Are we safe?"
      "As safe as anyone can be on an alien planet inhabited by a short-lived, fragile but nevertheless quite dangerous species of organics."
      "So, not really then."
      "They have accepted us, in the main. They appreciate the benefits we bring."
      "And the 'Cons?"
      "With Megatron gone, they have no rallying point, are lost, drifting. Most of the few that are left have either joined us or are now neutral."
      "Huh. Think that'll last?"
      "I do not know. I hope so. However, I have faith - and we have a plan B, should it prove necessary. The next planet out, Mars, is suitable for our purposes, should we need to leave earth."
      Jazz :frowned:. "How can we get there?"
      "Skyfire is with us. And his colleague Starflare.
      "The heavies, eh? I'm glad they found us. But there's nuthin' on Mars, from what I can tell."
      "Not yet. But many of the asteroids in this system are metal-rich. The starcraft have been vaporising the earth-threatening ones - now they will transport them to Mars instead. Then we can start to build."
      "Won't they object? The humans, I mean."
      "They have no easy way to get there without our help. A trip that takes Skyfire a matter of hours takes them months."
      "Can't we go back to Cybertron?"
      "We have no space bridges - at present, anyway. And we are not sure that it survived Sentinel's attempt to bring it here. At the very least we can assume it was severely damaged. We have decided it would be best to consider it destroyed." Prime bowed his helm. "If we ever can return, it will be to a very different world."
      Jazz nodded, resigned. "So. What's my place to be, then? D'ya still need a second lieutenant?"
      "Not as before, certainly. Your skills in subterfuge and sabotage will not be of any use amongst the humans - unless you remain in alt mode." He inclined his helm. "I would not ask that of you. I will call a meeting once you are fully operational. It may be that the consuls may need your abilities."
      Ah yes, the consuls. Ratchet had included that information on the datachip: Jazz was intrigued, and rather looking forward to meeting them. Given how important they were it was quite possible he could assist them. It was all very well Ramp and Chatter and their cohorts around the world running detailed and constant surveillance, but sometimes a pair of servos in the field was the only way to go...
      He nodded and looked at Ratchet.
      "How long, docbot?"
      "Another twenty-four hours. I'll run a full scan tomorrow and if there are no contraindications I'll report you fit for duty."
      Jazz grinned broadly, and Optimus pushed himself upright, resting a massive hand on a silver shoulder.
      "It is very good to have you back, my friend."

Knock Out, meanwhile, had been examining the remains of Laserbeak and the tangle of metal that had been the unnamed little transformer's frame. With the material Ratchet had been salvaging over the past few years he was pretty confident that between them they could repair at least the frame. But the deployer's processor had been completely destroyed: he could think of no way they could ever restore Laserbeak's personality. Not that that was a particularly bad thing, in his opinion, remembering what the deployer had been like...
      Better not let Soundwave hear that!
      He looked up as Ratchet re-entered the lab, servos full of tiny components and followed by 'Spin.
      "Are we going to make a start now, sir?"
      Ratchet nodded. "I don't think Soundwave will give us any peace unless we do! And I don't like anything suffering in my lab." He :grinned:. "Not even you... And don't call me sir."
      Knock Out raised a brow ridge dryly. "I am very glad to hear it. Ratchet."
      Ratchet lifted 'Spin up onto the operating berth, and the three of them started the complex work of bringing two precious sparks back to life.

Poppy looked up as Phil tapped on her office door and smiled at the lieutenant.
      "Hi! How's things?"
      "OK. Nova and Prowl seem to have finished with Blue and he is much happier." He grinned. "Relaxed, much less stressed, actually a lot of fun to be with. Only downside is he now won't shut up..."
      "That's probably a good thing though, isn't it?"
      "So I understand. But I wanted to check if you're free to go to dinner on Friday. There's a new place opened up just the other side of Alresford towards Bishop Sutton - gastro-pub called The Wood - and they're doing a special introductory offer at the moment, four for two. I was wondering if you and I and Beverley and Matthew might like to take advantage and try something new." He smiled at Beverley. "Assuming you don't have anything else planned with your husband."
      "David's in Germany at the moment - business trip. He won't be back for a week." She nodded. "It sounds like fun to me. Poppy?"
      "Yes, I think that would be nice. And we deserve a break, I think." She smiled at Phil. "Can you check with Matthew and book us a table?"
      He saluted with a grin. "Yes ma'am. Right away ma'am."
      Poppy giggled and waved her hand at him. "Yes, very funny. Off you go then."
      Beverley smiled as he marched out of the door, then turned to her boss.
      "He is very sweet."
      To her embarrassment Poppy blushed. "Uh, yes."
      "And are you...?"
      "Our dinner was lovely, and... we'll see how we go."
      Beverley nodded sagely. She would very much like to see them as a couple. They were well matched, good friends, independent yet, she believed, both a little lonely. Phil was the only person the PA had ever heard make Poppy giggle. They worked really well together too...
      But Poppy wasn't the sort of person who'd appreciate anyone interfering in her private life. Her friends would just have to sit back and see what unfolded.
      In the meantime there was work to do. The Madagascar consulate was taking shape, and Abla, Kanya and Onile were preparing to move in with their staff...

In the shadow of Pavonis Mons on the Tharsis region of Mars, with the Valles Marineris stretching out to the east, Skyfire and Starflare were manoeuvring a massive iron-rich asteroid into position beside the others they had collected. It had been decided that this area would be ideal for their main base, as much for its beauty as its strategic usefulness. Starflare paused, arms resting on the asteroid, and gazed out at the rusty, tranquil expanse of plain.
     ::How does he hope to build a base here? There's no smelter or manufactory capabilities, and it will take us a long time to transport the makings of anything of the like from earth::
      Skyfire :smiled:. ::Time is something we have in abundance - but we may not need to start from the raw materials. Prime is exploring the possibilities of building what we need on earth's moon and transporting it from there. That way we can use the skills of the construction mecha already on site, then you and I can fly it all here::
      The black starcraft nodded pensively. ::Mm. That would work. That would work well. Clever thinking::
     ::He is the Prime::
      Starflare :grinned: ::And he's a good one. I think I'm going to stay around for a few millennia. Be interesting to see what happens. Though someone is going to have to do something about the sand here. Those storms are no fun for joints::
      Skyfire waved the objection away. ::I'm sure Wheeljack and Jolt are already working on the problem. I know the Prime is investigating the possibilities of a biodome for a Martian consulate for the humans: we can always construct something similar for us to ride out the worst of the dust storms::
     ::I thought Mars was going to be for us::
     ::I think it is, but it would be tactful to allow humans to visit::
     ::I suppose so. At least if they were in their own CES we wouldn't have to worry about stepping on them!::
      Skyfire :chuckled:. ::Indeed. Well, shall we collect another asteroid or two before we head back to earth?::
     ::I suppose so. And on our next trip back I suggest we gather up one or two of the earth-crossing ones as well. I know we've cleared the big ones but even the small ones can cause damage::
     ::And it does our standing as friends of humanity no harm at all:: Skyfire transformed and lifted from the surface. ::Let's see what we can find...::

Cassini–Huygens lost sight of Uranus for a second or two before the ice planet reappeared on the screen. NASA checked their systems, but on finding nothing assumed it was a simple moment's occlusion by dust particles from Saturn's rings. Ramp, who as a matter of course kept a wary eye on anything happening in space, wasn't so sure. He alerted Skyfire, and with Starflare following, the starcraft headed towards the outer reaches of the system at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light.
      Once past Jupiter they picked up the signal, and paused in shock, comms humming.
     ::Is it possible?::
      Starflare :shrugged:. ::It's been a while since the Prime sent out the call. We'd better investigate::
      They flew onwards, the signal - a simple repeating beacon - growing stronger all the time. And then they saw it, distant sunlight glinting on its huge form, all spires and domes and angles and armoured plating. Starflare grinned at his colleague.
     ::Well, that solves the problem of building the Mars base!::
      Skyfire agreed, absently, staring at the massive form of the almost-mythical Metroplex, twenty-five human miles long and ten miles wide and fifteen miles deep at his core - the transformer whose alt form was a city.
      And there were faint but strong spark-signs within him, many of them, refugees who had travelled with him, citizens all.
      Oh, the Prime was going to be so pleased!

© JAT 3.5.14

Part 15 - Progress

The Wood turned out to be quite a pleasant place, modern, with very large windows looking out over an attractive garden with a small lake, a flock of collared doves - and a peacock. The décor was fairly minimal, a lot of glass and brushed steel, with small, elegant abstract metal sculptures as table centrepieces. A smiling waitress showed the group to a table at a window, handed them the menus, took their drinks order then returned to the bar to allow them to peruse the selection in peace. Poppy glanced around the room and smiled at the others.
      "Nice! Makes a change from the traditional wood and flocked wallpaper. Hope the food's good."
     Matthew grinned. "It should be. They need to establish a good rep to bring people out this way. It's not like there's much passing trade."
     "True." Their drinks arrived, and Poppy took a sip of her wine - a pleasant light Zinfandel. "The choice looks interesting, at least."
     The menu offered a selection of Asian fusion dishes as well as a handful of more traditional British fare, with steaks and chicken featuring largely. The restaurant's speciality was a wide variety of sharing platters, either as starters or as entrees. Poppy was drawn to the UKUS meat platter - smoked, glazed and barbecued spare ribs, fried, glazed and barbecued chicken wings, and popcorn shrimp, served with six different dips, ranging from coriander and lime to chilli sweet and sour. Phil unconsciously licked his lips as Poppy pointed to it, and nodded.
     "Yes please. And Carne Asada for the main."
     Poppy read the description and grinned. "Mm. Tequila. I'm tempted... No, I fancy the creamy chicken with asparagus." She closed the menu and smiled at Beverley. "What tempts you?"
     Beverley and Matthew had been speaking in low voices as they all read through the choices, and apparently had now decided. "Dim sum sharing platter for us for a starter. Then I'd like chicken, artichoke and pasta." She glanced at Matthew.
     "Steak in honey mustard sauce." He chuckled. "I know, very boring. It's a favourite though."
     "Nothing wrong with that!" Phil waved at the waitress, who hurried to take their order. It arrived surprisingly quickly, and Poppy gazed at Matthew and Beverley's sharing platter.
     "That looks tasty."
     "I spent a lot of time in the far east. Got to really like the food." Matthew took a cha siu bao, dunking it in the chogochoojang and taking a bite. "That is really good. The chef definitely knows his Asian food. Like a taste?"
     Since both platters had enough for at least four people, they ended up trying a little of everything. Some of it was a little too hot for Poppy's taste, but some she memorised to look up later. Steamy was always happy to try something new.
     For a few minutes they chewed in a happy silence punctuated by appreciative 'mmm's and 'ahh's. Then Beverley sat back with a satisfied sigh and wiped her fingers on her napkin.
     "That was very good. I think I have a few new favourites."
     Poppy chuckled. "Me too. We'll have to come back here with David and..." she frowned at Matthew in sudden realisation. "I'm sorry, do you have someone?"
     Matthew shook his head. "No, still between missions."
     Phil leered at him. "We'll have to do something about that."
     Matthew raised an eyebrow. "Oh no you don't. You leave my private life alone."
     Phil's evil grin suggested retribution...

The Prime climbed out of Skyfire onto the rusty sand of the Tharsis plain and stood for a moment simply gazing at the massive form of Metroplex. The city stretched out across the plain, alien and elegant, its public systems powered down until Wheeljack and Ratchet could run full spectrum scans, both on Metroplex himself and on the Cybertronians within him. The giant transformer had taken damage during his eons-long journey, most notably to his processor: he'd recognised Prime's voice, and understood simple directions, but anything more than that was met with static. Ratchet was still working on Laserbeak and the little transformer, and couldn't be spared for another week, but as everything within the city was stable, and there was no danger from any external threat, he believed that Metroplex and his cargo would be fine until he could get there.
     But Optimus wanted to see the city himself, welcome Metroplex in person, even if the giant wasn't fully cognisant of his presence. It was the least he could do.
     Wavefront and Windchaser dropped lightly from Skyfire's open hatch and stood behind the Prime as the starcraft transformed and joined them, towering protectively at their backs. Windchaser stared at their newly-arrived colleague.
     ::He's... big...::
     Wavefront glanced at his sibling and nodded.
     ::I didn't know we could be so big:: He :smiled:, field excited. ::Would you like to live here?::
     Windchaser gazed out over the landscape. In the distance clouds were roiling over the canyons of the Valles Marineris: in the other direction the slopes of Pavonis Mons rose towards the sky. The infant starcraft stretched out his wings and shivered.
     ::Yes. This feels good. The gravity is lighter here, and the outer planets are closer. I want to go and explore::
     ::Me too::
     ::Would creator mind?::
     ::He could come too!::
     Windchaser turned to his sibling. ::Do you think he'd want to?::
     ::He was an explorer, way back. Remember the stories Skyfire's been telling us? I think he'd love it. We could ask him...::
     ::Let's let Prime speak with Metroplex first. We'd need his permission anyway::
     They both fell silent as the city roused itself. A shivering of Metroplex's field, a whisper of static, then the deep low voice intoned, "My Prime. Who am I to protect?"
     A shimmer of relief and respect and gratitude swept through Optimus's field.
     "Old friend, we ask nothing of you save you perform your function, house and protect our kind within yourself on this alien world. Is this acceptable?"
     A long, grinding minute of struggling to comprehend the question and Metroplex replied simply, "Yes."
     Prime laid a servo on the nearest structure, a low pedestal that would, he believed, transform into the control panel for a protective force field when the city was properly awake, pulsing thanks and appreciation into Metroplex's electromagnetic aura.
     ::We will attend to your needs as soon as we can. In the meantime, rest easy, old friend. You've earned it::

Oliver Black was seething. Zender watched as he paced furiously back and forth across the office, arms flailing.
     "And they've closed us down! They've actually dared to accuse us of industrial espionage and closed us down! I was lucky to get away with just a fine - they threatened me with a gaol sentence!"
     "I do know all this, Black. I paid the fine."
     "Yes, well, thanks for that..."
     "We'll discuss repayment later. For now, I need a full report on everything you've accomplished. We're not giving up. If you're right in your assessment of the spark as a virtually infinite source of power, then we need to acquire some - and, more importantly, make sure no one else can do so." He frowned. "We also need to find out what happened on Mars."
     Black scowled. "I'm pretty sure Walker would be able to find out for us - if we still had him. Any idea where he's got to?"
     "None of our operatives have been able to find him, but then, he is an expert at disappearing. We'll redouble our efforts."
     "What about our inside woman on the island?"
     Zender growled. "Inside no longer. It took them long enough, but NEST discovered and court martialled her. She's now in a military prison."
     "Damn. Do you have any contacts in NASA?"
     "I do, and she says it's being reported as a meteorite impact. She's suspicious though. If it was a meteor, it landed bloody softly! Whatever it was isn't big enough to show up on the average telescope as more than a smudge, but the fact it's being downplayed where it isn't being actively ignored does make one wonder. We have no idea what other aliens are out there. Or the maximum size our local ones can attain."
     Black blanched. "You think it might be a robot?"
     "I can see no reason why not."
     "That's... alarming."
     "Indeed. You see the need for information."
     "Yes... How can I help?"
     "Redouble your efforts to find Walker. If he's not with us, he's against us, and I'd rather he was... neutralised. Assemble what's left of your team. We can't use Newman, but put out feelers, see if there are any other patriots with science degrees and experience willing to join us. The THB still exists, but we're going underground. I want links to the other anti-alien groups across the planet, and I want someone on the inside of every major corporation, especially energy and communication."
     Black nodded. "I'll do what I can, but I'm under surveillance."
     Zender smiled slowly. "That might work in our favour. Let it be known how badly you've been treated - you know, your business taken from you, assets stripped, your name tarnished, and all because you were investigating alternative sources of energy that could have saved the world." He paused and reconsidered. "Saved the average person money, at any rate."
     "Hm. Yes, I can do that."
     "It will serve another purpose too. We'll be able to keep tabs on anyone who shows any interest. As I say, we have to keep the facts secret. It really wouldn't do to have umpteen other groups out to take sparks."
     "True. Very well. I shall act the aggrieved innocent. It won't be difficult, since I am."
     Zender quirked an eyebrow. "Innocent?"
     Black smirked. "Aggrieved."

Soundwave held the reconstructed, twitching Laserbeak to his chestplates, soothing the fretful little deployer with his field. The spark remembered, and knew it was lacking something important, but with only the simplest of processing systems it couldn't determine what was missing. Ratchet's field held a tinge of defeat.
     ::I'm sorry, Soundwave. I've done what can but I can't build a processor from nothing. Laserbeak may improve, in time, creating new cyberneural connections, but I very much doubt he'll ever have anything like a personality again::
     ::Grateful thanks offered regardless. Laserbeak is sparkling again. I will treat as such::
     With a faint rasping of metal he rearranged his chestplating, creating a docking station for the deployer, and Laserbeak settled in, anxiety easing with its closeness to its creator's spark. At least, thought Ratchet, there was a good chance the little creature would still be able to serve some simple purpose - aerial surveillance, perhaps.
     ::I will keep trying. If I ever can devise a way to replace what was lost, I will::
     ::Thanks offered:: Soundwave turned to leave, moving with his habitual measured grace. ::Soundwave at your disposal, should the need ever arise::
     ::Thank you::
     As the ex-'Con left, Ratchet turned to Knock out, who had been labouring over the remains of the rescued transformer. He'd attached the legs and three of the four arms - the final one had been subjected to intense heat and resembled a melted, knob-ended metal stick - and was now working on the helm. To their relief Newman had not got as far as ripping the processor apart, and one optic was still in place and most likely still operational, though they could only confirm that once the repairs were complete and they brought the mech back online. Which could be as soon as tonight, if they could finish up here and have 'Spin repair and reattach the spark chamber and reinsert the spark.
     He had every intention of keeping to that time-line. 'Spin wanted to go home, and was making sure everyone knew it.
     Then Ratchet could turn to his next project - the osseous nanotech trackers for the Consulate staff. It was almost complete: he just had to confirm a few final details with a human expert...

© JAT 17.5.14

Part 16 - Celebrations

The single optic flickered, blinked twice, then steadied and brightened. The little transformer eased himself up and gazed at Ratchet and Knock Out staring down at him.
     :Grateful thanks offered!::
     Ratchet smiled, field relieved. ::I'm just happy we were successful. But I'm sorry about your other optic. And your arm::
     The newly-repaired Cybertronian waved his three remaining servos.
     ::I can probably fix those myself, once I've stabilised:: He tilted his helm and :smiled:. ::I'm Lenses. I used to be an optic specialist::
     Startled but delighted, Ratchet introduced himself and his colleague. Lenses nodded.
     ::Ratchet. I've heard of you. One of Cybertron's best. I am honoured:: He glanced at Knock Out. ::Don't know you. Were you 'Con?::
     ::I... served as their medic for a while. Never took the brand::
     ::Mm:: Lenses looked to Ratchet. ::He can be trusted?::
     ::We believe so::
     ::Myself, and the Prime::
     Lenses :grinned: widely. ::The Prime is here?::
     ::Yes. Well, he's on his way back from Mars at the moment, but he's here::
     Lenses' :voice: was awed. ::The last Prime...::
     ::You'll meet him soon::
     ::... I have dreamed of meeting a Prime::
     Ratchet chuckled. ::Optimus isn't a great supporter of... hero worship, to use an earthly term. Respect, yes, he deserves that, but not reverence::
     Lenses nodded soberly. ::I'll try to remember that::
     ::Good. Now. Let's give you a thorough scan. How long have you been on earth? Do you need an update on the current situation?::
     ::I know what's happening in the human world - I've been hiding as a phoropter and keeping myself apprised of their affairs. But I don't know how many of us are here - or who::
     Ratchet nodded and handed over a datachip. ::Everything you need to know is on here: names, location, current operational status. Upload that while you refuel:: He glanced at Knock Out, who hastened off to gather a beaker of enriched medical grade energon. ::If you have any questions afterwards, just ask - and I'm afraid I'll have to get the details of your capture and treatment at the human's servos. In the meantime, let me welcome you to our headquarters on this world. You're safe now::
     Lenses shuddered. ::I understand, much as I'd rather delete the memories::
     ::You know not all humans are like that::
     Lenses nodded. ::Oh yes. I've been here for... it must be twenty human years. I saw all sorts of humans while I was in hiding. Most of them seem reasonable. Not the ones in power, admittedly, but that seems to be standard for a lot of species. Including ours. Is Megatron still around?::
     ::Fortunately not::
     ::And the rest of the 'cons?::
     ::Mostly coming to us. But there are no 'Bots and 'Cons any more. We're just Cybertronians in exile now::
     Lenses :sighed: happily. ::Long may it remain so::
     ::Indeed:: He nodded as Knock Out handed the cube over. ::Get that in you and we'll talk again when you've absorbed the data. Then we'll discuss what you'd like to do next - though if I may put in an advance request, we have no optical specialist, and while I have been managing, it's not my forté. I would be very happy, and honoured, to have you in my team. Wheeljack and Jolt are here too. 'Spin, alas, is devoted to his human and has politely refused to join us, but he is in constant contact and can be here in an hour if need be::
     Lenses made the Cybertronian equivalent of a human whistle of admiration. ::That's an extraordinary team, doctor! I'm going to say a provisional 'yes please', dependent on the Prime's authorising it and me being able to repair my optic. And hopefully my servo too, though I can manage with three if I have to::
     ::I am very glad to hear it. You'll be a very valuable member:: He gestured to the tidy racks of frame parts around the walls. ::Hopefully you'll be able to find what you need here, but if not, I'm sure, between us, we can make the necessary components::
     Lenses took a draught of energon and slipped the datachip into a wrist dock. ::Thank you, doctor. I'll look forward to working with you::
     Ratchet smiled and left him to it. His video conference meeting with a couple of orthopaedic specialists was in a couple of hours: he'd feel a lot happier once they could keep a remote trace on their human friends. And then it was off to Mars, and bringing Metroplex back to life...

Matthew was getting a little tired of Phil trying to find him a girlfriend. Every time he checked his mail he had another message from another hopeful - none of them his type. He managed to track down eight of the dating websites Phil had entered his details on, but there were some he couldn't find and more seemed to be starting up all the time. Eventually he ordered Phil to his office and glowered at him.
     "This has to stop."
     Phil grinned. "But why? I think it's fun. And we're bound to find the right lady eventually."
     Matthew pulled himself to his full height and barked, "Attention, Lieutenant Collier."
     Phil automatically straightened up and saluted. "Sir."
     "This is an order. I do not want a girlfriend, a lady, or any other variety of female partner. You will stop this now. And you will remove my details from all the sites you've found. Now." he added for emphasis as Phil hesitated. The lieutenant saluted again, turned on his heel and marched out of the office, pouting a little.
     "No appreciation, some people..."

Perhaps fortunately, Poppy hadn't been party to the shenanigans. She'd had enough to worry about with the international situation. The Port Said consulate had closed just in time: violence erupted between the various religious groups three weeks after Abla and her staff had relocated to the new Madagascan Consulate. At the moment they were settling in and getting to grips with the local problems, and Trailbreaker and Hound had relocated to the island to try to help at least slow the environmental devastation caused by illegal logging, but it was going to take a while.
     Poppy was just glad they were safe. The situation throughout north-east Africa was quickly escalating into outright war and threatening to spill over and destabilise the fragile and uneasy 'peace' that had been engineered over the last four years in the Middle East. As she checked the updates every day, with the lists of casualties, it hurt that there was nothing she could do to stop it.
     Then again, the political disquiet in her own country was enough to keep her occupied right now. After the results of the recent elections she was, probably for the first time in her life, distinctly apprehensive about the future. That the Cybertronians, regardless of their special status, might possibly be considered illegal immigrants was the least of it. Humans were fickle at the best of times.
     She was staring blankly at Ramp's monitor, brooding, when Phil quietly entered bearing a large mug of her favourite hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows. He placed it on the desk before her then rested his hands on her shoulders: to his surprise and delight she nestled back against him with a sigh and covered his hands with hers.
     "Thanks, Phil... Oh, this is so depressing... You know, I love this planet, but it would be a damn sight better off with a few less people. Like, maybe, 3 billion less..."
     Phil chuckled silently and - greatly daring - leaned down to kiss her hair. "I know, love." He loosely wrapped his arms around her shoulders and hugged gently. "I think we need a break. May I take you to lunch?"
     Poppy hesitated, glancing at her half-full in-tray. "I shouldn't really..."
     "If you have a break now, you can come back to it refreshed. It's not going anywhere."
     "True. OK." She smiled up at him. "I'd like that."
     "Good. Eighteen71 in Winchester should be quiet this time of day: I've wanted to try it for a while." He stood upright and offered Poppy a hand. "Ramp, could you ask Blue if he's available?"
     "Already done. He'll meet you at the main door."
     Phil grinned at the monitor. "Thanks."
     Poppy smiled as Beverley and Rowan came into the office. "Hold the fort while we go to lunch?"
     The PA grinned. "Of course! Enjoy yourselves and don't hurry back." She glanced at Poppy's in-tray. They could probably deal with some of that while Poppy was out...

The ride into town was smooth and quiet: for once Blue refrained from chattering. Sunlight glinted off Blue's hood and the pools of water at the roadside, relics of the previous night's heavy rain. The day smelt clean and fresh, and Poppy began to relax after a couple of minutes. She took Phil's hand.
     "This was a great idea."
     The lieutenant smiled and squeezed her fingers gently. "I'm glad you think so. Sometimes all we need is a change of scenery."
     As usual, parking was tricky in the town, so Blue let them out then drove a little way into the countryside and transformed. Seating himself on a hillside he settled in to perform a little memory defrag - Nova had suggested he might find it helpful in dealing with the old trauma that still disturbed his recharge at times...
     Poppy took a forkful of her coronation chicken-filled baked potato and gazed around the café. It was colourful and comfortable despite its location inside the rather grand Guildhall, with a pleasant atmosphere.
     "Why have I never been here before? This is really nice. And the food is good."
     Phil grinned and waved a chip. "Locally sourced too - they take pride in that."
     "Good to know! We must come here again."
     Phil nodded, though actually he hoped - planned - to try a couple of other places Aaron had mentioned as being particularly good. One way or another he was determined to tempt Poppy out to lunch at least once a week...
     They talked a little about their families over their lunch, and their respective schools, safe, friendly, non-intrusive subjects. Over coffee Poppy switched the conversation back to work.
     "Do we have any idea yet what Jazz is going to be doing?"
     Phil shook his head. "Apparently he's a skilled espionage expert, and very adaptable. He doesn't have an alt mode yet - waiting to see what Prime wants him to do, I suppose. Why? Hoping he'll come here?"
     "Not really - we have everyone we need, and his skills might be better utilised elsewhere. In the Middle East, perhaps, or North America, somewhere with more problems than us."
     Phil nodded. "I agree. Though that being said, he may be useful in tracking down Walker. Maybe."
     "Mm. Think he's still here? In the UK, I mean."
     Phil sighed. "We don't know. I've never known anyone who can disappear as thoroughly and completely as that bastard. No news from any of the other consulates?"
     "Nothing." Poppy shrugged. "Everyone is on the lookout though. All the computer transformers are keeping eyes on the CCTV cameras in their countries, but there are still plenty of places that don't have them. And all he has to do is wear a baseball cap and keep his head down and facial recognition becomes a lot more tricky." She looked up as the waitress came to ask if they wanted anything else, and shook her head. "No thank you, just the bill. That was great - we'll be back!"
     Cable contacted Blue while Phil paid the bill - telling Poppy she could pay next time when she objected - and by the time they left the driverless Spyder was pulling up outside, much to passers-by consternation. Poppy sighed as she slid into the passenger seat: clouds were rolling in from the north, and a cold wind had sprung up. It looked like rain in half an hour or so. Typical May weather...
     The rain started as they pulled up at the consulate doors. Poppy and Phil hastened in, while Blue transformed and made his way to the Cybertronian wing to share a meal with 'Beat. The two had become quite close over the last couple of months.
     Beverley smiled as Poppy entered her office.
     "Good lunch?"
     "It was fine, thanks. Very enjoyable." She smiled over her shoulder at Phil. "'course, it's the company that made it."
     He chuckled, saluted, and headed off to the conference room. Lennox had promised to report in at four, with an update as to anti-alien activity in the States. Poppy glanced at her in-tray, and frowned at Beverley. The pile was half the height it had been. The PA shrugged.
     "Thought we'd give you hand. Don't worry, we've left the hard stuff for you to handle."
     "Oh gee thanks!" Poppy chuckled. "Suppose I'd better get on with it then."
     As Rowan poured her a coffee, the Consul settled down to work.

© JAT 24.5.14

Part 17 - Deliberations

Walker looked up from his laptop and scowled out of the window - not that he could see much through the grime. Even the current torrential downpour wasn't making much impact on glass that had last seen a wash a decade ago.
     The man took a swig from the half empty bottle of beer and growled to himself. It was no good, he finally admitted. He couldn't make any impact alone, and, as he freely admitted, he was no sort of leader, recruiting his own band of mercenaries just wasn't an option. He'd have to join one of the militant groups that kept springing up. Or go back to Zender's group. True Human Brotherhood, hah! Money-grubbing hypocrite bastards, more like.
     But they did have the clout - and the resources, and the will - to achieve his ends, with the added bonus that humans would get clean, cheap energy out of the deal.
     Well, cheap for those who mattered, anyway. He couldn't see Zender giving away anything if he could make money from it.
     He logged off and closed down with a growl of resignation. Of course they wouldn't be overly pleased to see him, but he still had skills they needed. They'd take him back.
     Within an hour he was on the train back to London.

Poppy grimaced, rubbing the centre of her chest. "I didn't expect it to be that painful!"
     Phil had a hand over the same area on his own torso. "It could have been worse..."
     "Not helpful, Phil."
     "Sorry. But just think. Now they'll be able to keep tabs on us."
     "Well yes, but if Ratchet wasn't on Mars I'd be wanting to have words with him about now."
     "Well, strictly speaking it's not his fault it hurt. You should really blame the human doctors for getting the anaesthetic wrong. If they did. I don't know. Perhaps that area is just particularly sensitive. I can't feel anything inside, anyway."
     Poppy nodded reluctantly. "I suppose that's something. And I suppose it's quite nifty."
     As Ratchet had intended, the tracers had been produced as a nanite gel that when injected close to a bone immediately bonded with the outer covering. The doctor had engineered it to react to a surge of the elements involved in the human fear response, thus alerting the Consulate computer system to a possible problem. It had been agreed that the best site for the tracers would be on the inner surface of the sternum, and the procedures had been taking place around the world over the last few weeks. Poppy was the last of the Consulate personnel to receive the tracer, except for Kiku and Masuyo, who were currently on the moon. Ramp had been busy calibrating everyone's internal signature, migrating all the information into a dedicated file accessible by the consulate Cybertronians and the central NEST computer, Undertow, who had a year ago requested he be based with NEST where, given his specific skillset, he would be more effective than with the African Consulate.
     "I'm certainly reassured by the whole idea." His eyes narrowed, remembering the events at the end of last year. "Wish we'd had this earlier."
     Poppy took his hand. "I know. I'm sorry. But at least it can never happen again."
     Phil sighed. "Eh, it's over and done now. Though I really would like to get my hands on Walker."
     "You and the rest of NEST." She glanced at his watch. "We have half an hour before the video conference. Let's grab a coffee and see what Steamy's been baking."

The fact that everyone, including General Morshower, Lennox, all of the Consuls, Ironhide, Prowl, Jazz, Ratchet, Wheeljack, Skyfire and Soundwave, was at the videocon showed how important it was, thought Poppy as she took her seat before the huge screen in the conference room, Phil, Matthew, 'Beat, Blue and Stronghold behind her. The Prime opened the proceedings with a greeting to them all, then immediately turned to the subject at hand.
     Which was, Poppy heard with a sinking heart, the removal of the Cybertronians to Mars.
     "It is becoming clear that we are not welcomed by a significant minority of earth's population. There have always been those who do not want us here: their numbers are growing, and no matter what we do to protect and improve the lives of everyone on this world, there will always be those who resent us. This places not only ourselves in danger, but any humans who are associated with us. This we cannot have."
     "Sir, wouldn't that be dangerous for the humans? Many of them have come to depend on us for protection." Ironhide leaned forwards, optics intent. "And we have promised them we would not leave them in danger..."
     Prowl interrupted. "You were not authorised to make such promises. My studies of the humans show them to be perfectly capable of defending themselves."
     "Yeah, by killing each other off! We're supposed to protect sentient beings."
     "Not by interfering in their culture and history."
     "We've already done that by sharing our technology!"
     "That would never have been my choice or my advice."
     "So you're dissing Optimus now?"
     There was a moment's silence while Prowl looked up the term, then, "My advice would have been to remain in disguise, in our alt modes, as we are supposed to do. Our restitution, after the Sentinel incident, should have been simply to repair the physical damage."
     Optimus raised his servos. "This argument is pointless. What's done is done and we cannot change it. We must now look to the future, our own and the humans. We have given them the ability to feed and house themselves more effectively, advanced their scientific disciplines, built them a lunar base, and removed all currently-dangerous space-borne debris."
     "And for all this, they want us off their planet." Wheeljack snorted in disgust. "Ungrateful fraggers."
     "Not all of them, Wheeljack. Far more of them are grateful and appreciative. But we must consider the wishes of all." Optimus tilted his helm. "This is not our world."
     "And Mars isn't far away." Skyfire spoke calmly. "It takes Starflare and I just a few hours to cover the distance."
     "Which is good and useful, but not the same as us being on site." Ironhide folded his arms over his chest and glowered from the screen. "And what about those of us who have... bonded with our humans? Don't we get a say in all this?"
     Poppy glanced over her shoulder at 'Beat standing tense and quiet behind her. He and Stronghold appeared to be holding hands with Blue... She turned back to the screen and tentatively raised a hand. Everyone immediately quietened and gazed at her.
     "If I may... Sir, you know how short lived we humans are, especially when compared to you. If you have to go, and I do understand your concerns, couldn't people who have grown attached stay with their humans, keeping to alt mode mostly, until those humans have... died? That would be... what, maybe a century at most? And if those humans are at risk, having someone to guard us would be a good idea..."
     An electronic muttering came from the screen, and Optimus pressed two of his digits to his forehelm between his optics. Poppy smiled to herself: he'd unconsciously picked up some human mannerisms.
     "Poppy, that is nearly every Cybertronian on earth."
     What sounded distinctly like a chuckle came from Ironhide, and Poppy sighed.
     "Oh. Yes, I suppose it would be. Well, what if we went with you? You're creating a human habitation, aren't you? You could just make it bigger - a self-sustaining biodome. Muncher would help, I know he would."
     Optimus considered the idea, and turned to Ratchet. "Is that feasible?"
     "Feasible, but not advisable. As you know the two worlds have different gravities. Once humans have properly adapted to Mars's lighter gravity, returning to earth would create major physical problems. They would need to return to earth periodically to readapt. Assuming they did not intend to live the rest of their lives on Mars, that is."
     And that gave Poppy pause. Did she want to stay in their world strongly enough to give up earth? Earth with its oceans and endless variety of living, growing things, its broad skies and infinitely changeable clouds...
     Mars was desolate and dusty, albeit with its own stark beauty. But she'd never be able to experience it in full, only from within a sealed vessel.
     That was going to require a lot of thought...
     In the meantime the discussion was continuing. The General and Lennox definitely didn't want to lose the Cybertronians: they had made international peacekeeping a lot easier. And Hound and Trailbreaker had, between them, eradicated a large proportion of the poaching that had been such a problem. But the number of groups that could actually be a threat was increasing, and there were an awful lot of little Cybertronians on earth, ones who had no way of protecting themselves except by staying hidden - and most of them no longer stayed hidden. After their existence became common knowledge they'd revealed themselves to their human 'owners'...
     After an hour nothing had been decided, although the scope of the problem had been established. Optimus called for an adjournment and a follow-up conference in a week's time, to give NEST time to consider their options, then said farewell and closed the feed. Poppy turned to the others, expression worried.
     "They're going to go to Mars, aren't they? I could hear it in the Prime's voice."
     Stronghold nodded, reluctantly. "Although he will most likely allow those of us who wish it to stay here. But he thinks it would be safer for all involved - and I have to say I agree with him. Now that humans have learned they can use our sparks as sources of energy, none of us are completely safe."
     Poppy sighed. "I'm sorry. After everything you've done for us... we haven't treated you very well, have we."
     'Beat laid a servo on her shoulder. "You have, Poppy, you and your colleagues, and the majority of your species."
     "But there's always someone determined to spoil things." She shook her head and half-smiled mirthlessly at Phil. "Well, we have some decisions to make. Let's get a coffee and talk."

Ratchet turned from the screen and frowned at Jolt, who had been listening in on the conference. ::Oh dear. That'll cause ructions..."
     Jolt :nodded:. ::At least you and I don't have a human... I assume you'll be based here?::
     ::Most likely. Though I'll anticipate going to and fro for a while, until things are settled. Knock Out can always deputise for me on earth if need be - though I expect he'd rather be here. He's not fond of humans:: He shook his head and beckoned to Jolt to follow him. ::We have more important things to do::
     After Ratchet had run exhaustive scans on the city, repaired the surprisingly little damage he had suffered and brought all his basic systems online, the doctor had rebooted Metroplex's medical facility, in preparation for possible casualties among the Cybertronians the city had been protecting on his long, long journey. There were 759 spark-signatures, refugees in stasis, in the large, heavily protected vault close to the city's own spark, most of them unknown to Ratchet. There were some, however, who were very familiar, among them Hot Rod, Perceptor - and Thundercracker? What was a 'Con Seeker doing in a 'Bot city? Though that being said, his loyalty to the 'Con cause always had been a little suspect.
     What his presence might do to Starstream remained to be seen. Ratchet would have Nova examine the Seeker before anything in the nature of a meeting was allowed, at least.
     He was delighted to find Perceptor had survived. Jolt only knew the scientist by reputation, and was looking forward to meeting him. Ratchet had already decided he'd be the first to be revived, and was eager to make a start, but Prime had said he wished to be there to greet each citizen as they onlined, and that, of course, was his right.
     He was currently on his way back to Mars in Skyfire, who was also transporting a group of smaller Cybertronians who had leapt at the chance to get back to living in a real Cybertronian city on a world where they didn't have to fear for their sparks.
     No doubt there would be more to come, and Ratchet and his team would make sure they were safe. Metroplex himself was already powering up his internal systems, preparing living quarters and energon stations for his inhabitants: by the time Prime arrived - in about an hour and a half - everything would be ready for him.
     Ratchet :smiled: at Jolt. ::Right. Let's get Perceptor ready for his rebirth...::

© JAT 1.6.14

Part 18 - Decisions

::Thank you, but I would much rather remain here::
     It was pretty much what Ratchet had expected, although he had hoped that Perceptor might be intrigued enough to spend at least a little time on earth. But as the scientist had pointed out, all the information available on earth was easily accessible, one way or another, no matter where he was; he saw no reason to subject himself to the atmospheric and ground-based pollutants and irritants of the larger, dirtier planet. Bad enough that the dust on Mars had to be constantly flushed from his systems: at least here he could seal off his lab inside Metroplex to keep everything sterile.
     Prime had remained on Mars long enough to greet the refugees - Ratchet had revived everyone except Thundercracker, wanting to have Optimus's authorisation before risking such a thing - and make sure the newcomers from earth had settled comfortably within the city before heading back. He'd agreed with the doctor that onlining the Seeker without some form of security wasn't advisable: he'd speak with Sunstreaker and Sideswipe, neither of whom were particularly happy on earth and would, he thought, be much happier here. If they were in agreement, he'd return with them and make sure he was present when Ratchet brought the jet back online.
     Neither of them thought having Starstream here would be a good idea. In fact, Prime believed it might be best not to tell the Seeker that his fellow jet was here, at least until they could establish if he remembered Thundercracker - and what their relationship had been if so.
     ::What do you have planned?::
     Perceptor inclined his helm. ::Orientation for myself, to start with. I have almost forgotten what it feels like not to have to fight. Then I will need to review my old files to ensure I do not duplicate old projects:: He gazed at Ratchet for a klik. ::This is a diverse and interesting system, and the humans exploration of it cursory at best - not their fault, they simply do not have the resources or sufficiently advanced technology to perform any kind of deeper investigation. If we are to remain here for any length of time I would like to rectify that. I am confident the Prime will authorise it, and hopefully Skyfire will agree to accompany me. I assume he retains his indefatigable scientific curiosity::
     ::I'm sure he does. And I'm sure he'll be happy to oblige. I'm pretty sure the sparkling fliers will want to go with you, too. Wavefront and Windchaser. Starscream's hatchlings - Starstream as he is now::
     ::Yes. I've read your report. A most unlikely occurrence::
     ::But good for us. You'll no doubt meet him at some point::
     ::No doubt:: He turned to leave the medbay. ::Do feel free to visit my lab any time, doctor - and comm me if you have need of my services::
     As Ratchet nodded and turned back to the list of repairs required for the refugees, Perceptor headed into the inner city.

"I've decided." Poppy took a swallow of her coffee, rested her chin on her fist, and eyed Phil speculatively. "I'm not going to miss the opportunity to live on Mars."
     Phil nodded. "First Martian Consul. It's a hell of a thought."
     "Would you come with me?"
     "Try and stop me!"
     "I guess we could schedule rotations, if the other consuls want to be part of this. I know it's a lot further to go than the moon, but the starcraft don't seem to mind. I got the feeling Starflare, at least, hates being restricted to earth-moon and the asteroid belt. And power doesn't seem to be a problem."
     "It's their plating. Millions of tiny solar panels designed to take full advantage of the least little amount of light. I wish they'd share it with us."
     Poppy frowned. "They won't?"
     Phil shook his head. "Not now. Graham spoke with Lennox, and the word is - confidentially - that given the current situation on earth, our guests have decided to restrict us to earth and the moon rather than help us go further, though they won't stop us from developing our own space-faring technology. It'll just take us a lot longer and not be anywhere near so efficient, though. And confidentially, I think that's very wise. Until the species grows up a little, we shouldn't be allowed free reign in the galaxy."
     "Sad, but I agree." Poppy sighed, thinking of the various conflicts around the planet. Living with Cybertronians had, she suddenly realised, given her quite a different, outsider, perspective on her own species. She mentally shook herself and smiled. "On a different tack, what do you think about living permanently on Mars?"
     "Not keen on the idea of permanently living in a sealed biodome. We could always ask them about the possibility of terraforming the planet, but even with their tech I doubt it could be done in an average human lifetime."
     "Mm. True." She finished her coffee and smiled as Steamy scrambled up onto the table and raised a servo to get her attention. "Yes, little 'un?"
     "Can I come with you? You'll still need feeding, won't you?"
     "Wouldn't you rather stay here? Your cooking is legendary, you know. People apply to come here on the strength of that alone. Iacon House just wouldn't be the same without you..."
     "Yes, but Steamy's place is with Poppy." The little transformer put on his 'stubborn' face and folded his arms over his torso. "I can't trust anyone else to look after you properly."
     Phil chuckled. "And this is what Ironhide and the Prime were talking about. What do you bet the rest of 'your' transformers will insist on going with you?"
     She covered her eyes with a hand. "Oh dear. Yes, I imagine they will."
     And that was going to be a problem. Although Iacon House was the UK Consulate, it was also, of course, a centre of knowledge and study. If everyone wanted to go to Mars, they'd lose half the teaching staff.
     At least it would only be a problem for the UK. The other Consulates were just that. They could be relocated if necessary without too much upheaval. Abla would vouch for that: she and her staff were comfortably settled in the new Madagascan Consulate and enjoying the more peaceful location. And the beautiful and unique environment.
     Well, she couldn't do anything about it right now. The planned conference had been postponed until all the newcomers in Metroplex had been assessed and repaired, and Prime had scheduled a series of meetings with human heads of state to discuss the situation, to start as soon as Ratchet confirmed all was well on Mars. 'Spin and Lenses had been drafted - very reluctantly in 'Spin's case - to help out with repairs, and Wheeljack volunteered to go with them to cast an expert optic over Metroplex's internal mechanical systems and build, or reignite, the essential foundry - and start organising the building of the human's biodome. It left earth dangerously low on medical and scientific Cybertronians, but that couldn't be helped.
     In the meantime she and Phil had time to decide what they wanted to do. Short term, Poppy knew she was going to be the first human on Mars. Long term... that would require more thought.

Prowl regarded the Prime sombrely on the screen at Iacon House. ::Let me speak to him. I knew them both well when we were still at war, and my perspective is more objective than anyone else's::
     Prime was unsure of the wisdom of that, although he had to admit that Prowl and Starstream had obviously come to an understanding, if not an actual friendship, since the strategist's arrival on earth. And the Seeker had to be told about Thundercracker soon: he was already requesting a visit to Mars after hearing Wavefront chattering enthusiastically about the planet.
     ::I will sanction it. But you are to be... gentle. We do not know how much he remembers about his trine, or how close they were::
     ::I understand. I will be circumspect::
     Five hours later Skylynx 1 landed on Diego Garcia. Starstream was, as usual, in his nest, researching human mythology, something he found fascinating. Prowl climbed up to join him, :comming: ahead: the Seeker smiled as the strategist entered and gestured to one of the oversized floor cushions the jets used as seating.
     ::Please, be comfortable:: He paused the datastream running on his console and dropped oddly gracefully down beside the grounder. ::It is not often you visit::
     ::I regret that. But my duties at the Consulate and its environs do not allow me much leisure::
     ::Which argues that this is not what the humans would call a 'social call'. What may I do for you?::
     Prowl produced two beakers of Energon, handing one to the jet. Starstream took it and regarded the grounder, :expression: sardonic.
     ::Does this mean you have bad news for me?::
     It took Prowl a moment to work out what the Seeker meant - then he shook his helm.
     ::No. At least, I don't think so. I hope not... Do you remember your trine? Thundercracker and Skywarp?::
     Starstream tilted his helm in thought, running through what little was left of his patchy memories as Starscream. A blue Seeker, strong, exceptionally powerful sonic weapon. And a vague memory of someone who could manipulate quantum fields, effectively teleport. Purple? And black? Thundercracker and Skywarp were their names?
     He shook his helm. ::No. At least, only as indistinct images. And maybe their specific abilities. Why? Are they here?::
     ::Thundercracker is. He is in stasis in Metroplex::
     ::Ah. This was why the Prime wouldn't authorise my visit::
     Prowl :grinned:. Starstream may appear naïve, but he certainly wasn't stupid. Then again, he'd been a member of the Science Academy for millennia before the war, and his kind of scientific bent was spark deep. He nodded.
     ::Mostly, he did not want you put at risk. We never knew the full significance of Seeker trines::
     Starstream :shrugged:. ::It depended on what the individual members required of the alliance. For some, it was support, friendship; for others it was a military bond, a fighting unit. For yet others it was a family relationship, close, trusting, often what the humans would call 'romantic'. These last were, I believe, the groups who created hatchlings. It was a safe environment in which to raise young, you see. But during the war... I don't know. I would assume no one would risk it::
     ::I see:: Prowl :frowned:. ::And your specific trine?::
     The Seeker raised his servos helplessly. ::I don't remember. It may be that mine was the latter. It would explain why my creator protocols exist, wouldn't it?::
     Would it? It was certainly a logical assumption... ::You fought together as a unit very effectively. Our forces were very wary of you. Well, except for the twins, of course...::
     ::I will have to take your word for that. I don't remember::
     Prowl nodded. ::I will have to speak to him - rather, Optimus will speak to him - but afterwards... would you like to meet him?::
     Starstream :shrugged: again. ::I suppose it would make sense. Seekers are in short supply. But I would like to know his response to my... change. In fact, I would like to know his response to the news that I still function as well. If it can be recorded, that would be best. Tone and pitch may be quite revealing::
     ::A good idea. I will let Prime know::
     There was a short pause, then, his :voice: a little apprehensive, Starstream asked, ::What will happen if it turns out he hates me as I am?::
     ::Then we will keep you apart. And he will be instructed as to your value within our community, and that the quality of his future will depend on his overcoming such negative feelings:: He laid a servo comfortingly on the jet's shoulder. ::Don't worry, my friend. We will not let any harm come to you::
     ::Thank you:: The Seeker's field relaxed under Prowl's reassurance. ::It is good to know I have a family now::

Walker's reception back into the True Human Brotherhood was hardly rapturous, but his skills - and the fact that everyone was terrified of him - ensured that he was taken back. Zender had glowered at the smugly grinning mercenary.
     "You do understand this is your last chance, don't you? If you betray us again, I will order your assassination."
     "Yeah yeah. If you can get close enough. Now, what have I missed?"
     "Since THAB was closed down? Something is happening on Mars - we don't know what. There are rumours that the aliens are leaving, they may be going there, travelling in those two huge space 'bots. We've been moderately successful in our efforts to foment unrest across the world. Not here, of course, tolerant idiots that my fellow countrymen are proving to be. But the situation in the Middle East, and the south of the US, is getting quite nasty. Mix conspiracy theory with fundamentalist religion and you have the potential for a great deal of violence. We just have to make sure we are placed to take full advantage of it."
     "And how you planning to do that, then?"
     "That's where you come in... Do we know how many of them are still on earth? If not, how can we find out? There are a lot of the smaller ones, we know that much. How can we capture them? How can we capture the big ones? What weapons do we have? What weapons are effective against them?"
     "You don't want to know much, do you?"
     Unseen by Walker, Zender clenched his fist in frustration. "You practically lived with three of them for months. Can you help?"
     "Yes. Yes, I can, but it'll take me some time. And I'll need some decent equipment."
     Zender turned to Hawkins. "Make sure the man has what he needs."

::It's good to see you again::
     Sunstreaker grinned at Ratchet and slapped Wheeljack on the back. ::It's great to see a real, genuine city again! Those pokey tiny little fleshbag conurbations get right up your exhaust if you spend too much time in 'em." He spread his arms and swung his gaze around the medbay. ::This is so comfortable...::
     Ratchet nodded and glanced at Optimus, who was standing behind the twins. The Prime smiled.
     ::They are happy to be here, and wish to stay - they have even, wisely, chosen new alternative modes to be able to move around the Martian landscape more easily::
     Sideswipe grinned and transformed. His new shape was still elegant and streamlined, but now featured tracks instead of wheels, and had far fewer external seams to trap the sand and dust. Sunstreaker tapped the sturdy metal.
     ::Mine's the same. It can actually achieve a fair turn of speed, despite its looks::
     ::Very sensible:: It was something that Ratchet would have to consider for himself, once he had decided on which planet he'd be spending most of his time. But right now he was eager to revive Thundercracker, and establish why he was here. Metroplex had been unable to tell anyone, and none of the other refugees even remembered the blue Seeker coming aboard...
     Jolt ushered them through to the secure chamber where the jet's inert form lay sprawled on a medical berth. ::Here's something, though...: the electrical medic indicated the Seeker's somewhat ragged looking wings. ::His 'Con brands have been removed. As far as I can tell a mixture of acid and scraping were used to get rid of them - it must have been very painful and I believe they were self-inflicted::
     ::How so?:: the Prime was frowning. Jolt indicated the angle of the scratches, which matched up perfectly with the angles of the Seeker's claws.
     ::And the acid was applied unevenly. Some of the burns are deep:: Jolt shuddered, knowing how sensitive Seeker wings were. ::I wonder why?::
     Optimus was about to opine that maybe he wanted to hide his allegiance when Ratchet :said:, with some asperity, ::If you'll stand aside and let me online him you can ask him yourself!::
     The Prime :apologised: and moved out of the way: Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, weapons ready, stood to either side of the berth. Ratchet hardlined to the Seeker's medical port at the back of his neckstrut, and all went quiet for a few kliks.
     Then Thundercracker's optics lit up. He stared at Ratchet, then up at the Prime - and whimpered.
     "I'm sorry. Please... don't hurt me."
     Optimus laid both servos gently on the jet's shoulders, his voice soothing.
     "We aren't going to hurt you, Thundercracker. You're inside Metroplex, on a planet known as Mars. It's our new home. The war is over."
     Sideswipe glanced at his twin, comm. private.
     ::I heard rumours that he wasn't exactly dedicated to the 'Con cause. Only went along with it because he was afraid of Megatron::
     ::Mm. Not the courageous type then::
     ::I think it's more complicated than that...::
     Sunstreaker affected an ostentatious yawn. ::Not really interested...::
     Sideswipe :sighed: No, he wouldn't be...
     The Seeker was trembling, gaze switching between Prime, Ratchet and the twins.
     "It's over? You won, obviously... Where's Megatron?"
     Optimus vented quietly and bowed his helm. "Terminated. Come the end, we couldn't reach a compromise."
     The Seeker exvented quietly and relaxed under the Prime's servos. "And my trine?"

© JAT 5.7.14

Part 19 - Reconnecting

"But he is online? And well?"
     "He is. He doesn't really remember you, however."
     "That... may be just as well. We were never the most... amicable of trines." He raised a servo as Ratchet tensed. "No, doctor. That was then, and I always regretted it. Starscream was brilliant, but insane. And Megatron's treatment of him simply made everything worse. We were forced together for our individual abilities and combat skills, and we resented it. If we'd been allowed to develop our relationship naturally... We could have been friends. Or more - Starscream was beautiful and oddly protective of us, and Skywarp had the potential to be a loving, caring mate."
     He rubbed a servo across his optics, wings lowered dejectedly. "The war ruined everything."
     Optimus laid a servo on his shoulder.
     "But now we all have the opportunity to start anew, here, on this empty world. Would you like to meet Starstream?"
     "... I would."
     "Then we will arrange it."

Starstream was visibly nervous: Prowl rested both servos on his shoulders from behind, :calm: pulsing through his field.
     ::It will be all right, my friend. I am here::
     The Seeker nodded, then tensed as the screen came to life. The figure on the other end looked only very vaguely familiar. He raised a servo, tentatively.
     "Greetings... Thundercracker?"
     The blue Seeker stared at his image, optics flickering, for a moment, then smiled hesitantly.
     "Starstream... You look very different from your old self..."
     "So I understand... You will have to forgive me. I don't remember you."
     "That's probably just as well. We weren't the best of friends." He smiled. "But the Prime says we have a new start here. That we can begin again, get it right this time. I... would like us to be friends."
     "Seekers always should be, there are so few of us left."
     Thundercracker inclined his helm.
     "So... you're willing to try?"
     "Of course."
     The blue Seeker visibly untensed, his gaze moving to Prowl standing behind Starstream. "Greetings Prowl."
     "You remember me."
     "Hard to forget the Autobot's strategic genius. You are looking in fine form. You are Star's protector?"
     "His friend."
     Thundercracker's optics flickered in astonishment.
     "Friend? Frag, things have changed!"
     "Is that a problem?"
     "No. Absolutely not!" He settled back on his seat and smiled. "I look forward to meeting you too. The Prime says he'd rather we met on Mars than on earth. I think I may be on probation..."
     "Undoubtedly." Prowl nodded once. "But as long as you are genuine in your renunciation of the Decepticons and their creed, that need not last for any great length of time."
     The blue Seeker inclined his helm and turned back to Starstream, expression softening. "I will see you soon, Star. We have a lot to talk about."
     As understatements went, that was a winner.
     As they signed off Starstream turned to the strategist. "Why would he think you're my protector?"
     "Probably because you're a lot smaller and look more delicate than before."
     "Oh. Yes, I suppose that must be it." He was silent for a moment, then swivelled to face Prowl. "Has the Prime said when I may make the trip?"
     "In three days. This first time you'll travel in Skyfire rather than fly there yourself. Knock Out will go with you, along with the next batch of neutrals."
     The Seeker nodded. "Will you come too?"
     "Not this time. I'm still needed here. But I shall make the trip at some point. I have not yet decided where I wish to be based: experiencing the other world should help me make the choice."
     Starstream exvented quietly. "A pity. But I understand."
     "You will be safe. We will not allow anything to happen to you. Sunstreaker and Sideswipe are now permanently stationed on Mars and have been seconded to keep an optic on you. Most of the population of Metroplex either don't know you were once Starscream, or are our own neutrals who know your story and will keep silent."
     The Seeker pressed a servo against Prowl's torso, above his spark chamber.
     "Thank you."
     ::You're welcome::

"All this coming and going is leaving me dizzy." Poppy grinned at Phil. "Who's off next?"
     "A whole bunch of little 'uns from Europe, Knock Out and Starstream, and they're picking up the lunar team on their way. Wheeljack's surveyed the area and started construction of the biodome, but he needs help and of course they need Muncher to start experimenting with plants to see what we can grow."
     Poppy nodded. "He says he's taking some of the hybrids with him to see if they can be engineered any further. It's a good idea: they're already adapted to a reduced gravity and have a high oxygen yield. He's hoping he might be able to devise something that will actually grow in what passes for Martian soil." She grinned. "That'll be interesting."
     "I hope it doesn't take too long..."
     Phil was fully aware of how eager Poppy was to get to Mars. She was taking a very keen interest in developments, and had seen the design for the weight suits that NEST was developing to compensate for the lesser gravity - comfortable coveralls that would make the wearer the same weight as on earth - and the Rangers, the sleek Martian vehicles they were building for transport across the harsh surface (the same vehicles, although she didn't know it, that Sunstreaker and Sideswipe had scanned for their new alt modes). To start with water would need to be brought in, but they had hopes that solar stills might be viable - and there was always the possibility of finding frozen water under the surface.
     It was all very exciting!
     "Well, given how quickly Muncher and his team got the Artemis base and its attendant greenhouse constructed, I'd say a couple of months, max. Then we get to be the first humans to leave the earth-moon system."
     Poppy hugged herself elatedly. "I can't wait!"
     Phil chuckled and kissed her cheek. "'fraid you're going to have to, for a little while yet anyway."
     "Mm..." Poppy's expression became dreamy. "I'm going to ask Muncher if we can try growing flowers... imagine Martian roses. Or jasmine. Or daphnes! They'd grow huge!"
     "No harm asking. Though I think the priority will be food plants."
     "True. But we can probably make a psychological case. Flowers - and fragrances - of home. They'd help us feel less... alien."
     "That's a good idea." And if anyone could persuade them, Poppy could. It would be good to have something that smelt nice to live in...
     "I suppose we should start thinking about how to run both places at the same time. I believe it may be time to promote Beverley to vice-consul. Or maybe even consul, if everyone is in agreement." Poppy regarded Phil sombrely. "I should really have done it before now. She knows the minutiae of running Iacon House better than I do! And Rowan is proving herself near perfect as assistant. She should probably be promoted to PA."
     Phil eyed her warily. "Uh, how long are you planning to stay on Mars?"
     "Oh, several months, at least. It's a long way to go, after all."
     Not that that was any excuse, given how fast the starcraft could move. And Phil knew, although it hadn't been spoken of yet, that the powers that be on earth wanted a permanent human presence on Mars, if for no other reason than to establish a precedent should the Cybertronians decide to declare it robot territory.
     Like that would actually fly! Still, it gave Poppy, and himself, what they wanted for now.
     "And on a more flippant note, I suppose we need to decide what personal items we want to take with us..."
     Phil knew Poppy always travelled light - but it was good to know they didn't have to worry about weight restrictions in Skyfire. He was hoping Blue and 'Beat would choose Ranger alt modes so they could go too. Matthew had already put in his request to go with them, but his place wasn't so certain: with his SASF background and training, he was considered to be an invaluable part of NEST and might be needed should the current unrest in... well, most places, actually... spill over into outright fighting.
     Which was a pity, as Phil knew just how much he wanted to visit - as much for the patriotic kudos as anything. Eh well. Perhaps the General would change his mind.
     In the meantime... Poppy was right. It was exciting.

Walker scowled at the screen, not at all happy with what he was seeing. There were far fewer of the smaller bots on earth than there had been when he'd had Soundwave check, back when they'd been with the THAB. There were complaints (from those who had got used to their little alien servants and weren't happy about having to do everything themselves again), some thanks (from others who felt honoured to have been the recipients of their help), and even some sorrow from humans who'd had the gall to make friends with them, scattered over the 'net. Barricade was now fighting alongside the infamous Ironhide, and apparently Knock Out was nowhere to be found: Walker had to assume he'd met the same fate as the rest. Gone to Mars, that is.
     A large number of telescopes, both professionally and amateur operated, were keeping tabs on the comings and goings of the starcraft, and it had become obvious that Mars was their destination.
     And that was a problem for Walker. His value to Zender - to anyone, actually - depended on his ability to help them capture at least one of the aliens. Which he couldn't do if they were all moving to Mars!
     ... except for that group in Agadem. The energon production facility out in the desert. Not the easiest of places to get to, but at least he could guarantee there would be Cybertronians still there.
     They were small ones, too, easier to handle.
     So... how to manage this...

Poppy was dismayed, but tried her best not to show it. Perceptor had invited Sliderule, Reagent, Retort, Sinewave and Vault to join him on Mars, and they were all seriously considering accepting. They all liked earth - but it wasn't home. Admittedly neither was Mars, but at least there they'd have the chance to rebuild their civilisation in true Cybertronian fashion. The lighter gravity would mean Vault and Sinewave could create the sorts of buildings they used to design back home, and decorate them however they wanted. There would be no need to scale them for human use, or make allowances for human frailties.
     The human world had had years of their work, their expertise, and was much the richer for it. They'd asked for nothing in return except shelter and the use of free sunlight to transform into energon to fuel themselves. Yet they were being increasingly reviled and harassed. Poppy couldn't understand why. The damage that had been caused by their war was miniscule on a global scale, and was really mostly local, it couldn't be that.
     But they were alien, and ancient, and powerful. Many - most - humans didn't understand them, and feared them and their ability to hide in plain sight. It meant their perception of their safe world and their safe, inanimate machines was threatened.
     And maybe the thought that they could outlive the entire human species might have had something to do with it. Humans were very jealous, covetous creatures.
     It was probably just as well no humans, even Poppy, knew that Perceptor had resurrected the space bridge project, and was already assembling the raw materials...

© JAT 20.7.14

Part 20 - Reconnecting pt 2

"OK, so, we can't offer Cybertronian teaching anymore, but we must be able to do something. We're all set up for it, it would be a shame to waste it. Uh... human-Cybertronian relations? Xenoculture and technology? Extraterrestrial ethics?" Aaron raised his hands. "There must be something..."
     The academic side of the Consulate felt empty. Sliderule, Reagent and Retort had stayed long enough to finish the courses they were currently running, then had travelled to Mars, where they were 'helping Perceptor with his projects'. Quite what projects had been left deliberately vague, although Poppy put that down to them being too abstruse and complex to be easily explained to a simple human. Phil and Matthew, being NEST operatives and by nature suspicious, weren't so sure, but since there was nothing they could do about it they let it rest for now.
     Poppy frowned. "Of course we won't let it to go to waste. We'll keep the teaching arm going, but with a change of focus. I've asked Optimus for permission to have Hound and Trailbreaker download the databases of their galactic voyages - well, as much as can fit on our own equipment, anyway! - so that humanity can learn about the species and civilisations they share the universe with. And we still have all the courses that our erstwhile teachers left behind: we'll have scientists of all descriptions visiting. While the Consulates exist our computers will stay on earth, and with instantaneous comms to the community on Mars any queries can be answered pretty much immediately."
     "Ah." Aaron was abashed. "You've thought it all out already."
     Poppy raised an eyebrow, but didn't deign to reply, and seconds later Ramp beeped to get her attention.
     "Jolt is sending images of the biodome."
     Poppy grinned and seated herself, gazing intently at the screen. The dome was large and spacious, the external shell seamless, a vast semi-spherical translucent bubble inside which the rich dark green of the mosses Muncher was experimenting with positively glowed in the muted light. In the middle was a low, large building faced in white. Andraste, the Martian Consulate... Poppy shivered as a thrill of anticipation raced through her.
     The view switched to inside the dome, and a slow circuit of the 'garden'. At the rear of the house were small shrubs, their foliage dark red and black, a massive greenhouse already full of fruit and vegetables, and accommodation for fowl and fish. They wouldn't be fully self-sufficient, but they'd certainly be able to fulfil their basic nutritional needs for the time being.
     Inside the building was plain and austere, although that would change as soon as Poppy got the floor plans and could arrange furnishings. There were five personal apartments, communal kitchen/dining room, communication centre, recreation centre and four offices: everything was scaled for the humans and their guardian mecha.
     "They'll be putting in the pool later."
     Poppy stared. "Pool?"
     The camera angle reversed, revealing Jolt's uniquely alien face. "Ratchet says swimming is an excellent way for humans to stay fit and healthy. So we're going to create a pool for you."
     "Isn't that a bit extravagant?" Getting the water there wasn't so much of a problem, but how were they to keep it clean? And surely it would evaporate...
     "Apparently you're worth it. Muncher has devised plants that will filter it to keep it clean and hygienic. And it will help to keep the biosystem functioning."
     Well, if Ratchet and Muncher had both been involved in the design, there was no doubt it would work.
     "Thank you."
     A flicker of electricity skittered over Jolt's face as his lipplates moved in his equivalent of a smile. "You're welcome."
     He turned the camera again, and Poppy gasped. A short distance from the biodome was... it had to be the city. Metroplex.
     He was huge.
     And oddly beautiful, gleaming in the distant sunlight. A living city...
     She wondered what sort of a mind a living city must have...
     She couldn't wait to explore!
     But Jolt had turned the camera back to the house.
     "We believe we have covered everything, but if there is anything missing, let us know. I am transferring the plans now." In the corner of the office Poppy's printer purred to itself. "I will leave you to take a look. Comm us with your instructions. We estimate the dome will be ready for you in a month."
     A month! Poppy gripped the arms of her chair to stop herself from wriggling in an entirely undignified manner.
     A month, and they'd be on Mars...

Thundercracker ran his gaze over Starstream, from helm to stabilising servos and back again - and very much liked what he saw. The Seeker's new frame was smaller and less powerful, yes, but elegant and graceful and considerably more appealing than his last. It looked as though it would be exceptionally fast, as well. His respect for the irascible Ratchet went up exponentially. He extended a servo: Starstream tentatively reached his own and lightly clasped it. Thundercracker :smiled:, field registering relief.
     "I am glad you survived."
     Starstream half-smiled back. "Likewise. Though I'd be interested in knowing how."
     "It's long story..."
     "We have plenty of time."
     The blue Seeker led Starstream over to a seating area where two large beakers of energon awaited them. Thundercracker was aware of Sunstreaker and Sideswipe hovering - surprisingly discreetly - a short distance away, but was for the most part able to disregard them.
     "How much do you remember?"
     The silver Seeker :shrugged:. "Very little. I know you and Skywarp as names, colours and abilities - but only vaguely. I don't remember our... relationship at all."
     "Hm." Thundercracker :frowned: "You remember we constituted the Command Trine?"
     "Prowl has told me so. I remember fighting and killing. And pain. A lot of pain. But the specifics - they escape me."
     Thundercracker debated internally whether it would be a good idea to tell his erstwhile leader too many details. His previous life had been anything but pleasant... and the Prime had said this was their chance to make a new start.
     "Perhaps that's for the best. Let's begin again."

A focussed Walker was an exceptionally dangerous Walker, and he was currently very focussed indeed. He gazed at the energon manufactory through the night vision scope from a mile away, lying flat on a low rocky hill. It was nondescript from a distance, looked similar to any of the other refineries in the area, except for the plethora of solar panels covering every sky-facing surface. Alien tech in action, obviously.
     Still, their security looked to be minimal, at least from here. Probably got lax after years of peace. He patted the small case at his side: Newman had cobbled together a portable small energon detector he would use to track his target once he'd gained access. And he'd gain access the way he usually did, sneak up on and kill a guard then take his place. Most of them were in desert fatigues anyway, unshaven, sweaty, in legionnaire caps and sunglasses or goggles. He'd fit in just fine.
     He'd memorised the daily routine by now, and made his way, inconspicuously, through the lengthening shadows, down to the manufactory as the sun was setting. The soldiers were tired by then, exhausted by the heat of the day and eager for their evening meal, and careless because of it. Walker chose someone of similar build to himself, walking along a wall by himself, confident that in the half-light of evening he should be able to take the soldier's place without alerting anyone.
     In the shadow of an overhanging wall he quietly and efficiently slid his favourite knife between the soldier's ribs and into his heart, one hand swiftly over his victim's mouth to stifle any sound. The man died without a sound, and Walker removed his ID and gun, shoving the body roughly between a couple of low boulders. He'd be in, out and long gone before it was discovered the next day.
     He grunted and waved a hand negligently at the couple of men who muttered half-hearted, tired salutations - since no-one seemed surprised he assumed the identity he'd stolen belonged to a loner, and a not particularly popular one - and made his way seemingly purposefully deeper into the complex. Once out of sight of the mass of staff he checked the detector. Good. Ten signals, three of them close together and small, the rest more widely separated and larger. He'd aim for the smaller robots once the evening meals started being served; there should be less humans around then, for an hour or so.
     He debated which one to try for. It would have to be small - Grounds or Hotpot, perhaps, as they'd been known when that fucking traitor Moss was sheltering them. He fingered the other device Newman had made, a miniature EMP generator, not big enough to cause any major damage, but enough to disable the small ones for him to... retrieve one.
     He'd need a diversion. It should be easy enough to blow something up at the other end of the manufactory...

It had been too easy, Walker thought smugly to himself as he gazed at the limp mess of metal and cables on the seat beside him. The little robot hadn't had time to put up a fight before he'd zapped it and made his way quickly out of the burning complex. Now in his jeep heading towards the airfield - where his chopper had better be fucking waiting for him or he'd double his fee for the extraction - he was feeling pretty pleased with himself. He'd be back with the THB in twenty-four hours or less, away from this fucking heat and relaxing in a bath.
     That he'd managed to cause a fairly significant amount of damage with one single grenade added to the satisfaction, of course. It wouldn't stop production, but it should slow it down. And cause everyone considerable nuisance. It was worth it just for that. The fact that he was helping bring about the downfall of the aliens made it all the more sweeter. If only it had been the bastard that'd maimed him. Or even better, one of his kids.
     Ahead of him the rough and ready airfield came into view, and yes, the helicopter was waiting. Good. He grabbed the transformer as he pulled the car up and within ten minutes was on his way back to civilisation.
     Zender should be pleased. Now he owed Walker. The ex-NEST soldier should be able to cash in on that, for a while at least.

© JAT 31.5.15

Part 21 - Journeys

"So, you're saying we can't recreate sparks."
     Newman nodded, nervously, gesturing towards Grounds' spark suspended in a stasis field. "It's a form of energy, we know that - but there's something else, something... I haven't been able to analyse. If I believed in such things, I'd say it's almost like a spiritual element. A soul or some such nonsense."
     Zender scowled. "No such thing."
     "As far as we know." Hawkins added. Zender glared at him, but didn't reply. He turned back to Newman.
     "So is there anything we can do with it?"
     "I'm going to attempt to excise a small part and place it in another stasis field. It may be possible to... make it grow."
     The two non-scientists stared, and Newman's face reddened. "I can't guarantee it will work, but if it does, we won't need to capture any more. We can grow our own."
     There was silence for a few seconds as Zender and Hawkins considered this. If it worked, it would solve a lot of problems: they wouldn't need to risk capturing any more of the robots, hence there'd be no interference from external meddlers; they'd have full control of the new, perfectly clean energy source; and, if the process was fast and reliable enough, they could be up and running in a much shorter space of time. Which was all to the good. In fact, neither of them could think of any impediment.
     "Go ahead." Zender nodded at Newman. "Keep me fully updated. I want a report every day, even if nothing happens."
     "Yes sir." Newman relaxed and gestured to his monitor. "There's some equipment I'll need to requisition..."
     "Anything you need - within reason. A hadron collider is not."
     "Oh, I won't need anything like that sir, just a steady supply of..." Newman's voice tailed off as Zender rolled his eyes.
     "It was a joke."
     Newman reddened again. "Oh... sorry sir."
     Zender waved a hand. "Carry on."
     As the lab door closed behind them Hawkins chuckled.
     "Why do scientists never have a sense of humour?"
     "No idea. I don't care as long as he gets us results." Zender ushered his second in command into the lift. "I'm more interested right now to think about what we're going to do with Walker."
     "Untrustworthy type."
     Zender directed a withering glance at Hawkins. "If that was an attempt at humour, it was a dismal failure."
     Hawkins smiled and waved a hand blithely. "Just an observation. I'm not entirely sure what we can do with Walker. Give him bed and board, keep him under surveillance, and use him as cannon-fodder if need be?"
     "Our attempts at keeping him contained have failed spectacularly in the past."
     "True. So let's find him something to keep him occupied in the meantime. We could always send him back to Agadem for another robot."
     "They'll have increased security after last time. I doubt he'd succeed... then again, that would solve our problem for us..."
     Hawkins smile was sly and malicious. "My point exactly."
     Zender regarded his second in command with new appreciation and nodded. "Let's consider this further..."

Hovering at the edge of the tenuous atmosphere, Thundercracker gazed at Starstream a little ahead of him, field sparkling with admiration and the beginning of a feeling he didn't quite dare to acknowledge. It was partly due to the Seeker's reaction to his story, the sympathy he'd expressed when Thundercracker recounted the millennia of fear-filled running and hiding he'd been forced to do after Starscream had left Cybertron to search for the Allspark. Thundercracker hadn't expected the tale to be received so kindly, and the depth of his gratitude had surprised him. But since then the desire to spend more time - a lot more time, both in the air and on the ground - with the graceful Seeker had grown stronger, and it was disappointing that he'd :felt: no reciprocal wish for anything more than their current friendship. Though the fact that it was friendship rather than anything less intimate was a good start. True bonds took time to grow.
     A thrill of excitement zipped through him at the thought that they now had time to grow. They no longer had to fight.
     Starstream was heading for the bulk of Olympus Mons, and Thundercracker followed him down to land on the summit, transforming as they did and standing motionless for a moment. There was a sense of peace here, and stability and sleeping power. Thundercracker liked it very much.
     ::Shall we rest awhile? I have energon with me::
     Starstream smiled and dropped gracefully to sit on the rust-coloured rock, Thundercracker joining him. They refuelled in silence for a few kliks, then Starstream leaned back on his servos, helm raised to the sky.
     ::I like it here. I liked it on earth, too - such endless variety of sky - but it was constricted. Humans thought they owned it, and sliced it up according to the countries below it. I could not fly where I wanted, not unless I wanted to cause Prime trouble. And after all he'd done, that was the last thing I wanted to do. But this is better. Not such interesting or beautiful skies, but they're all ours::
     ::True:: Thundercracker hesitated, then inclined his head. ::Was it painful, being brought back?::
     Starstream shivered involuntarily. ::Yes. In every way we can feel pain. Ratchet did everything in his power to make the process as easy as possible - but it's not easy. It never could be easy:: He shook his helm and scrubbed a servo over his optics. ::But I am glad he tried. Even gladder he succeeded::
     Thundercracker moved a little closer, allowing their fields to brush together. Starstream's was :quivering: with remembered grief and agony - and fear? Not fear for the present, though, no... He gently wrapped his claws around Starstream's smaller servo. To his joy the Seeker didn't object.
     ::Are you all right?::
     ::I... Thundercracker, did we ever have any... hatchlings?::
     Thundercracker hid his apprehension.
     ::Not while we were together, no. Why do you ask::
     ::Because... I have::
     ::You had hatchlings?::
     ::During our time in this system. The Fallen wanted soldiers. I was... forced to comply::
     A deep cold surge of hatred flooded Thundercracker's spark. Megatron... ::How many?::
     ::There are five left. One of them is Ratchet's. Two are still on earth, the other two are based here but exploring the asteroid belt at present::
     ::May I... may I meet them?::
     Starstream turned to his companion, ice-bright optics searching his face. ::I think... I think they would like that::
     And a flicker of happiness, of hope, blossomed deep inside the newcomer. Mars was the perfect place to raise a family.

Phil grinned widely at the surprisingly chaotic room. "Got everything?"
     Poppy humphed and blew her hair back from her forehead, gazing around her. "How can I possibly be so disorganised? I'm never disorganised!"
     "Well, it's not like we're hopping over to the moon for a few days. This is a more serious excursion."
     They were due to leave for Mars in the morning. Last month they'd both had their appendix removed, 'just in case', and Poppy was now on a long-term course of medication designed to safely prevent 'certain inconvenient natural female issues', as her doctor had said, punningly, with a grin. The medication had been available for a couple of years, a human-Cybertronian co-production proving hugely useful to the female half of earth's population. Ratchet had uploaded everything he could find about human physiology and psychology into his own Martian database, and there were a couple of doctors on call at all times who could be transported to Mars at a moment's notice if needed. Not, said Ratchet, that he expected to have to call on them, but it was always useful to have native backup...
     Skyfire had arrived that afternoon and was currently refuelling on vast amounts of energon, enduring the multitude of cameras and microphones waving in his direction with scholarly aplomb. Poppy had divided her time over the last two weeks tying up Consulate business she didn't want to leave to Beverley and preparing herself for the move...

"No, Poppy. I'm happy to accept the post of Vice-Consulate, but I really don't want the full title."
     Poppy had frowned. "But why not? You're practically running the place as it is!"
     "Yes, but..." Beverley sighed. "I don't want the responsibility. I'm perfectly happy as I am."
     And there'd been no arguing with her, so Poppy had accepted the decision with good grace.
     Most of the consulate's Cybertronians were joining her - in fact, only Ramp, Castle and, most reluctantly, Highdive, were remaining behind, and that state of affairs may not last for very much longer. Nothing was said aloud, but the feeling was that those who left would not be coming back. The rumbles of unrest around the world, the bad feeling towards the aliens that was being fostered by a wide variety of dissident interests, was beginning to cause considerable concern, both at NEST HQ and at the Consulates themselves.
     Graham believed their days were numbered. He'd discreetly had himself fitted for a weight suit, and put his affairs in order.

"Well, at least you don't have to take all your books with you."
     Poppy glowered at her e-reader, now stocked with a full library of classics, all her own favourites, and several years' worth of reading of books she'd always intended to tackle but never found the time. "That's all very well, but nothing beats the feel of a real live book in your hands..."
     "And you have room for plenty, so you won't need to suffer!" Phil grinned. "Just choose your ten or twenty favourites and pack them in a box. Do you have everything else you need?"
     "Oh, I hope so!" She'd packed everything she could imagine she might need, but this was the first time anyone had lived for such a length of time on an alien world, she was sure she'd forgotten something important. But at least there'd be regular deliveries of supplies, thanks to the starcraft: anything she'd forgotten could be included in their cargo. She grinned mischievously. "Do you think I'll need an evening dress?"
     Phil chuckled. "Well, if you've got room. We could always dance in the garden. Two moons, how romantic."
     "Swim suits!" Poppy lunged for her wardrobe and dragged out two halter-neck bathing costumes. "Nearly forgot. Would never do to forget these. We'd have to skinny-dip otherwise."
     Momentarily taken aback by the thought, Phil felt his face reddening, and beat a hasty retreat. "I'll see you at dinner. Better go pack my trunks!"

"Are you sad?"
     Poppy glanced over her shoulder: 'Beat had approached silently over the grass to the pool and now stood behind her. She smiled.
     "No. Well, only a little. I shall miss this - but it's so exciting!" She pointed upwards to a small, red-tinged 'star' below the thin crescent moon. "Mars. And we'll be there tomorrow."
     "You could sound a little happier."
     "Oh, I'm happy enough. And my new alt-mode means I can drive you around the place. That'll be fun. I've just got used to earth, that's all. I like it here."
     "We'll be coming back."
     "Maybe. I hope so."
     Poppy swivelled to stare at him.
     "What do you know?"
     The MGC hesitated for a moment, then vented a sigh. "Talk is that the Prime is worried, and wants us all to stay on Mars. It's not really safe on earth any more, and it's only going to get worse."
     "Oh." Poppy was dismayed, but not surprised. The world was changing. "I see."
     "We'll do what we can, but it might be better if we leave altogether. Safer - for us and for you."
     Poppy nodded, sad but resigned: she'd talk about it with Phil, tomorrow, on the voyage. 'Beat rested a massive servo very gently on her shoulder. "Best come in now. You have an early start."
     Poppy sighed and walked with the MGC back to the house. It was pretty much a given that she'd not be able to sleep, but no doubt she could find a few more things to pack. Or organise. A few last minute instructions to email. Or a last few people to say farewell to.
     After all, it would be a year before she'd be back.

© JAT 17.06.15

Part 22 - Mars

"I don't suppose you could sit still for five minutes, could you?"
     Poppy grinned at Phil, eyes sparkling. "Nope!"
     Though Skyfire's forward viewing port Mars was steadily growing larger, the subtly varying hues of its rich red surface enticing, the bulk of Olympus Mons already clear, the darker chasms of the Valles Marineris simply crying out to be explored. Oh, this was going to be wonderful!
     Skyfire's calm voice echoed slightly. "Please would you both strap in for landing? Just to be safe." He added, with a touch of humour.
     Poppy laughed and seated herself, fastening the restraints and sighing happily. Only a few more minutes and she'd be setting foot on Mars - the first human to ever do so!
     As far as anyone knew, at any rate...
     Unfortunately she wasn't able to do so straight away: 'Beat and Blue first transformed while still inside Skyfire - they'd mostly kept the exterior frame of their earth alt modes, but the interiors were now hermetically sealable and possessed oxygen rebreathers - and a tank of the vital gas in case of emergencies. Safesuits had been designed for human visitors, but, as Ratchet had pointed out, Mars was a hostile place to frail organic flesh: the perchlorates alone could be deadly. They should stay inside the dome, or their guardians, as much as possible. Poppy would still be the first human to set foot on Mars - but inside the dome, where it was safe.
     Poppy wasn't going to argue with Ratchet. As Skyfire landed with an almost imperceptible bump on the dusty surface between Metroplex and the dome, she and Phil climbed into 'Beat, who sealed up and then, with Blue following, rolled sedately down the ramp and onto the red world.
     Poppy was breathless with excitement, eyes wide and gripping Phil's hand tightly. Inside the dome she could see Optimus and Ratchet, waiting to greet them, she thought: a couple of minutes later, as the double airlock sealed behind them, 'Beat and Blue and their humans came to a stop on a roughly flattened area surrounded by red vegetation.
     'Beat checked the external atmosphere, then opened the door. Taking a deep breath (absently noting it smelt nothing like earth) Poppy reverently stepped out onto Mars.
     "Welcome, Poppy, to Consulate Andraste. We hope you will find everything to your liking."
     Poppy beamed up at the Prime. "I'm sure we will, sir. It's a true honour to be here."
     "The honour is ours, my friend. You are very welcome to join us in Metroplex, but most of the city is open to the atmosphere, so I'm afraid safesuits and breathing apparatus will be necessary."
     Poppy waved a hand dismissively. "We'll manage just fine, sir."
     The Prime nodded. "Let us know if there's anything you require. We thought that a couple of days to accustom yourselves to the environment would be useful to start with, then Starstream has offered to take you for a flight around the immediate vicinity, if that is acceptable."
     Acceptable? It was a dream come true. Poppy resisted wriggling delightedly. "We'd be happy and honoured to take him up on the offer."
     "Then I shall let him know, and we will arrange it." Optimus gestured to the domicile in the centre of the dome. "If you would like to make yourselves at home, we will contact you soon to organise matters. Your... computer here has taken the name of Ares: he is in constant comms with Ramp and Chatter, and will keep you apprised of happenings on earth."
     "Thank you, sir." That was one minor worry resolved, although she had of course expected everything here to be working smoothly. Ares, eh? She wondered if he had a sense of humour. Heh, soon find out!
     The Prime and Ratchet took their leave, and Poppy and Phil walked to the domicile. Well, Phil walked, Poppy skipped in long slow bounds, relishing the lighter gravity and the whole being-on-another-planet thing. Behind the humans 'Beat and Blue :smiled: at each other; Poppy's excitement was infectious...

Things were going less happily on earth. Anti-alien sentiment was growing and spreading rapidly, and it was now becoming dangerous for any non-warrior Cybertronians to remain on the planet. Skyfire and Starflare were making more frequent trips, picking up the remaining transformers and taking them to Mars: Ironhide, Barricade and Starwind opted to stay as long as possible. They knew that somewhere a rogue band of larger Autobots were hiding out, newcomers who'd missed the Battle of Chicago and who seemed to believe the war was still going on. They'd cut their comms and refused to listen to any attempts to contact them.
     Which meant Optimus may be needed to persuade them into the fold.
     "It's too dangerous, Prime."
     Optimus laid a servo over Ratchet's arm. "I do not wish to lose any more of us, old friend. It should not take long."
     "I should come with you."
     "No. I will not allow you to risk yourself."
     "So there is a risk."
     "There is always a risk. However, I am better able to protect myself than you. I would rather you stay here, tend to our newcomers, continue your work."
     Optimus raised a servo. "Indulge me, Ratchet. I would rather you were here, safe, than on earth, where I would need to ensure your safety myself."
     Ratchet bristled. "I'm hardly helpless!"
     "I know. But I would worry."
     Ratchet made to argue, then realised it would be a waste of time and energy and vented a sigh. "Very well, Prime. Just make sure you come back in one piece, as Poppy would say. And take Sideswipe or Sunstreaker or both with you."
     "That won't be necessary. Ironhide and Barricade will be with me."
     "... true. Very well then. When do you leave?"
     "I will travel back with Skyfire on his next run tomorrow."
     "And you'll stay in comms with us? We'll need to know that all is well."
     "I shall do all in my power to do so."
     The doctor :nodded:. "Then allow me to run full diagnostic scans on you before you go, ensure you are operating at optimal capacity."
     The Prime already knew, from his self-diagnostics, that all was in order, but he also knew it would make Ratchet happier, and less inclined to object to his leaving, if he allowed the checkup. He nodded.
     "Very well. I will come to the medlab once I have concluded my meeting with Perceptor."
     "That will be fine. I'll have everything ready for you."
     :Comming: acknowledgment, Prime headed to Perceptor's labs.

It ended up being a short meeting: the creation of the space bridge on Mars was proceeding well. Acquiring the necessary materials was taking more time than expected, unfortunately. However, Perceptor had hopes that the device would be fully operational in two Martian years - around three and three-quarter earth years. Possibly a little longer, allowing time for rigorous testing.
     Optimus had :nodded:. For the scientist, that was an amazingly short space of time, even though it didn't feel like it to Prime: he'd grown so accustomed to the swift passage of time on earth, and the need for its frighteningly short-lived natives to complete projects at speed, that the disparity was unsettling. However, he was determined that Mars was to be a Cybertronian colony, with its inhabitants working to their natural pace. He'd just have to get used to it again...
     And in the meantime, Ratchet was waiting. Best indulge him, it made for a more peaceful atmosphere for everyone.

Zender was not happy. Hawkins watched as the larger man paced furiously back and forth across the office, practically growling his anger.
     "Why are we the last to know!?"
     "Well, they have kept it very quiet. Can you blame them? It's hardly something to crow about."
     "How did we hear about it anyway?"
     "We have a... contact close to the source. She's involved with one Gill Wembley. Works right at the top in KSI. Bit of an airhead to be honest. But every now and then he lets something slip."
     "So - this CIA special operations team are hunting down and killing robots, handing them over to KSI, who are... melting them down for their metal?"
     "So it would seem. Just Decepticons, according to our contact. Interestingly, from what Wembley let slip, the resultant material acts very like the pseudo-silicon nitride they're made from, but in grosser form. The most significant thing is that they control it. They can transform it into anything they want. And I'm sure you can guess what they're making."
     "Weapons. It's always weapons. Damn it!" Zender slammed his fist down on his desk. "We are so close to creating the ultimate power source and all the bloody paranoid Yanks can think of is killing off the proverbial golden goose for weapons... Give me strength..."
     Hawkins nodded sympathetically. He'd not been impressed by the revelation either. But he wasn't sure how they could benefit from it - or even if they could.
     "It may or may not present us with a problem. Newman's still not entirely sure if he can... grow sparks, as he puts it. To date most of his attempts have failed, but this latest report... he thinks the last trial shows promise." Hawkins shrugged. "And if nothing else, at least we know that excising parts of the original spark doesn't make any difference to the whole. It seems to just grow back."
     "So we aren't going to need another, unless something goes drastically wrong. Hm. That's a plus, given this black ops group's goals." He frowned. "What do they do with the sparks?"
     "I don't know. I could see if our contact can find out."
     "Do so." He rubbed his forehead, trying to ease the incipient headache. "Where's our resident psycho right now?"
     "You'll probably not be too surprised to hear he's taken off for the States to try to join the CIA's 'fun'."
     Zender humphed. "Gets him off our hands, I suppose. And I'm sure they can make use of his special talents. What's the group called?"
     "They go by the rather ominous monicker of Cemetery Wind..."

[KSI - Kinetic Solutions Incorporated: see Transformers: Age of Extinction]

© JAT 6.7.15

Part 23 - Prehistoric

Poppy looked up. And up. And up, eyes widening and lips parting in part shock, part fascination.
     And she'd though the Prime was big!
     Optimus stood beside the creature - a metal Tyrannosaurus Rex? Poppy thought it might be - with one large hand resting against the massive back leg, and smiled down through the consulate's dome.
     "This is Grimlock."
     A huge claw tapped at the dome, clinking against whatever it was that kept the atmosphere in. Poppy tried to hide her wince, and waved hesitantly up at the monster.
     "Hello Grimlock."
     "These are our friends." Optimus turned to look up at the faceful of shining metal fangs above him. "They are fragile. They must not be harmed."
     The massive head inclined to one side, then gave a short huff of flame. Optimus watched as the huge form turned - surprisingly lithely although that might have been the lighter gravity, Poppy thought - and headed off towards Ascraeus Mons. In the distance Poppy could just see three other gleaming metal shapes, one of them airborne: the other metal dinosaurs (dinobots?) no doubt. She hadn't been able to watch them offload from Skyfire and Starflare, who had landed on the far side of Metroplex, but Ares had helpfully screened the arrival for the humans. Of course, they'd not really been able to appreciate the scale of the creatures on the Consulate's comm. screen.
     Prime had decided that Mars was probably a safer place for them than earth. Poppy was forced to agree, though she worried about the effect the dust-storms would have on their systems. Ratchet didn't seem too worried though, so presumably he, Wheeljack and Perceptor had come up with a way to dust-proof them. And hopefully themselves!

A lot had happened in the two months since Poppy and Phil had arrived on Mars. Andraste Consulate was now looking and feeling a lot more like home, and the 'garden' was growing well and helping provide much of the atmosphere in the dome. The pool was finished, and they were both swimming at least every couple of days. Poppy had almost managed to stop worrying all the time about the situation back on earth. Beverley was handling the UK affairs with her customary skill and efficiency, and the other Consulates were functioning well, although the North American consuls were, if not exactly in fear of their lives, not at all happy with the way the political system was going. Poppy was wondering if withdrawing from the States completely might be a wise move. General Morshower had mobilised a squad to New York to maintain surveillance and extract the staff at a moment's notice, should it prove necessary.
     Andraste had become the human hub for Mars exploration. NASA and ESA had practically begged for access and assistance in their ongoing missions - which Optimus had, with strict limitations and restrictions, permitted - and were currently preparing for a lift to the red planet in Starflare. Poppy had worried about having strangers in the consulate, but Optimus had reassured her. Their personnel would be housed in a much smaller, temporary domicile outside but close to Metroplex. The Cybertronians would co-operate with the personnel, but it would be made clear that Mars was considered a Cybertronian colony. Windchaser and Wavefront had volunteered to fly the humans over the terrain, and set down wherever they wished to explore: temporary habitat domes could be erected for them while they ran the missions, then the flyers would return to pick them up when they were done. Or after the three earth weeks Optimus had decreed was long enough, whichever was sooner. There had been objections from NASA, but the Prime had pointed out that it was their kind who had driven the Cybertronians from earth, and they were now assisting the human scientists purely in the spirit of scientific endeavour and co-operation.
     NASA had, gracefully, accepted the offer and shut up.
     The first missions would be arriving in two earth weeks. Poppy was debating allowing them access to Andraste anyway, just on their arrival, as a form of welcome. She could organise a formal lunch, perhaps. With Mars grown crops!
     Steamy seemed to think it was a great idea, and had started devising menus...

Metroplex slumbered while the Cybertronians began to learn how to live on Mars. The giant city's processors idled, but his autonomic systems, now fully optimal with a little help from Ratchet, Wheeljack, Perceptor and 'Spin, kept his frame running smoothly. Poppy and Phil, closely guarded by 'Beat and Blue, had explored a little of the outskirts, marvelling at the grandeur of some of the structures they saw - vast graceful halls and lofty walkways, and even a couple of spires obviously designed to accommodate flyers. It was awe-inspiring, if a little overwhelming in places, but to see Cybertronians of all sizes calmly engaging in what was for them 'normal life' was enormously satisfying. And everyone knew the two humans and their guardians, and they were happily greeted everywhere they went. It was humbling, but very exciting.
     The flight along the Valles had been exciting too. At its widest it had been impossible to see from one side to the other, and the great depths - four times deeper than American's Grand Canyon - had been breathtaking. Starstream had flown slowly, so that his passengers could fully appreciate the sights, and Poppy had loved every moment of it. She'd dreamed of becoming a transformer herself and flying along it for several sleep periods afterwards...
     The Seeker had also taken them flying around Olympus Mons, which had been a mind-bending experience. It was difficult to fully appreciate a volcano that big, until Starstream took them to the top and a short way into space, so they could look down on it from above.
     It had been almost frightening. Poppy found afterwards that she'd rather not do it again, which surprised Phil, as the Consul had always appeared completely fearless to him...

The reunited Seekers had moved into one of Metroplex's spires, and Thundercracker was paying a lot of attention to his erstwhile trinemate, admitting to himself it was in the hopes of becoming more than simply a friend. Starstream seemed happy with the situation, and was beginning to open up a little more to the larger Seeker. They spent quite a bit of time exploring the planet's surface, mapping the terrain and seeking out useful mineral deposits, but they returned again and again to the Valles. It held a fascination for Starstream, though he couldn't identify quite why. But Thundercracker was perfectly happy to go along with him.
     On this sunrise Thundercracker stood at the sunward edge of a ledge in the central part of Eos Chasma and gazed back towards Tharsis. Behind him, Starstream was scrutinising their surroundings. His :field: was curious and cautiously happy.
     ::I like this. Wide open perspective, high and free, plenty of room to fly...::
     His companion :smiled: ::Exactly what I was thinking. And the human name... not that dissimilar to Vos::
     Starstream glanced abruptly at him.
     ::Could we build here?::
     ::I don't know. There will be endless difficulties. But I'd like to try. We will have help, I'm sure::
     ::And endless ages in which to do it:: The smaller Seeker spread his arms wide. ::A Vos reborn, a haven for all flyers::
     Thundercracker reached back to take his servo. ::A place to rebuild our frametypes. A city of Seekers again. It would be wondrous::
     Starstream :smiled:, squeezing his digits, and Thundercracker felt his spark pulse happily behind his plates. ::Shall we go ask the Prime?::
     Thundercracker grinned, transformed and headed back to Metroplex, Starstream close on his tailfin.

Prime had called a meeting of his principle officers: Ratchet, Wheeljack, and Perceptor gazed at the sleek, elongated device between Prime's servos.
     ::A seed...:: Perceptor's :voice: was hushed, almost awed. ::I thought they were all lost::
     ::Apparently not:: Optimus vented quietly. ::And there are more in Lockdown's ship::
     Ratchet looked up sharply. ::His ship? But... where is it?::
     ::I went back for it. It was damaged, but I was able to pilot it to the dark side of earth's moon. At present Trailbreaker and Mirage are... keeping an optic on it and will comm. if they need help::
     ::What about the other creatures on it?::
     ::They are still there. Those that are still alive, at any rate. Many of them died in the final battle. There are no techno-organic canines left, fortunately. Bumblebee destroyed them all::
     ::We're going back for it, of course::
     The Prime smiled. ::Of course. I will not leave such a treasure alone and unguarded. We may still make use of it. And it would not be safe to leave the seeds where any passing ship can reach them:: He directed his gaze to Wheeljack. ::May I count on your assistance?::
     The scientist grinned and rubbed his servos together. ::A chance to work on such an ancient and noble vessel? Oh, you don't need to ask, Prime. I leap at the chance::
     ::Who will you take with you?::
     ::Huffer is fully operational - he came with Metroplex. And Fixer and Shovels are already on the moon. It would be useful to have Starflare's advice, if he can be spared, as well::
     Optimus nodded. ::I will speak with him. With a project of this importance, you may take whoever you need::
     ::Thank you:: Wheeljack's optics returned to the seed. ::I still can't believe it. I never thought I'd see one again. And there are more on the ship...::
     Optimus smiled. ::The question is, what shall we do with them?::
     Wheeljack folded his arms across his chassis.
     "You honestly have to ask? Prime, it's obvious what we do with them. We Cyberform Mars."

© JAT 4.6.16

Part 24 - Settling In

The arrival of Lockdown's ship was surprisingly low-key. 'Beat and Blue had driven Poppy and Phil to the flat plain to the north of Metroplex and, with much of the rest of the city's population also in attendance, had watched while the massive construct had, very slowly and somewhat haltingly, descended to the ground. Both Starflare and Skyfire guided it down, Wheeljack working the controls with a combination of will power and brute strength: he'd not been able to fully repair the ship on the moon, and it had fought him all the way. Hopefully, with Jolt and Huffer, Perceptor and a little help from several others who'd arrived with the city, they would be able to fix the damage and have the ship operational again.
     Which, as Prime had remarked to Poppy, would be a good thing. They needed the security systems in good order as soon as possible. The ship generated a distinct energy signal, and it would not do for any passing scout or cruiser to detect it. There were too many... acquisitive species in this galaxy alone to leave the ship - and Mars, and earth - undefended.

Poppy had stared at Phil, wide-eyed. That simply hadn't occurred to her. But after all, if the Cybertronians had found earth - admittedly because of the AllSpark, but it wasn't like humans were discreet, with all the noise they made - why not other alien species?
     Later, swimming leisurely side by side, something they'd taken to doing most days, she brought the subject up again.
     "From things I've heard them say, there are a lot of people out there..."
     Phil nodded and twisted to swim on his side, facing her.
     "And a lot of them aren't all that friendly. I personally am very glad that Prime is thinking of establishing a permanent colony here. If nothing else, it may warn aggressors off. But I'd hope we could count on our friends to defend us if the worst happened."
     "Even after our so-called leaders forced them off-planet?"
     Phil frowned pensively.
     "Prime seems very protective of earth. Of life as a whole. He really seems to live the whole, 'Freedom is the right of all sentient beings' thing."
     "All the same, they aren't obliged to help us. They really have done an awful lot already, and not been very kindly treated in return."
     They reached the edge of the pool, and Phil turned to rest his shoulders against the deep, soft red moss. There was a sudden tightness around his eyes and his voice was very low.
     "I know. I'm not happy about it."
     Poppy duplicated his pose and frowned at him.
     "What have you heard?"
     Phil hesitated, but there was really no point in keeping anything from Poppy, not anymore.
     "NEST is being disbanded. No, terminated. Morshower thinks that we may be branded traitors to the human race, though he's fighting that. There are other military and pseudo-military groups being assembled to 'combat the alien menace'. Skywatch, Earth Defence Command, there are rumours of a mobile unit successor to Cemetery Wind..."
     "Where does that leave you, and Matthew?"
     "In the wind at the moment. What's left of NEST has retreated to Diego Garcia."
     "And Matthew is head of Security at Iacon House, so safe for now." Poppy chewed at her lower lip, frowning. "How long will the island be safe?"
     "We don't know. The original inhabitants recently appealed for their land back. It was denied, but the way things are shaping up on earth, they could try again. Public opinion is very much against us at the moment, and with the... unfortunate political situation just about everywhere... it's not really possible to say. But I don't think it'll be a safe retreat for very long."
     Poppy sighed and turned to climb out of the pool.
     "I feel I should be there, helping, but I have to admit I'd much rather be here."
     Phil nodded, noting absently that she seemed to have lost a little weight. It quite suited her. Not that she'd been overweight before of course...

Everyone had assembled; even Perceptor had dragged himself away from his research. Now they circled the dais, optics wide, gazing at the seven sleek shapes floating a little distance above the surface.
     The seeds.
     The way to make Mars their own in days rather than millennia.
     Knock Out grinned widely, excitement :bubbling: in his field. Ratchet could hardly blame him: they were all energized, hopeful, eager.
     Optimus Prime gazed around at them, his people, his friends, strong, staunch and true. They had all been through so much, together and apart. Now they had the opportunity to make a new home for themselves, here in this little backwater of the galaxy, on a world where the resources they needed were abundant, and with everything else they were ever likely to need within reach of their flyers.
     And they were close enough to earth that, should the humans need their help, they could provide it within hours. If they asked. And this time, they would have to ask. Prime had no intention of endangering any more of his people on the behalf of organics that - mostly - hated them.
     There'd been a loud ::cheer:: from everyone when he'd announced that decision.
     Now they had to decide how to proceed...
     "Sir, may Thundercracker and I petition for one of the seeds?" Starstream folded his digits together, gaze sombre and determined. "We have found the ideal location for our own city, a new Vos, at the far end of the Valles, on the Eos Chasma." He glanced a little shyly at the larger flyer, then back at the Prime. "We would like to attempt to repopulate."
     Knock Out snickered: Ratchet slapped the back of his helm.
     "Behave, brat."
     The crimson medic grinned at Starstream, then back at Optimus.
     "Sorry, sir. I just... It would be good to have the skies full of flyers again. It would feel more like home."
     "Not for a while." Thundercracker frowned. How fast did the ex-Con think they could breed, anyway? Even if the other flyers and starcraft were willing to assist?
     "Oh, I know. But it is a fine and fitting ambition. And if I may assist, be assured I will do all in power to make it happen."
     "... thank you..." Somewhat nonplussed, Starstream returned his attention to the Prime, who held his servos open to the gathering.
     "Would we all be in agreement?"
     Wheeljack inclined his helm.
     "One out of seven - seems fine to me. And between Perceptor, Jolt and myself we will find a way to work the metal, force it into predetermined forms before we detonate the seed. Create your city as you want it. The core of it, anyway."
     "You can do that?" Ratchet was sceptical. Wheeljack :grinned:.
     "Given enough time we can do anything."
     The Prime glanced from mech to mech, seeing no dissension, then :nodded:.
     "So be it. One seed for the Seekers, to build New Vos."
     Starstream quietly raised a servo.
     "No. Let it be called Eos. A new name for a new world."
     The Prime's field :brightened:.
     "As you wish." He turned to Wheeljack. "Estimated time for the work to be done?"
     "There are workshops on Lockdown's ship with the tools we think we need. Give us... oh, a decacycle?... to investigate, and I'll wager we can deliver the re-engineered seed within two."
     Starstream's field :shivered: with happiness: Thundercracker laid a servo on his pauldron, overjoyed when the smaller Seeker leaned into the contact.
     "Thank you, Prime. Thank you."
     "Sooo - can we use one of them to make a really long smooth racetrack?"
     All optics turned to Knock Out, and Ratchet batted him across the back of the helm again. The Prime fought back a smile.
     "Not with a seed, no. But I do not see why we can't add something of that nature to our plans. After all, we'll need an easy way for us to get from Metroplex to Eos. And to any other settlements we devise."
     "Perhaps, for the moment, we should work on expanding the territory around Metroplex. It would give us more of a foothold, more land to work with. Not that we're exactly cramped, but it's always wise to futureproof if we can." Wheeljack triggered a holographic map of the immediate vicinity, digit-mounted laser pointers indicating the area slightly to the north, between Tharsis Montes and Noctis Fossae. "I suggest here. Two seeds should do the job. It's fairly flat, easily recognisable from orbit, and ideally placed to expand outwards from the citymech. It's also far enough away from the Consulate that our resident human friends shouldn't be in any danger."
     "I will take them flying, in any case." Starstream leaned forward, :expression: earnest. "The detonation effect is very fast, if I've understood it properly. They could watch it from above."
     "Takes no more than an hour, earth time, and usually a lot less."
     "Very well." Optimus inclined his helm. "We will leave Wheeljack, Perceptor and Jolt to work on re-engineering the seeds, and meet back in three decacycles. If there is anyone else who would be helpful, invite them to participate."
     "Oh, there are plenty!" Wheeljack :chuckled:. "And I already know they're keen to help. I'll comm. them all and we'll get started right away."
     Ratchet lingered as everyone left to get back to their tasks. Optimus :frowned: enquiringly: his old friend :looked: troubled. He spoke without dissembling.
     "What about Megatron? I mean, Galvatron that was? Ironhide reports he is still at large."
     Optimus :sighed:.
     "I am aware of it. And this time, it is the humans' own fault. But they have made it clear we are not welcome, and as their Cemetery Wind proved, they are now quite capable of terminating us by themselves."
     "So it's their problem? What about our friends? What if he brings more 'Cons to earth?"
     Optimus laid a servo on his shoulderplate.
     "Let us establish ourselves here first. Once we have our new home, and Lockdown's ship is fully operational, we shall be in a far better position to counter any threat Megatron may offer. And we should respect the humans' desire for no more contact - until or unless they ask us to help them."
     "I don't like it."
     "I am not entirely happy with the decision myself. However, all we seem to have succeeded in doing so far is causing a great deal of damage and the deaths of a lot of humans. Let us try standing back for a while."
     Ratchet :grunted:, dissatisfied.
     "Very well."
     "I am sorry, old friend. But for now, we should focus on our new home, and celebrate the end of our war."
     The medic brightened.
     "Hm. Yes. Perhaps it's time for a party."
     Optimus chuckled.
     "I'm sure I can rely on you to organise things. The minerals here should prove interesting additions to any high grade energon anyone would care to experiment with."
     Ratchet :grinned:.
     "I'm going to take that as permission to start making some. Well, have some made, anyway..."

Beverley looked tired, Poppy thought. Tired and dispirited.
     "You are honestly in the best place right now. What with the orange abomination over the water and the disastrous UK referendum... Poppy, it was awful. Forty years of progress straight down the drain. When I think of the children those idiots have let down I could cry... As for that selfish old bastard crying he'd got his country back... I could kick him. It's not his country. It hasn't been for at least half a century. He'll be dead in a few years: the future belongs to the young..."
     Poppy reached out to the screen, wishing desperately she could do something. She'd read the reports of course, staring in horror and disbelief. She'd honestly thought her fellow Britons had had the sense not to just accept the scaremongering - and as for the ones who voted to leave the European Union as a gesture of revolt, not believing for one moment that it would actually happen...
     She sighed and rubbed her hand over her face.
     "I'm so sorry, Beverley. Is there anything I can do to help? I could come back..."
     Beverley shook her head.
     "No, there's nothing, Poppy. You're better off there, out of it all... Damn, I feel so helpless." She was silent for a moment or two, then tried to smile. "Sorry. How are things there?"
     Poppy managed a small smile.
     "Well, the ESA mission seemed to have enjoyed exploring the Cydonia region. Gathered a lot of data, at any rate, but it'll take them a while to analyse it all. NASA were more interested in the polar regions. We invited the crews of both missions to dinner before they returned to earth. They all seemed to enjoy themselves, once they'd got over their awe."
     Beverley chuckled. It was a little forced, but genuine for all that.
     "Bet Steamy loved that!"
     "Oh, he was absolutely in his element. Steamed Martian trout in Martian white sauce, roast Martian duck with home grown vegetables, and a platter of mixed home grown fruit as dessert." She giggled quietly. "He was most particular to stress the 'Martian-ness' of everything. Give us a few years and he'll be cooking everything in Martian wine - we already have a couple of fledgling vines coming along nicely in the garden."
     Beverley laughed.
     "Show off!"
     "Yes, but it's very cute, bless him." She grinned. "It was also very tasty, but then you'd expect that with Steamy."
     "Indeed..." Beverley smiled - a real, unforced one this time. "It's good to talk to you, but I should get back to work. And you look like you could do with a rest. You look tired, and I swear you've lost a bit of weight. You aren't pushing yourself too hard, are you?"
     "No. Phil and Optimus won't let me, and heaven forbid if Ratchet thought they were! He can be seriously scary sometimes - curmudgeonly old grandpa that he is."
     Beverly laughed delightedly.
     "Don't let him hear you say that!"
     Poppy grinned widely.
     "I don't. At least, not as far as I know. But I doubt he'd mind anyway." She sighed. "Take care, and don't work too hard yourself. I'll speak to you in a couple of days your time. Comm. me if you need to though. Oh, and say hi to Matthew for me?"
     "I will, and will do. I know he'd love to come and visit, and we're exploring whether it would be possible. I'll let you know next time we speak."
     "It would be great to see him, and I know Phil would enjoy having another man about the place for a bit." She waved a hand. "I'll catch you soon. You take care too."
     As the screen blanked, Poppy leaned back and sighed. She didn't know what she'd done to end up with such an interesting life, but she was certainly glad she had!

© JAT 1.7.16

[Hm. Should I be worried that my knowledge of Martian geography is better than my knowledge of earth's?]

25 - Advances

Of course, it took rather longer than the three Martian weeks Wheeljack had declared, but that wasn't unexpected, really. And everyone was far too busy to complain, in any case.
     Metroplex's smelting pools were kept constantly flowing as the starcraft brought in metal-rich asteroids to convert into the materials needed to build highways, stores and outlying habitations. The first highway would stretch from the city to Eos - rather, the promontory on which the new Seeker city would sit. It now reached a quarter of the way there, following a slow, gentle curve past Arsia Mons, bridging the furrows of the Claritas Fossae then beginning to extend across the Syria Planum. It would eventually skirt the upper edge of the Valles Marineris along the Ius and Coprates Chasmae to Eos.
     The views would be spectacular.
     Starstream had called a meeting of all the fliers to discuss how the city should be designed. His own memories of Vos were hazy and incomplete, but Thundercracker remembered their old home very well. With Skyfire assisting, he took over the task of describing everything to the engineering team. Not everyone was happy about this...

"No, higher. Much higher. The citadel pierced the clouds."
     Huffer glowered at the Seeker, and was about to voice his usual complaints, when Wheeljack raised a servo and handed Thundercracker the control to the imager.
     "Show us."
     The Seeker gingerly manipulated the controls, extending the hologram of the spire by double its height. He pointed to an opening a third of the way up.
     "There was a walkway here between this spire and the next one over. For non-flying guests." He smiled. "Back in the peaceful days, we had visitors from the Towers, from Iacon, from Praxus... Vos was a busy city."
     Wheeljack :nodded:. Vos had been renowned as being something of a cultural centre, second only to Iacon, at least according to the Seekers who lived there. Before the war a huge amount of intercultural exchange went on between the major cities. It would be good to see that happen again.
     Not to mention Vos had been beautiful in and of itself.
     "It will be included in the design. Anything else?"
     Thundercracker smirked and released a small datacable from his wrist assembly, holding it delicately between two digits.
     "Oh yes. A lot. Let me plug in and you can view my memory chips of the old city..."

Wheeljack, Perceptor, Huffer and Jolt had disappeared into Lockdown's ship (::We really must think of a name for it:: Jolt had grumbled) and not reappeared for eleven Martian days. When they finally called for a meeting, their :fields: were exhausted but triumphant.
     Wheeljack gestured proudly to the imager as the flyers settled themselves expectantly in the main workchamber.
     Before them the image of the new city shimmered into view, and Starstream bit back a gasp. The engineers had outdone themselves: the glorious central citadel would reach towards the stars, while the five subsidiary spires, spaced equidistantly around it, were marvels of symmetry and grace. Thundercracker turned to Wheeljack, optics wide and sparkling.
     "It will really look like that?"
     Wheeljack nodded proudly. "It will really look like that."
     "How soon can we move in?"
     The Prime chuckled quietly as everyone else laughed, and laid a servo on the Seeker's shoulder.
     "I believe we can start raising the city right away."

Poppy wriggled in her seat, grinning over her shoulder at Phil.
     "This is so exciting!"
     Phil grinned back, suppressing his own urge to fidget. Human experience of Cybertronian tech had mostly been restricted to its destructive power: they were about to see how constructive it could be using their own materials and processes...
     Starstream flew smoothly out over the Sinai Planum, the two humans snugly and safely enclosed within his cockpit. Thundercracker followed, a little to the side, with the younger flyers trailing him, and at the rear were the massive forms of Skyfire and Starflare, transporting 'Beat and Blue, who had insisted on being part of the company. Wheeljack and his crew were already in place, and just waiting for the flyers before starting the creation of their city.
     "They are there." Starstream directed a weak laser pointer at the tiny metal forms on the ground, and Poppy nodded.
     "I can see them! Phil, down there?"
     Her companion nodded, grinning widely caught up in her enthusiasm.
     "Yep, got 'em. When does it start?"
     The Seeker flew a little closer, then hovered, checking with the ground crew that he was at a safe distance. At Jolt's affirmative, he tilted himself a little forward, so the humans had a better view.
     Poppy cursed silently that she hadn't brought binoculars: she couldn't see any details at this distance. Then she forgot all about it as a vast metal... flower bloomed from the dust, rapidly expanding and growing, rising starward, taking the form of the city she'd seen in the hologram...
     It grew, and blossomed, the inner spire settling into convoluted, alien, but beautiful configurations of balconies and walkways, fretted glittering walls, huge windows and ports and archways. As the five outer spires extended, slender bridges sprouted from their inner sides, reaching out to the central tower, joining seamlessly, delicate-looking metal corbels supporting vaulted galleries.
     Starstream ascended as the city built itself, rising up so the humans could watch it grow. When it finally stopped, the top of the citadel seven miles from the ground, the outer five spires a little shorter, Poppy was speechless. And a little tearful. It was exquisite.
     "So beautiful..."
     "I am happy that you think so. I hope you will come to visit." Starstream's voice had an echo of wonder about it, and a tiny shiver went through his frame.
     "Oh yes please!" The thought of it made Poppy teary-eyed again. Though it would take a very long time to learn to navigate the massive city!
     "We should return to Metroplex soon."
     The humans nodded: as the Seeker descended, they could see the ground crew loading themselves and their equipment onto Skyfire. The city - Eos - was built, but there was a lot more to do to make it habitable.
     And Poppy wondered, privately, just how many Seekers they were expecting to house!

"Thank you, Prime. It exceeds expectations." Starstream turned to include the engineering team in his :gratitude:. "It is beautiful, a fitting monument to your skill and our culture."
     "You are most welcome, Winglord, Chief amongst Seekers."
     Thundercracker felt his spark swell with pride. Finally, his (soon, he hoped) bondmate was being given the credit he deserved. Starstream saluted the Prime, then bowed his helm.
     "Accept our fealty, Prime."
     "No, my friend. Your loyalty is most welcome, but we will be equals here. All of us."
     Starstream raised his helm and stood straight, reaching a servo to Optimus. The Prime took it in a firm grasp and smiled.
     "Welcome home."

"Oh, you should have seen it, Beverley! It was..." Poppy coughed, and Phil frowned. He didn't know where that had come from, but he'd mention it to Ratchet later. She'd been coughing for a couple of days now. Was their dome letting Martian dust into the embassy? He'd check with Spin; the little Cybertronian would be able to arrange a thorough check of their life-support systems.
     In the meantime, he was just glad they were on Mars. The situation at home was rapidly deteriorating, and Poppy was desperately worried about her friends. At least the raising of Eos had taken her mind off the disgust and shame she was currently feeling for a large part of her species.
     Beverley gazed wide-eyed at the video Poppy streamed over the connection: Starstream had thoughtfully recorded the event for posterity (and their human colleagues).
     "... wow... I see what you mean. Think I could come visit?"
     Poppy thought that was an excellent idea. "I'll ask Optimus at tomorrow's meeting. We're going to be discussing the next ESA Mars mission: Skyfire will be transporting the mission personnel, I believe. Having you hitch a ride wouldn't be a problem!"
     Beverley nodded.
     "Thanks. A break from earth would be really nice right now."
     Poppy sighed, stifling another cough.
     "It would be good to see you again too."
     Beverley glanced over her shoulder, then grimaced.
     "Sorry Poppy, got to go. You take care - and whatever it is you're doing to lose weight, let me know?" She frowned down at herself. "All this sedentary work is not doing my figure any good!"
     "Don't think I'm doing anything consciously. Maybe it's just an effect of living on Mars?" She grinned briefly. "If you visit, you could see if that is in fact the case. Though I can't imagine weight-loss trips to Mars will ever become a 'thing'..."
     "You never know - stranger things have happened. See you later!"
     Stranger things indeed... Deliberately not thinking of the situation on earth, Poppy smiled at Phil and stood, heading for her suite to get ready for their usual swim.

::Blue?:: 'Beat stirred from recharge to find the sniper at his berthside, :field: apologetic.
     ::Sorry... didn't mean to wake you::
     ::It's OK. What is it?::
     ::I had an idea. Would you come with me? I'd like to ask you something::
     Puzzled but willing, 'Beat followed the gunner out of Metroplex and down the long slope into the floor of the Valles Marineris. They drove - surprisingly in silence - for a little while, then Bluestreak halted and transformed, 'Beat following a nanoklik later. Blue gestured around himself.
     ::What do you think about this?::
     'Beat regarded the area. It was fairly flat, not too far from the northern wall of the Valles - close enough for the canyon wall to act as a protection from the occasionally ferocious sandstorms... as sunny as such a secluded area ever got on Mars... He inclined his helm.
     ::It's pleasant enough. Why?::
     ::I was wondering... do you think it would be a good place to try to establish a Crystal Garden?::
     The sheer enormity of what his friend was suggesting hit 'Beat like a starburst. Was he truly willing to donate that tiny shard of crystal he'd rescued to try to create another Garden here, on their new home? It would take... eons for the crystals to grow...
     He rested a servo gently on Blue's shoulder.
     ::You are the most generous-sparked, selfless, noble... Blue, I don't know, but let's ask Prime - and Wheeljack. If it is possible, there may be something he can suggest to speed things along::
     Privately, 'Beat thought it was a good location, distant enough to require a deliberate effort to reach it. Such a unique and precious thing shouldn't be placed where anyone could just stumble over it. But others might disagree. They'd approach the Prime first, get his opinion, then everyone else's - assuming they could be dragged away from debating where to locate New Iacon and New Kaon, the next two cities to be engineered from the seeds.
     Under the circumstances, 'Beat thought they probably could be for something this momentous. He smiled to himself as he and Blue drove back to Metroplex. Life was looking very good!

© JAT 26/11/16

An Ending - and a Beginning

A lot had happened on Mars over the past two hundred and fifty-odd sols. One seed each had been used to reconstruct lofty Iacon to the north-east and elegant Praxus to the south-west of Metroplex, following the line of the Tharsus Montes volcano chain: New Kaon perched on a plateau at the edge of the Valles, while a new Crystal City soared upwards from the uplift of the Oudemans crater, with Blue's precious crystal shard settled carefully in a niche in the rock on the southern side. After considerable debate, it had been decided that while Blue's first choice of location had its merits, the new place was more easily protected. And with just one tiny fragment left, they couldn't take any chances. Dirtboss, Dunerunner and Digger had been specifically tasked with guarding and tending to the area, and had been delighted and honoured to be given the job. They'd already carefully crafted the rock below the niche into a series of terraces ready - optimistically - for more growing crystals to develop safely.
     They'd worry about making pathways through the area once they could see how their 'garden' was growing.

Starstream had taken Poppy and Phil on a long, leisurely flight over the new cities, following the routes of the new highway built from the metals harvested from the asteroid belt. Glittering and flashing in the sunlight, they stood like intricate jewels on the red sandy soil of Mars. Poppy had been entranced, and turned to her fellow human.
     "I think I want to stay here."
     Phil had smiled. "I know. I'd like to as well."
     She kissed his cheek. "Oh good. I'd rather share it with you."
     So that was decided. There were a few complications to overcome, of course, but having lived here now for getting on for ten earth months, Poppy was sure they could overcome anything the planet might demand of them. Optimus had, provisional on Ratchet's OK, agreed. Given what was happening on earth, he would rather keep their human allies - their 'family' - safe, if at all possible.

And for them all, humans and Cybertronians, here, at least, everything was going splendidly. Another habitat had been constructed, a few hundred yards from the Embassy but separate from it for security's sake, and customised to be used by the regular stream of carefully-selected specialists and students coming and going every earth month. Skyfire and Starflare ferried them back and forth from earth and Mars. Poppy and Phil got used to being hosts when the visitors arrived, providing friendly faces, good food and a comprehensive overview of the delights and dangers of living and studying on the red planet.
     This month's students had just left to return to earth, and Poppy was typing up the latest (human-perspective) reports. She paused for a moment, and gently touched her crystal poppy sculpture, idly listening to the chiming. It seemed like a lifetime ago that her Cybertronians had given it to her. Now it sat on her desk, oddly appropriate in the alien airs of Mars.
     Memories of that party had given Poppy an idea. Time for a bit of downtime - and assessing how Beverley would feel about becoming the Ambassador for Iacon House.

The Prime had been agreeable to Poppy's request for personal visitors.
     "Certainly, Poppy. I can see no objections. You have sufficient room at the embassy?"
     "Yes sir. And more food than we need, so we won't even need to bring over anything." Poppy smiled, nodding. Beverley and her husband would be so pleased they could visit! "And Matthew has some ideas for training exercises in Martian gravity."
     Prime inclined his helm. "I assume he has good reason to do so."
     "He thinks they may be useful for us too." Poppy quashed another cough, frowning to herself. Perhaps it was time to see Ratchet: the blasted thing didn't seem to be clearing up by itself, and her chest had been aching for a while now. Maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, she had more important things to worry about.
     "Very well. Please keep me advised of anything he discovers or decides."
     "Of course, sir."

It would be good to see Beverley and Matthew again, in person. Of course she kept herself apprised of everything happening on earth, but a different perspective was always welcome. All the Cybertronians had now left earth, and - of course - the humans were complaining about it. There simply was no pleasing some people. At least those with any sense were thankful for all the advances the aliens' presence had provided - even if, with the state of the world right now, many of those advances were being annulled.
     Her poor, poor, abused homeworld. The morons who were causing all the problems were rich and old, and wouldn't live long enough to have to survive in the devastation they were causing. And they obviously didn't give a damn even about their own children's futures. She supposed they thought their wealth would insulate them and all their descendents, ignoring the fact that long-term, money wouldn't buy a healthy planet - even if those outside the privilege bubble didn't rebel and pop it for them. And as for the politics... Trying to understand why made her brain hurt.
     She was, quietly, very glad she no longer had to deal with it. That made her feel guilty - but she, and their Cybertronian visitors, had tried their best to improve matters on earth. It was not their fault that they'd failed. At this point there was nothing else she could do. If only she could solve the planet's problems. Or find somewhere else for those who cared to live... Mars, alas, was not conducive to human life, and even if it were possible to terraform the red world - with no magnetic field to shield from radiation, that was currently near-impossible - it could not be done in time. And even if it were possible, or more human habitations could be built in time, it was more than likely that only the very rich would be able to afford the journey, which simply meant moving the current earthly problems to a new world...
     Poppy rubbed her eyes and sighed deeply - then doubled up as a severe coughing fit hit. Minutes later, as she straightened up, gasping, and pulled her hands away from her mouth, she froze.
     There was blood, a lot of it, in the phlegm in her palms.
     Better see Ratchet...

Crystal City was only sparsely populated at the moment, but Perceptor, in between constructing the half-completed spacebridge and refining his and Ratchet's laboratories, had been sending out the Prime's message - on carefully limited wavebands to reduce the chances of hostiles receiving it - welcoming Autobot refugees to Mars. There were a large number of recipients on their way here, among them peace-loving scientists who had escaped the war and artists of all disciplines. It had already been decided that the new Crystal City would be theirs, as was the old one. Digger, Dirtboss and Dunerunner weren't too sure how they felt about that. It wasn't as though there were, currently, any real gardens to take care of, and they had no other services to offer the community.
     That, however, changed one quiet morning when they were out performing their usual checks. Digger had glanced down at the rock, then froze.
     ::Look...:: Digger's :voice: was hushed. Dunerunner glanced at him, :frowning:.
     ::What is it?::
     A blunt digit pointed, trembling slightly.
     ::Look. It's grown.::
     And indeed the crystal was appreciably bigger, sprouting tiny glittering buds at its base. Dunerunner's optics widened.
     ::But... it should take it fifty vorn at least to do that!::
     Digger beamed at him.
     ::Guess it likes it here...::
     And that made this home...
     ::Better tell the boss...::

Optimus had been quietly overjoyed (not that anyone could tell), thanked the three carers for their dedication, and asked them to continue their duties. All three accepted, happily - and began to plan the new Crystal Garden in more detail.

Ratchet had :frowned: as Poppy requested an appointment with him - then :frowned: even more when she told him what had been happening. He had her stand very still as he performed the usual scans, then immediately compared them with the huge number of x-rays and MRI scans in the human medical library he had insisted on bringing from earth. It didn't take him very long to find several that matched the results of Poppy's examination.
     He scanned again, more deeply and in more detail using the information gleaned, in the hopes he was wrong.
     He wasn't.
     He turned to face Poppy where she stood on an examination table hastily set up in the gardens of the Embassy, and for the first time in his multi-million-year life had no idea what to say.
     She was aware of something amiss, and half-smiled.
     "That bad, huh?"
     She swallowed with difficulty, her throat suddenly dry.
     "Better get it over with. Just tell me."
     She could swear she could see/feel his horror and reluctance.
     "I'm sorry. You have what human medical science calls stage four lung cancer. It has spread to your spine and liver."
     Poppy stared at him.
     "But... I don't even feel that ill!"
     Which wasn't strictly true, she acknowledged silently. She'd just been ignoring the other symptoms, putting them down to adjusting to living on Mars.
     But then, her common sense asked, why hadn't Phil had any symptoms? It can't just be because he's male, now, can it?
     Ratchet gazed at her silently.
     "Can... can it be treated?"
     "It is very extensive, Poppy. I can find no record of survival in any other human this badly affected. There might be something I'm not aware of, but you would need to go back to earth for any treatment. I cannot replicate the accepted treatments here - not without a team of human specialists and specific equipment. Which we could transfer to Mars, if they would be willing to operate here. Going back to earth would be the best option at this stage."
     Poppy fought back a cough, acknowledging for the first time just how tight and painful her chest felt, how much her whole body ached, and shook her head.
     "I am NOT going back to earth."
     "That is, of course, your choice. Perhaps you should discuss it with Phil."
     "I'll do that."
     "And I will report to Optimus. I will contact you later."

Beverley and Matthew had naturally been horrified by the news. It took them all several days before they could talk about it. Beverley volunteered to take over Poppy's position as Ambassador without being asked, knowing how much the function meant to her: her husband would spend half his time on earth and half on Mars. Matthew offered to join her as liaison between Mars and earth, and both were accepted by the Prime and the authorities - what remained of them - on earth. Phil, however, was lost...

     Phil frowned. "No?"
     Poppy's half closed eyes glinted, her mouth a thin, grim line.
     "No. If I go back to Earth, do you honestly think they'll let me back?"
     "But... we can't treat you here!"
     Poppy lowered her head, eyes shadowed. "It's too late, Phil. I've done my own checking and even IF any of the usual treatments worked, my life as I know it is over. Realistically, any treatment now will be palliative. I'd rather just take painkillers and stay here 'til the end."
     "But... oh Poppy..."
     She never thought she'd see him cry.

Ratchet called a meeting...
     Optimus :frowned: - the medic's field was an unnerving mix of anger, fear and guilt. He seated himself and glanced around at the others. Starstream and Thundercracker were there, and Perceptor, Nova, 'Beat, Jolt and Wheeljack, all of them uneasy.
     Ratchet - uncharacteristically - hesitated. Then :sighed:.
     ::There is no easy way to say this. Poppy is... terminating slowly. Dying::
     A microsecond's silence, then everyone chimed in at once, mostly in disbelief. Ratchet waved at them irritably.
     ::I KNOW! I didn't believe it myself at first. The thought is insupportable. And I am angry that I did not notice in time::
     'Beat glowered at him. ::But you're supposed to be the medic here! How could you not notice?::
     Shame flooded Ratchet's field. ::She hid it from us all. Even from herself. That's no excuse for me::
     ::She is very... tenacious:: Starstream sighed. ::She does not reveal her own problems easily. And I believe she has a very candid view of the shortness of human lives::
     ::Regardless, I cannot support the thought of her ceasing to be. Not Poppy. Not the human who has accomplished so much for us::
     Optimus leaned forwards. ::Surely human medics will be able to help?::
     Ratchet shook his head. ::She has cancer. Small cell lung cancer which has metastasized through her body. It's in the extensive stage. There is no cure::
     There was silence for a few seconds.
     ::Are you sure?::
     Ratchet gazed at 'Beat, despair edging his field.
     ::I am sure. Skyfire is transporting a human expert to Mars - they arrive in a few earth-hours - but I am extremely doubtful his diagnosis will differ from mine::
     Optimus inclined his helm.
     ::Very well. What options do we have?::
     ::She's dying, Optimus. There are no options...:: Ratchet :frowned:. ::Well, there is one, but it's never been successfully carried out::
     'Beat had stood and was pacing agitatedly. ::What is it?::
     ::In the past, a humanoid was given Cybertronian form::
     'Beat stopped and stared.
     ::How does that work?::
     ::It didn't, that's the problem. The humanoid was unable to cope with the exigencies of becoming a transformer. His mind collapsed under the strain::
     Optimus :frowned: ::I have never heard of this::
     ::You wouldn't. It was purely a medical experiment to attempt to save the humanoid's life. It failed::
     ::As I said, his mental processes were unable to cope with the strain of his new form::
     ::Just his mind? Was the actual operation a success?::
     Ratchet :frowned: in thought. ::Wellll... None of the physical systems malfunctioned. The t-cog was operational, and the processors operating within normal parameters. It stood every chance of being successful. But the being, the mind of the humanoid...:: He shook his helm. ::He tore himself to pieces. Literally::
     ::Hmm.:: Optimus was silent for a moment, deep in thought. ::Would Poppy be a better subject? She has lived with us for so long now, is very familiar with us, with our operational systems, how we... work. She is also very determined::
     Ratchet flung his arms wide. ::Optimus. We're talking about building a frame that duplicates a human's physiology, then downloading her mind, training her how to use the new body, how to transform, how to... do everything. It would not even be like teaching a sparkling: she has a whole human life, with all of its experiences and memories, to overcome - or better, to incorporate into a new being::
     Nova :grinned: ::Knowing Poppy, she'd see it as a challenge - and enjoy it::
     Ratchet glowered at his sparkling, and Nova wisely shut up. Optimus nodded.
     ::Very well. Please explore the possibilities. Once we have a human prognosis, we can approach her with the notion - if it's feasible::
     Ratchet growled. ::But even if we can overcome all these obstacles, there is one main problem. She will have no spark::
     ::Can she be herself without one?::
     Ratchet growled at the Prime.
     ::Would you be?::
     As medic and Prime began to discuss the pros and cons of the idea, Starstream gazed at Ratchet silently, then turned to Thundercracker.
     ::We must talk::

::I don't know...:: Thundercracker was hesitant. ::I had hoped...::
     ::That our first joining would produce our first sparkling? I know:: Starstream's wings were lowered, his arms wrapped around his frame as he paced slowly back and forth. ::But... this is Poppy::
     Thundercracker watched him, afraid to speak. He knew all that Poppy had done for them, for Starstream himself, and was grateful - but he didn't have that deeper relationship that the jet had with the human. That the earth-living Cybertronians had with her. The very notion of having 'feelings' for a short-lived organic was bewildering.
     ::She might not agree with the idea::
     ::No, she might not:: Starstream turned to his mate. ::But if she does, we cannot leave her sparkless. It would be cruel::
     ... this is NOT the Starscream I used to know... Thundercracker smiled to himself. But I much prefer this one.
     He held out a hand. ::Let's fly. You always used to see things more clearly when in flight::
     Starstream allowed himself to be led to the balcony high above the surface, and leapt out into the Martian sky, Thundercracker closely following. There was something oddly appealing about the idea of such an intimate part of the Seekers becoming part of a human-turned-Cybertronian. It would almost make them a sort of pseudo-Trine!
     Megatron would have hated the very notion.

The human specialist had been, run extensive checks and taken several biopsies, shaken his head, apologised, and returned to earth.
     Poppy, Phil's arms wrapped around her protectively, sighed and shook her head.
     "So that's that."
     "I don't want to lose you. I'm sorry if that sounds selfish, but it's true. You have... had... so much of life to live."
     She leaned back against him.
     "I'm sorry Phil. I'd hoped... well, it's no use now, is it."
     She could feel him shaking, and patted his hand.
     "Please don't. It's my fault for not listening to my body. If I'd done something... if it has been caught earlier, they could have done something... I've had a fantastic run though, haven't I? I mean - look around you. We're on Mars. And we have the most extraordinary and amazing friends ever."
     Phil choked out a laugh.
     "You are amazing. I am so lucky I met you."
     "Me too."
     He kissed her hair.
     "So... is there a plan? Anything you want to do - while we still can, I mean? Hitch a ride with Skyfire and visit Pluto? Or the Kuiper Belt? Probably can't get any further out than that until Perceptor finishes the space bridge."
     "And we don't have time for that... Pity. I'd have loved to go spacefaring. See some of those worlds Trailbreaker and Hound were talking about. They were so beautiful, some of them."
     "I know..."

Ratchet and Perceptor's speedily-organized joint lab was a blur of activity for the next few days, then Optimus and the medic visited Poppy in the Embassy. They seated themselves on the ground in the garden and regarded their human intently. Poppy frowned, somewhat uneasy. They hadn't mentioned the purpose for their visit.
     "It's always lovely to see you, sir, doctor..."
     "We have a proposition to put to you." Well, Ratchet was back to his abrupt, no-nonsense manner, at any rate. Poppy sat on one of the benches and gazed up at them questioningly. Ratchet glanced at Optimus, then continued.
     "We believe we may be able to... make you into a transforming organism."
     She stared, and Optimus raised a hand.
     "It may - please note only MAY - be possible to replace your body with a mechanical one, like our own."
     "And download your consciousness into a processor. Again, like our own."
     "... what...?"
     "You would, in effect, become one of us." Prime's mouthplates managed a smile. "Starstream and Thundercracker have offered to create a spark for you. You would have what passes for a soul with us."
     Poppy rubbed at her forehead and stifled a cough.
     "Hang on a minute. You can make me a Cybertonian?"
     Ratchet nodded.
     "We believe so. Forged, not sparked, although you would own your own spark. It has been done before, though that attempt was sparkless and not successful. Though we have come a long way since then."
     "... would I be able to transform?"
     "Yes. We have the appropriate parts to allow that, and can feed the knowledge of how to perform it into your processor, along with any other information you might need."
     "When do we start?"
     Optimus inclined his helm.
     "It might not be successful. If it is not, you will terminate. Die."
     Poppy shrugged. "That's going to happen anyway. I'm selfish enough not to want to go just yet. Anything that makes a difference is worth a try. And..." Her expression turned wondering, just for an instant. "Imagine what I could do if it works..." She paused and frowned. "What about Phil?"
     Ratchet turned his helm to Optimus. ::It's going to be difficult enough creating one. I'm not prepared to try two. And we can't ask for a another spark::
     Optimus lowered his helm.
     "I'm sorry, Poppy. We can only try this once."
     "Hm. OK, let me talk to Phil, but that's a definite yes from me. Even if it doesn't work, I'll go out knowing I helped advance science a bit. Can't be bad."

Phil looked horrified.
     "What! Are you serious?"
     Poppy shrugged. "It's a chance for life."
     "And if it doesn't work?"
     "I'm dying anyway."
     Phil regarded her for long seconds, mind whirling. Yes, if it worked - she'd be practically immortal. Maybe he could be with her for a little longer, while she learned how to use the new abilities. If it didn't... he couldn't bear the thought of losing her, even while knowing it was going to happen. Barring a miracle, which, in effect, this was...

It was going to take Ratchet - and Perceptor, Nova, Wheeljack, Jolt and 'Spin - a while to complete the project. They wanted to create a protoform for Poppy that could assume any form she wanted - although it was pretty much a foregone conclusion she'd want to be a flier, if not a Seeker. With that aim, Starstream had asked Skyfire to donate just a little of his external plating for the medic to propagate for her plating - the complex solar absorption cells that permitted long distance space flight. The starcraft had been more than happy to do so, and also provided details of his specialised optical systems.
     Trailbreaker and Hound sat with Poppy, and Phil, for hours on end, transferring the information they had collected over the millennia into a sub-processor that would, if all went well, become part of her 'memory', making the details and co-ordinates of several thousand worlds instantly accessible. These included a hundred or so that had been unpopulated at the time of the visit, and that would be suitable habitats for humans - assuming life hadn't arisen in the interim of a couple of million years. Poppy began to force herself to think in terms of eons instead of years...
     Everyone was very aware that they only had a limited time to complete the project, as Poppy became more and more frail and ill.

They stood on the highest balcony of Eos, gazing out over their new home. It was still empty for now, but with more Cybertronians on their way, they had hopes it would not be that way for too much longer.
     ::We'll be like her creators::
     Starstream inclined his helm.
     ::I think the human term is 'parents', but yes. It's an honour, really::
     ::Heh. Our first sparkling, and she'll be a fusion of two different life-forms::
     Starstream turned to the larger Seeker and smiled.
     ::Indeed. One must credit Ratchet with being exceptional in every way. A doctor who can cure death::
     Thundercracker stroked his facial plates gently.
     ::I am very glad we found each other again::
     ::I also...:: Starstream rested a hand over Thundercracker's spark chamber. ::Let us be bonded. I do not want to lose you again::
     ::Join with me:: Brilliant light spilled out as he opened his spark chamber, Starstream following an instant later. Energies twined and mixed as they gazed :into: each other, the deepest and most intimate of bondings. And at the end, as they slowly separated, a tiny glowing orb hung suspended between them for a moment before settling gently under Starstream's spark. He closed his spark chamber, one hand resting over it, the other over Thundercracker's, and smiled.
     ::She will be made with our joy and our blessing::

Phil caught 'Spin when he was taking a brief rest, laying a hand on the little Cybertronian's plating. 'Spin gazed at him inquiringly.
     "Um... I know this is a bit of an odd question, but is it possible to... download just a human brain into a computer? What you call a processor, I mean."
     "Like we're doing with Poppy, you mean? Yeth, I believe so. But would you want to exitht as jutht a mind?"
     Well, it wasn't surprising the little transformer knew why he asked. Phil sighed.
     "Would I be able to go with her?"
     "Ath a theparate being inthide her? Maybe a thubthidiary procethor thythtem? I don't thee why not. But you mutht athk her. And Ratchet, and the retht. They might not be prepared to do it. And you need to be sure firtht. You are not dying. And there would be no coming back from it."
     "I know..."
     He nodded to 'Spin and wandered out to the garden to think.

Two earth months later...

::Activate your optics, Poppy. Slowly. It's like opening human eyes, but... different. I'm going to send you the instructions::
     Poppy lay quietly, trying not to move. She was aware of movement through her new 'body', her frame; her mind translated them to a heartbeat, the sound of breathing, blood flowing through veins she no longer possessed...
     Ratchet's 'instructions' came in the form of a flowchart. A little surprised that she could understand it, she carefully followed each step. Within seconds the complex crystal structures that were now her eyes brightened, and she took her first look at her surroundings.
     There were differences. She could see more of the electromagnetic spectrum, which was disconcerting. If she concentrated on something on the other side of the medbay her vision zoomed in to focus on it. And there was a small pale light in the top right of her right optic.
     ::That's your HUD. 'Blink' to activate it::
     The amount of information it held was staggering. For a moment she panicked, sure she'd never be able to understand even a fraction of it - but then everything settled, and she found it completely comprehensible. Even if it was strange seeing a visual report of everything she used to know by automatically feeling it...
     She'd get used to it.
     ::Can I sit up?::
     WOW. She just commed Ratchet. So THAT'S what it feels like!
     ::You can - but go slowly::
     She winced at the creaking, but finally managed to force new metal systems to obey her. Sitting up on one of the doctor's examination tables - no longer enormous to her new form! - she slowly looked around the lab.
     "It worked, then?"
     Her voice was the same. They'd managed to keep it for her. She was suddenly very grateful as the enormity of what they'd accomplished sank in.
     Ratchet laid a hand on her 'shoulder'.
     "It did. But you must take things very carefully to start with, until you are familiar with this form. We cannot even consider an alt. form for you until you can move instinctively in this one."
     She nodded, pleased that the movement felt smooth and natural.
     But there was something itching at her. Ratchet :felt: it too, and patted her back.
     ::That is the desire to fly. Starstream and Thundercracker have gifted you with a Seeker's spark::
     Metal faceplates moved automatically into a beaming, gleaming smile.
     "How long 'til I can learn how to transform?"
     Ratchet :chuckled:.
     ::You should learn to walk before you learn to fly. But the desire itself will assist you. Now you should rest...::
     ::Sod that! I want to try out this body!::
     Sighing, Ratchet called for 'Beat and Nova...

Poppy, even more determined in her new form, adapted far more quickly than anyone had anticipated - even herself. Within an earth week she was running and climbing, the joy at feeling so strong and so well a relief after the last few months. And any hesitation she might have felt about the fact that she was no longer human was quickly buried when Thundercracker transformed and allowed her to transcan him, then helping her to transform into her new alt. form. The first time she flew with him and Starstream had been one of the most joyous experiences of her life.
     But there was a nagging doubt, regarding Phil. He'd told her what he'd discovered, and Ratchet agreed that it was possible, but it would severely limit him, and having seen what a very energetic and physical human he was, the doctor wasn't at all sure performing such an operation would be at the very least morally acceptable.
     And while Poppy loved the thought of always having him with her, she admitted that simply being a mind was probably not going to be an option - at least at this stage...
     But maybe there was a solution. What if she left to explore potential new homes for the human species, while he stayed here to watch what happened on earth, relaying the information to her? She knew it was possible: Perceptor had explained that instantaneous (or nearly so) communication across light years was possible using a form of space bridge technology, on a much smaller and customised scale.
     Phil had been not exactly happy with the idea, but since it meant he could at least stay in contact with her, he could cope.
     And maybe later, when he was old and frail and facing the end of his life, they could still go with the original idea. He'd have a new life as part of her...
     She had lifted him up to her optic level on her palm, and gently suggested the option. For a moment he had stared, then grinned widely.
     "Sounds like a plan. So you can go explore for... oh, fifty years or so? Then come back and upload me into your processor." He chuckled. "Sounds... kinky..."
     She had laughed with him.
     Ratchet and the Prime had thought it sounded like an excellent compromise. So that was all right.

Later, at the top of Olympus Mons, Poppy sat gazing out across the landscape below her, but not really seeing it. She felt... strange. Hah! What a daft thing to say! She was now something no other human had ever been, a fusion of machine and human, essentially immortal (that made her shiver), able to go places and do things inconceivable just a short while ago. And... there was a hazy field in her memory. Vague images of flying, and a sensation of joy. Maybe Starstream and Thundercracker's memories? They were a part of her, after all... That thought should be alarming at best, but... No, she decided. It wasn't at all. It felt... homely, almost. Nice, in one sense. She had memories of flight she could draw on for herself.
     It was time to leave on her search - but first she wanted one last view of earth.
     Starstream and Thundercracker flew with her, but stopped at the moon's orbit, allowing her to go on alone. She soared slowly through the familiar skies, gazing down at the much-loved world below. She could see that the seas were rising, slowly: a hurricane off the east coast of what was still known as North America was steadily obliterating the islands there, and the peninsula of Florida was narrower than it had been just a few years ago. Swathes of California were still grey from the wildfires of recent years: Australia was brown and dry.
     How stupid. How evil the ones who thought they were rich, masters of the planet. How appallingly sad for the majority...
     She would find a new home for the humans - but only those who deserved it. The ones who thought they were the masters of the planet could stay behind and die with it. They would not be missed.
     She paused over England, enhanced optics narrowing in on Iacon House, now in some disrepair, but at least higher than the floodwaters. It had been overwhelmed by rioters while she was undergoing transformation. All the staff had left just in time, but the building itself... As a human, she would have wept. As herself, now, she had a sense of the impermanence of anything humans made, or built, or created. It was sad, but there was nothing she could do about it. Maybe in their new home they'd be able to create and build things of lasting beauty. They'd have the benefit of Cybertronian technology, after all.

As a memento, she changed her plain silver plating to the blues and greens of earth, then with one last circuit of the world where she had been born she swept moonward, rejoining the older Seekers before heading back to Mars and onwards. Now that Perceptor had completed the spacebridge, she had time to find a suitable planet.

The future was looking... interesting...

© JAT 30.11.2019

Background image courtesy of NASA