A pair of stars rose in front of the Eight Track's viewscreen, the larger of the pair bathing the ship's bridge in crimson light. "Here we are sir," Air Raid called out -- a little unnecessarily, since the crew could hardly miss it, "Alpha Scorpii."
Overload, the commanding officer and the addressee stepped in front of the view-screen, creating a large patch of shadow where their imposing bulk blocked out the light. "Thank you Air Raid." Overload continued staring, as if trying to spot their quarry by their own optic sensors, but they soon gave up the fool's errand and turned around to address the crew.
"Air Raid, Beachcomber and... Demolishor." Overload paused -- obviously fighting back his distaste, there was no way he could avoid it, and Demolishor didn't blame him. He'd betrayed them once before, joining up with Megatron when he'd returned during the Energon crisis, and with the rumours of him being back... Demolishor probably wouldn't have trusted himself either. "We can't forget our mission. This isn't a rescue party, a sight-seeing tour, or a chance for shore leave. This world may have one of the Cyber Planet Keys. With it we have a chance to save Cybertron -- and if what high command is saying is true, The universe."
Overload stepped between the three of them, keeping their attention focused on him, and on his words. "It doesn't matter what condition the world is: if they need our help, are in the middle of their own civil war, or anything else. We go down, find the key, and leave."
Demolishor nodded, this seemed obvious enough. It was only when he saw the anxious looks on the other two's faces he realised why. That whole "mission of mercy" scrap had practically hardwired into Autobot systems, while he'd still got the killer instinct. He tried to keep the grin off his face -- after all, if it wasn't for that Autobot mercy, he'd still be a circuit-damaged hulking monster.
Still, he figured he could try and raise morale. "Hey, if you're unsure if it's a good idea or not, just ask me." He smiled, "If I agree with it, you know you're on the wrong track."
It was a poor effort, but it did his spark good to see Beachcomber grinning. "I'll keep that in mind," he said, before turning back to his monitor.
Overload ignored Demolishor's comment, and turned his attention back to Air Raid. "Any sign of a planet out there?" He rested his hand on the smaller bot's shoulders, peering at his monitor. Their shared camouflage patterns almost made the pair blend into a single figure.
"Getting a few likely candidates Sir," a few careful taps at screen brought up some blurry images of planets and moons. "I can narrow it down with a couple of flybys, but at the moment, the most likely one is..."
"That one," Overload interrupted, jamming his large finger at a planet.
"I beg your pardon sir, but that's not the one I mea-" Air Raid started to say, attracting Demolishor's attention. The little bot never seemed to dream of back-talking his commanding officers -- no matter how much they deserved it. But Overload shook his head and jabbed the screen again.
"It's that one." He stood up, and turned back to the red giant on the main screen. "I'm certain of it."
The blazing heat of the portal suddenly gave way to a cooling spray, instantly creating an ominous mist around Dreadwing as he stepped onto the new world.
Some small part of him was pleased by that, the opportunity to make a dramatic entrance should never be passed up, something to make the locals feel fear and panic. He let the emotion flare up, sputter out and die in the space of the few astro-seconds it took him to approach the water. Evidently his master had managed to locate the one suitable piece of dry land around. Water surrounded him as far as the optic could see, and something in his spark told him the entire world was probably like this.
"Huh, I guess Lord Megatron had his head screwed on after all, this place is all wet!" A voice called out from behind him, a sure sign his entourage had followed him through -- confirmed a moment later as he felt the warmth vanish, the portal closing and leaving them stranded here.
Dreadwing turned, surveying the sorry lot he'd been assigned. No doubt Mirage and Tidal Wave were laughing it up, or at least had proper soldiers. He'd been given the rejects: Undertow was dipping one of her claws into the ocean, apparently still entranced by the extent of it. Storm Surge was busy giggling over a crate he'd brought with him -- already setting off Dreadwing's early warning sensors. That left Shortround still barely having left the portal, holding his claws up nervously as he peered around.
Surpressing the urge to shoot them all right this moment, Dreadwing called out to them. "To me my minions, I must give you your goals."
Undertow shrugged, "I thought Megs already gave us that? Look around for one of those key things and send a subspace message when we need to be picked up," she still loped over to stand at mock attention in front of him.
"I assumed you weren't listening," Dreadwing said truthfully, certainly the other two were looking surprised as they joined her. The three of them were almost identical, separated only by the stripes that broke up their black and white colouration: Green for Undertow, Blue for Storm Surge, and Shortround blended the two together into something that seemed eerily like the sea that surrounded them.
"Nah, I always listen when it's time for upgrades," she continued. "When Megatron offered the keys, I would have listened to any old scrap."
At this Storm Surge nodded. "Oh sure, that makes sense. If he'd offered explosives, I guess I would have listened" he chuckled, looking longingly at the box behind him.
"Enough!" Dreadwing surged forwards, patience already worn thin. "If you know what you are looking for, then do it! Stop wasting my time! Scour the seas, find me my prize, and then you can return to your meaningless lives."
The three looked at each other, and at the missiles slowly rising above Dreadwing's shoulders as his anger flared. None of them wanted to be on the end of that. They turned, running towards the shore and leapt into action: bodies twisting, claws encircling their feet as they shifted into their hovercraft modes. Despite everything, Undertow still had the manifolds to call back "Alright, alright, keep your chassis on. We'll be back before you know it."
Dreadwing stared as they left, letting the thrill of the momentary flash of anger pass. Ever since Megatron had returned, he'd felt emotions stirring. Only for the briefest of moments, but it was enough to make him distinctly uncomfortable.
"That's a lot of water," Beachcomber said as they reached the world Overload had brought them to. He glanced over his shoulder at the commander's bulk, but he was silent.
It was as if he'd realized just how crazy he was acting -- that any moment now he'd apologize, and defer to Air Raid's expertise. If there was anything the little bot could do, it was finding energon in a junkpile.
"That it is," Demolishor answered, filling the silence as the commander brooded, and the omnicon tried to find if there was anything here. "Reminds me of Ocean City," Beachcomber looked at Demolishor's grin and smiled despite himself.
Beachcomber wasn't sure how to act around Demolishor -- his emotions were something he could only call "complicated." They'd worked together for years, only for the con to go crawling back to Megatron. Beachcomber still felt the wound from that betrayal flaring in his spark, but Demolishor was still one of the few bots who'd kept up with his jokes... and he still couldn't forget what Megatron had done to him, and how relieved he'd looked when the Autobots repaired his cerebral circuitry.
"Well, hopefully less Terrorcons this time around," he settled on a bad joke, which still made Demolishor laugh enough that they didn't hear Air Raid until he repeated himself.
"-there's life here!" He was practically bouncing in his seat as he punched some buttons, making the view screen zoom in on the world.
Gradually details became identifiable from the expanse of green waters: metallic structures spiraling out of the water, squat bunkers placed on atolls, even what looked like a city floating in the middle of an island cluster.
"Scrap! It really is Ocean City!" Beachcomber said, rising from his seat to look closer.
"And I'm pretty sure those are something similar to the Energon Towers," Air Raid agreed. "The energon readings from the ocean are pretty high, they probably refine it from the water."
"Hey, some good news, eh commander?" Beachcomber turned to look at him. Overload's jaw had dropped down in surprise, the lights fading from his optics as if he was staring from a thousand miles away. "Commander?"
He didn't react until Demolishor stood up and waved his hand in front of Overload's face -- although maybe that was just his early-warning sensors jumping at Demolishor's cannon-fingers. Finally he focused on Demolishor. "Uh, thank you."
Overload stepped forward, now finally back with them. "It's a colony world, that means the map was right. Which also means the Decepticons know about it. We can't charge in there. We'll have to take it carefully... and with this terrain, Demolishor and I are going to be useless. Air Raid, Beachcomber, you two take the shuttle down to the surface, do some investigation. And for Prime's sake, make sure you're not spotted -- the last thing we want is another disaster like Velocitron."
Beachcomber stepped out of the shuttle, still unconsciously ducking to avoid banging his head on the bulkhead -- he'd recently downsized his frame, choosing something more energy efficient and compatible with the cyber keys they'd been handing out, but it would still take him a while to get used to it -- and gazed at the horizon.
"Bet you wish you'd picked an amphibious alt-mode," Air Raid nudged him in the arm with a wing, "As for me, I get this wide blue expanse all to myself."
"Hey, I thought I was the funny guy here." Beachcomber nudged him back. "We're supposed to be incognito, and up there you may as well have a target painted on your back. At least down here I'll be able to blend in."
"Bold words," Air Raid leapt into the sky, legs folded up on himself, his nosecone and torso rotating until he'd assumed his alt-mode and taken to the sky "Tell you what, the one who gets caught owes the other one a recharge."
Beachcomber transformed too, assuming his dune buggy alt-mode as he rebuffed his team mate: "No way, you still owe me for last time."
"You just know I won't get spotted," the radio crackled back, Air Raid already too far for sound to carry.
If he was still humanoid, Beachcomber would have shaken his head, instead he just rolled his tyres, and pealed out across the beach. If nothing else, the dry parts of the world seemed made for him.
"Scrap, scrap, scrap, scrap" Shortround repeated to himself, over and over, the water speeding below him while he tried to figure out exactly where things had gone wrong. Certainly he'd never expected to be called to active duty -- Megatron had been dead, the war was supposedly over. How was he meant to know he'd be suddenly summoned along with all the other cons, or end up being retrofitted with one of those ridiculous cyber key things?
The port itched, empty, a reminder of part of him that he'd never get back, something changed, something wrong.
"Scrap!" he finished, seeing a small sandbar ahead with energon readings. He slowed down, quieting his engine -- fortunately he wasn't as noisy as the earth vehicle he and his siblings had been forced to scan -- and went to investigate.
No, it had been much earlier than that. Even before the Unicron War. He'd at least been able to sit things out before thanks to the legions of decepticlones and terrorcons. No, if he'd made a wrong choice it would have been countless millennia, back when Megatron had first announced his plans to enslave the mini-cons. Shortround cursed his past self, but still couldn't blame him.
After all, the thrill of rounding up those minicons, figuring out their teams, lining them all up... it still stuck with him even now.
He finally pulled up on the sandbar, closing in on the signal.
At first he couldn't recognise what he'd found, a twisted spire of metal. It was only when he pulled on it, feeling it come loose with a sickening crunch that he realised it was an arm, the rest of the body turning over in the sand -- freed by his over-eager digging.
"Huh, I guess there are natives here." He flung the arm into the waters, and turned to examine the corpse. Short and bulky, although its heavy duty chassis was pitted with holes. He scraped his claw along one, wondering what could have inflicted the injury, already too entranced to notice the stirring waters behind him.
One hole was oddly regular, and he realised with a start it had been cyber key modified. "How the smelt did Cybertron become the last place in the galaxy to come up with this stuff?" He idly thought, scratching through the sand for any trace of the key itself.
He never got the chance -- after his initial trench was dug into the sand, the frothing waters finally caught his attention. "What the scrap?" He asked, getting closer to the water. He just had time to see the eyes glowing under the surface before it was too late, and a horde of monstrous robots leapt from the water.
Overload looked over the sensor data for the fifth time since the scouts had left. Something about the planet was familiar, but the more he tried to force things to make sense, the less they did. And what's more his head was aching, the delicate circuitry inside was overheating and if he didn't take a break soon it would start to burn out...
But there was no way he could do that when he was so close. He'd just have to keep workin- "Hey boss," he looked up, seeing Demolishor holding up an energon chip. "You don't look so good. Go clock up some recharge time away from the computers. Try to relax. You're no good to anyone if you burn out."
"Your... concern is noted." Overload leaned back, rubbing his visor, and for good measure he rubbed his inbuilt night vision goggles above it -- a comforting gesture, even if he rarely needed to use them. "But I'm sure there's something I've seen before..."
"Did you ever visit Ocean City? I mean, that whole thing's been sticking in my memories since we've got here. Makes me nostalgic." Demolishor held out the energon chip, which Overload looked at dubiously but then finally accepted. The energy slowly flowed into his systems, recharging the aching machinery that made up his body.
"It's more than that. I've felt this since we arrived, I knew which planet we were looking for, like I'd been here before." He swung his hand at the viewscreen, still focusing on the ocean below. "And for all I know... I have."
"That whole memory loss thing?" Overload nodded as Demolishor laughed, sitting on the control panel next to him. "I remember when you first turned up, everyone was so freaked out. I mean, Optimus is back and he's now got a huge weapon system as a buddy... Thrust thought it was the end for everyone!" His face fell, and even in his exhausted state Overload realised he was thinking about the lost con.
It was a sobering moment. He still couldn't bring himself to trust Demolishor -- few autobots could -- but seeing his smile fade, and remembering how Thrust had died... He passed back the energon chip back, "You look like you could use a recharge as well. To our pasts, and the better futures that lie ahead."
Demolishor's smile returned, taking the other side of the chip and sharing its warm flow of energy. "To the future."
"Approaching the city now," Beachcomber said into his communicator, relaying the information back to the ship in orbit. It wasn't likely anyone was keeping track -- at least not until he failed to check in every eight minutes -- but it did well to keep his mind off the city itself.
The thing seemed fine to all his sensors: it seemed comprised of standard cybertronian alloys, he could recognise familiar enough building types, and even the bots that wandered in and out of the gate seemed regular enough. The only sensor which wasn't functioning properly was what humans had called their "gut." There was something here that threw him off.
He stayed off the roads -- glad for his alt-mode's off-road design -- finally reaching the city wall where he could transform unobserved. He ran his fingers across the wall and felt his insides settling, even to touch it was normal. Smooth and gentle.
And that's when it hit him.
Everything was too smooth.
He stared upwards, his visor polarizing automatically against the sun's glare as he took everything in with the benefit of hindsight: While there were the occasional spike or thorn like design, everything here was rounded. There were no angles, no blocky shapes apart from some of the inhabitants. It was like someone had gone around buffing things until they were all smooth.
Or like they were grown.
That was the overwhelming impression he got from it, even the walls here lacked any telltale signs of assembly. He shuddered -- even humans built things, and they were organic.
Still, he'd need to check out the inside to find out if there was anything like a Cyber Planet Key here. And with how smooth the wall was, there was no way to climb in. That left only one option.
He sent another message, eight minutes after the previous one. "I'm going to have to go in on foot. They indigenous life may notice me. If you disagree with my assessment let me know."
He waited eight minutes. Still no reply. "Thank you for your agreement." he grinned to himself, and walked towards the gate.
The bots surrounding Beachcomber kept to themselves, barely sparing him a glance as he walked into the city. He, however, stared at them plenty.
From the descriptions he'd heard about Animatros, the bots here seemed similar. He could see the obvious signs of bestial alt-modes. Fins, huge bulging eyes that seemed oddly glazed at the moment, spindly limbs -- and most disturbingly, fangs. Their shoulders were decorated by a huge collar of teeth, as if their heads were merely obstructions in their beast mode mouths.
Here and there there were outliers. Bots who towered over their kin, whose eyes followed his every movement. One approached him through the throng, the others parting ways like the Decepticons did whenever Megatron entered the room. The unpleasant image didn't fade even as the bot smiled, spreading his arms wide as if greeting an old friend.
"You're obviously not from Aquatron!" he said, the black limbs extending from his golden body causing Beachcomber to step back. He'd known he'd be in trouble for making contact with the natives. He'd expected fear, suspicion. Even antagonism. He'd not expected for the first bot he met to hug him. Like they were now doing. The extra limbs held him tight in the embrace as the newcomer continued speaking. "It's just so rare to see a new face. Most of what we have to deal with are these bots." He finally backed off, waving at the masses surrounding them. "Modified form of omnicon, specialized for aquatic energon gathering," the slick bot rattled off before Beachcomber could ask. "But they're not much for conversation. My name is Tentakil--" they froze, obviously seeing Beachcomber's expression "No, no. "kil" only one L. Means a thousand. Tentakil -- a thousand hands. Because I'm a hugger." He demonstrated once again.
Finally he let go, and Beachcomber got a word in edgeways. "Uh, you're right. I'm from Cybertron, have you heard of it?"
Tentakil shrugged. "Not really, some of my friends might have. Do you want to meet them?"
Everything was going well, Dreadwing was already feeling a flare of satisfaction as he mentally filed the reports from Undertow and Storm Surge. They'd already found some settlements infested with the natives of the world. And from Undertow's assessment those natives all seemed so dull that they could be outwitted by decepticlones.
Finding the Cyber Planet Key would be a piece of oil cake, and then they could get off this world. He could feel it getting to him. Making him feel emotions, even stronger than Megatron had done.
It wasn't right. Something here was tainting him, which was filling up the emptiness that formed the core of his sense of self. He hated it. And he hated that he could even feel that hatred.
He folded his arms together, his wings sweeping forwards to enclose him as he muttered to himself. "This world is an abomination." Having assumed his boat mode, he started speeding over the water.
Despite everything seeming to go well there was one flaw. Something that spurred on a flare of irritation. Shortround hadn't reported in. If the coward had fled, tried to hide from his wrath...
Well, he supposed, not all emotions were worthless.
Shortround didn't feel scared any more.
Fear was a useless distraction. It took valuable energy away from running the scrap away from the monsters chasing him.
His hovercraft mode had already taken more than a few tears, he was leaving an oil slick behind him, and of all things his radio was broken so he couldn't even call for help.
"Scrap!" he cursed, and then cursed himself some more internally for wasting the fuel on vocalising. The things had been about to tear out his spark before he'd managed to flee, and it was still aching, glowing through the crack in its casing.
He was going to die, and it would all be for nothing. All those years spent collecting minicon escapees. All those years spent enjoying the benefits of being a rear echelon decepticon. He was going to die, and there was nothing he could do.
Shortround could tell the horrors were closing in fast, feel their glowing eyes on him, feel their claws ready to rake his engines. He didn't want this. He'd never wanted to fight. He wanted to be back home on Cybertron, without worrying about a black hole. He wanted to be completely fuelled up for the first time in his life. He wanted an army of terrorcons and minicons, all in matching liveries to his own. Most of all he wanted to live.
He knew no bot could get what they wanted. But it didn't matter. He was going to die. What was wrong with wanting the world? What was wrong with wanting it all. He tried to will his engine a little further, even as it started to splutter. Eking out a few more seconds, his his spark pulsing. The emptiness inside growing stronger. No more fuel. No more energy. No more time. He stopped, emptiness filling him -- his spark pulsing, aching.
He transformed and turned to face the horde. If he was going to die, he might as well do it like a proper decepticon warrior.
There they were, a swarm of teeth and fangs. His spark pulsed again, glowing like the eyes of his oncoming doom. They were empty too. They wanted to fill it. The hunger.
And then as his spark pulsed for what was probably the final time, he felt it. The hunger. Running through the entire planet. Every living thing. The energon of the seas wasn't enough. They needed to eat, they needed to devour. They needed to live.
Something was there, at the core of the world. He could feel it, something inside him reached out, the hunger would never be filled... but what was there offered to help him silence it for a little while.
His vision started turning to static, the beasts were upon him... But it was enough. With his last spark of energy he whispered: "Cyber Key Power!"
Light engulfed him, and he knew at last that he was home.