The desert was hot and unforgiving, but that was the way they liked it. Sure, his partner complained- hourly- but still, they were free. They didn't have to work themselves to death in the mines, or spend the winters drowning in whiskey while they waited for the next cattle train to need riders. Out in the desert no one ever bothered them. They lived as they pleased-and happily too. He fancied himself like Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed the poor. But lately, things had not been so happy.
The local inhabitants, especially the poor, had been coming up missing. He hadn't been worried until one of the men who always refused his offers of cash had suddenly not shown up after working the mines all day. That was unusual. Vincent had always been the responsible one, saving pennies to bring his wife here from Mexico- if he survived the mines. One night he, along with the other miners, had simply vanished during a freak sand storm. These strange storms had been showing up out of no where more and more frequently- always leaving behind houses empty of anyone but the children.
With his partner's help he'd investigated the phenomenon. They'd been out in this canyon for two days, hoping to get a look at whatever was causing the disturbances.
Today the waiting paid off.
"Do you hear that?" asked Skywarp, looking up.
"Hear what?" snapped Astrotrain. "I swear, you're getting as paranoid as Breakdown!"
Skywarp growled. "I could have sworn I heard something up there at the top of that canyon."
"What does it fraggin matter if a bunch of humans see us?" Astrotrain rolled his eyes, "Chasing them down would give us something more exciting to do than transports."
"You know I'm always up for fun.. but we don't have the fuel to waste to search all this mess for one fragging human. Those little suckers are good at getting down in tight spaces where we have to send Ravage in. Besides, Megatron doesn't want us spooking the populous. It'll be harder for us to grab more volunteers if the humans catch onto us," Without hesitating he transformed and warped away from the area. Let the curious little glitches explain that to someone. With a frustrated grumble, Astrotrain transformed and flew after his companion, both Decepticons leaving the canyon fast enough to rattle the desert creatures into hiding.
By the time their curious watchers raised their heads again, the two 'cons were gone.
"I swear to God, I don't know who's hide I'm going to tan first, Mikaela's or Bumblebee's," grumbled Hawthorne. He stepped back from the train station and towards the dusty red steamcar that waited.
Ironhide's voice rumbled deep in his chassis, "Ya don't blame th'others at all?"
"Blaster and Perceptor, I guess they didn't want to be cooped up... and Sunstreaker well I can't say I blame him for wanting to go."
Ironhide's voice rumbled sympathetically, "Neither c'n Ah."
"But those two... oh no. Those two have the type of innocent face that sell ice boxes to Eskimos. I've no doubt who the ring leaders of this little rescue operation are."
Hawthorne patted the dashboard and pretended to put Ironhide in gear. The steamcar lurched off from the pavement slowly, trying not to spook the many horse carriages traveling the street. "No one has seen any of them. They must have left in the night."
"Even with a busted cog Ah'll bet Bumblebee 'n Sunstreaker 're pretty slaggin' far from here at this point. It's no use tryin' to chase 'em either." Bumblebee was programmed with the ability to create a safe, non-confrontational route through any territory even with a minimum of information about that area. If they didn't stay on a main road, and it was doubtful they would, it would be a frustrating trail to follow.
"I know... I just... Hell's bells, I lost my grandson and now his little friend is taking off after him. What am I going to tell her uncle?" Hawthorne sighed.
"Ah don't know," replied Ironhide soberly. "But it's something that has to be done. At least we know we're gonna be goin' after them pretty soon. Maybe our trails'll cross?"
Hawthorne shook his head. "No, we're won't be going as far south as they are. I still can't believe Ratchet just let them go."
Ironhide's engine made a grumbling noise in response. He had known Ratchet since they were both younger than Bumblebee. At the academy he'd been a soldier and Ratchet had been studying to be a surgeon. Back then Ratchet had been a carefree and careless young intern. Every night was spent drinking high grade energon until he couldn't stand up any longer, and Ironhide dragging him home again. Ratchet, with his sarcastic tongue and temper, had gotten the two of them in more bar fights than he cared to think of. The war had changed him, soured him . Ratchet was still known to knock back high grade and give up some of his inhibitions, but he was never carefree anymore. There was no time to get plastered when a friend might be coming in on a gurney at any moment.
Prowl checked his weapon, it was fully repaired and ready. He'd had a long recharge and some last minute check ups from Ratchet. They laid out in the sun to soak up as much energy as possible, they would take to the rails tonight when they wouldn't be as visible.
The tracks were hidden off to the side of the slope, midway between the farm and the town. It wasn't used often by the trains any longer, dandelions and other weeds grew long between the bars. Hawthorne had obtained the latest train schedules for freight and passenger trains; they wouldn't run into anything unexpected.
Wheeljack, Ratchet and Ironhide would follow Optimus, while Prowl took the rear guard. It was the most dangerous position to be in case of ambush. He was about to go take his place when he noticed a blue ramshackle caboose waiting about a boxcar's length from Ironhide. Ratchet stood staring at him seriously, his arms crossed. His expression clearly read, "And what are you going to do about it."
"Please tell me that isn't what I think it is," said Prowl flatly.
Ratchet snorted, "Who, not what. Mirage is almost complete. Only one arm and some of his back parts weren't his original ones."
Prowl rubbed his brow with one dented hand, "Why?"
"Because you're going to need more than just those three if you run into trouble. Besides, you can use him as a decoy if you need to. Megatron will think that he revived and is returning to his master."
Prowl suppressed a shiver that started deep in his servos. There was something very odd about the whole thing. Cybertronians had evolved in a way that you could remove all their limbs and have just a chassis left- but if the spark was intact in it's chamber and given fresh infusions of energon that bot would live. He could be put back together or into a new body later. It didn't work the opposite way. An empty body was just a shell.
"But he's... he's..." Prowl couldn't bring himself to say "undead." That sounded ridiculous, but there was truth in that statement.
The black chevron on Ratchet's helmet glinted a little in the sun, "He's operated with a control. Megatron heavily damaged it during the fighting, but after we got back to the farm... Mirage got up again. Wheeljack and I ripped out his original receiver and replaced it with one that will respond to your commands."
"This is wrong, Ratchet. He should be laid to rest, not fighting more battles. When a bot dies he deserves to rest," Prowl's was soft and uncharacteristically emotional.
Ratchet clapped him on the shoulder, "I know. But... there's a little bit of Mirage still in that body. I don't know why, but there is. His spark chamber is empty, but it's almost like it's still beating somewhere. Just... not where it's supposed to be."
"Shouldn't we put it out? Wouldn't that be the compassionate thing to do?" Prowl didn't fear death but neither did he crave it. He knew that in the profession he had chosen premature death was inevitable. He looked forward to the day when he could lay down his weapon and relax; he didn't like the thought that someone could force him back to his feet.
Ratchet shrugged, "I can't explain it. Mirage never liked to fight, but he never backed down when he was needed either. It's possible that what's left of him just won't quit."
Prowl stared at the rusty looking caboose. If there was anything left of Mirage he was probably embarrassed beyond limits right now looking like he did. Still, an extra gun was not something they could look away from at the moment.
Mikaela was been forward to a bath and a real bed this evening. Furnace Creek boasted one lone hotel, dusty and bleached by the desert sun it's most humble room still contained less dust than the scrub Mikaela had been sleeping in. The rumor that there were bandits kidnapping the homesteaders who lived outside the town made a night in a hotel seem even better . Whole families would disappear in the night. Mikaela hadn't had a good night sleep in four days.
The passage of time had blurred on the long road to the west. The five of them had made it to St. Louis by way of the river, only to find another telegram from Maggie saying she'd already started out- but she would be waiting for them in Furnace Creek with the promised money. Their arrival was the end of a long, dirty journey.
Bumblebee, hidden in his shape as a steam car, sat on the dusty streets. After several mishaps with the local horses the group had learned to send only Mikaela, Perceptor, and Bumblebee in to the tiny villages along their path. Mikaela leaned against Bumblebee's side, gesturing with her chin at a short blond woman who had just gotten off a carriage, only to be immediately accosted by two weathered looking riders.
"Hey there, sweet thing, do you need a ride somewhere?" asked the first one.
The woman leaned away, "I think my legs can carry me wherever I need to go. It's not like this town is a particularly big piece of real estate."
"You sure do have a lovely voice, honey. You a Brit? You gonna be a new dance hall girl for us?" the second man swaggered a little closer.
"Dance hall!? What are you talking about?" the woman puffed her cheeks out in frustration. "Shouldn't you folks be working right now anyway?"
"Shoot, there's no work to be done till the next shipment comes in!" said the first man, laughing.
"S'right. We're out of shovels for God's sake. Whoever heard of people running out of shovels!" He snorted.
"How did you run out of shovels?" Maggie wrinkled her nose in confusion.
"Over time shovels break, and well, when we broke most of ours we ordered up more from here... but they was gone!"
"Who the hell steals shovels anyway?" the second man spat. "So lady, we've got plenty of time to waste and we'd like to waste it with you if you're so obliged."
"Hey! Leave my cousin alone!" A skinny looking cowboy interposed himself between the woman and her would-be suitors.
The two men laughed at the young boy. "Lissen to him, he sounds like he's still singing for the church choir. Does your momma know you've let yourself get this dirty, boy."
"You see him over there?" a dirty thumb jerked at the largish man wrapped in a sombrero and blanket. "That's my cousin's fiancée. He's not going to like it if you bother her."
The two men judged the size of their competition and wisely backed off. "Alright, alright. We didn't know she was spoken for! We're just trying to be friendly like."
"If you don't like our hospitality then we'll just take it somewheres else." grumped the first man as he and his companion sauntered off.
"Mikaela! What are you doing out here?" hissed Maggie. She reached up and tugged at Mikaela's broad hat, "And what did you do to your hair?!"
Mikaela snatched at her hat and pulled it down low over her head. "I sold it. I had to, it's easier to travel if people think I'm a kid out looking for my father. Besides... it's a good way to manage the heat. And I needed the money. We had a hard time getting all the way out here! What are you doing here anyway?"
"Looking for the Iron Knights, they're missing. I figured that they went after the Decepticons and followed them all out here... but I didn't find any trace of them."She dabbed at her eyes with one hand. "I'm so worried that somethings happened to them!"
"I'm more worried that they happened to somebody," Mikaela rubbed her forehead. There was no telling what kind of destruction the three surly bots were causing where ever they were.
Maggie glanced at big shouldered mysterious figure, "Is that Blaster?"
Mikaela shook her head, "No, it's Percy. Blaster's... well the good news is that his growth spurt is finished.
"And the bad news?"
"He's too big to come in town, he and Sunny are so big they spook the horses." Mikeala couldn't believe how fast Blaster had grown in size. He came up to Sunstreaker's shoulder now, folding into himself to become a good sized vehicle. Blaster was fast as well, he'd already beaten Sunny at two races. "He's also why I'm broke. I had to buy some scrap metal to feed him a while back."
Maggie shrugged, "I wired some money ahead to the bank over yonder. I spent most of mine on the train tickets... but what I wired over should be enough for us to get new supplies and move on. I feel like I need a gun as well."
Bumblebee watched The two girls headed across the street to the little bank,"Percy, we need to talk..."
Each bot had his own way of dealing with the past battle. Sunstreaker had taken to driving a short distance away from where the others rested and practiced his sharp shooting or hand to hand with Bumblebee or Blaster. Perceptor rarely spoke, and when he did the answer was short and to the point. Something was broken and possibly unrepairable. During the war Perceptor had seen his share of death and battle on the field, but he himself had never taken damage- especially the slow, painful damage that Starscream had inflicted on him. Bumblebee had grown more and more concerned over time.
Perceptor looked over at him over the brim of his blanket, saying nothing.
"Look lately I've been talking enough for the both of us. You used to be mouthy enough to to make my audio receptors ache. I know what happened bothers you..."
Perceptor turned away, the sombrero dipping lower. His arm ached where Starscream had plunged his claws through it. Most of the wounds were inflicted to cause maximum pain but minimum damage; nerves raked raw, pressure points needled, and joints dislocated but not broken. He was still hurting, still healing.
It wasn't the pain that made Perceptor unable to deal with the memories. It was the knowledge that Starscream had delighted in the pain he was inflicting. The Starscream he remembered hearing of before was not the sort to go in for torture for the joy of it. It was true that he was ruthless and devoted to his cause, but it was Soundwave and his assassins that were the ones who enjoyed causing pain. How could someone become so warped that he would do such a thing. Was it the long life? The separation from his own kind? What if all the other autobots died and Perceptor was the only one left? The humans would care for him for a time, but their lifespans were so short. He enjoyed their company but he needed his own kind near him as well. If he lived out his life on this planet would he become like Starscream? Twisted and full of hate, wanting only to destroy?
Suddenly gun shots rang out from the bank and someone in a long brown duster came tearing out of the front of the bank, hand clutched around two bags full of money and goods. He ran over to a pile of leather hides that were thrown on a saw horse and leaped on top. The leather hides slipped off to reveal something metal and shiny underneath. "Go! Go! GO GOD DAMN IT!"
The vehicle spun around and sped off down the street. A stray bullet hit the back of it with a metallic clang. The vehicle gave a loud "OW! HEY!" as it rocketed out of sight.
Bumblebee watched in confusion, "Was that.. I mean do you think.. Did it just say 'ow'?"
Percy frowned, "That... was an autobot."
Maggie adjusted the brim of her hat carefully. Her head was definitely cooler, but she felt naked without her hair. They were far enough outside of town that she couldn't see the lights of the lanterns any longer. "We could have at least asked for more money."
Mikaela sighed, rubbing her hat against her head, "Hey, it got us enough money for fresh clothes and baths."
"I can't believe I sold my hair,"said Maggie dully.
"Aww, but you look so cute with short hair," Bumblebee ruffled her hat carefully. She looked at him without amusement.
"I look like a boy. A young boy."
"At least it got us food and supplies for a little while," Mikaela said, trying to be positive.
"It won't last us long," Maggie's brow scrunched up, "We need to find the thieves that took the money."
"The town's folk gave us some good locations to search for him, maybe there's some place marked on the map he'd hide?" Mikaela unrolled the maps and poured over them, lazy swatting away a few evening insects. It was cold at night in the desert, but the ground was still warm. Somewhere in the distance a coyote was howling.
Sunstreaker chipped away at a long bit of old wood siding with a wicked looking cybertronian knife. The knife was, as the humans said, a hold out piece. It was strong and sharp enough to go through the heavy plating of another mech, but compact enough to be hidden in one of the compartments lining his gauntlet. Another life time ago he had stolen the knife from a weapon's shop while Sideswipe had distracted the owner. Sunny smiled to himself, remembering how Sideswipe had whined that he'd done the dangerous job and hadn't gotten anything for his hard work. Sideswipe had been extremely pleased when Sunstreaker had presented him with a second matching knife. At the time the blades had been as long as their arm, more like swords to the adolescent bots. They were the twin's first weapons and had saved their metal hides more often than he'd like to count.
It was on quiet evenings in between being hunted by Decepticons or other Kaon rabble that Sunstreaker had amused his twin by carving the fallen masonry bits that were plentiful in the burned out squalor of the city. Sideswipe's attempts at carving ended with him having to learn to reattach his own fingers. Instead he spent his time coming up with new and exciting ways to earn, steal or beg credits and energon off the other mechs. He was the one that would wheedle the shopkeepers out of their goods with things stolen from their own inventories. Sideswipe would sell just about anything to keep them alive- except their knives or Sunny's carvings.
The fire began to burn low. Sunstreaker tossed the scrap of wood he'd been playing with at Mikaela, "Here, throw this in."
She fingered the carving. It was a four legged sleek looking creature about the size of her hand Although rough, it the beginnings were solid, "Sunstreaker, this is beautiful... I can't put this in the fire!"
Sunstreaker shrugged and got to his feet, "Fine, I'll see if I can find something else to burn, but there's not a lot of wood out here."
"I am NOT picking up buffalo droppings!' he called over his shoulder.
Blaster looked up from the maps at the carving in Mikaela's hands. "It's a turbofox. Cybertron used to be crawling with them. I know some of the high class mechs used to hunt them for sport, they're really fast. They're small, their back would come up to your knee."
"Small... right." Mikaela shook her head, "I never pegged Sunstreaker as the artistic type. I used to draw a lot as a little girl, but I haven't much since my father passed away.
"Oh! I just had an idea!" said Maggie, pulling the paper into her lap. She took a scrap of firewood and sharpened the end with a little pen knife she kept in her pocket. Using the wood she carefully scraped at the oil crayon markings on the map. "When I was a little girl my father used to give me pages of old notes that he'd scribbled over with the stubs of oil crayons that were too small to be of use. When there was a thick coating I would scrape it off with a stick and make pictures that way."
"It came off clean?" asked Bee, looking at the gooey substance.
She nodded, "Sometimes. Some of the colors aren't as opaque either... so if there was pen writing on the paper when the oil crayon was scraped away you could see it clearly. Aha!"
Maggie sat back on her heels, looking at the map with satisfaction. She read the word beneath it and frowned again, frustrated, "Huh, that was a waste of time."
Mikaela came over and looked at the paper, "Really? Why, what's it say?"
"I just says... Nemesis. That doesn't make any sense."
Sundstreaker dropped the few odd pieces of wood he'd carried over with a thud, "It says what?"
"Nemesis. I know what that means, but it doesn't make sense. If Nichols had a Nemesis it would be Hawthorne... I don't know why he'd say his nemesis is out in the middle of the desert."
"Maggie... Nemesis is the name of the Decepticon ship," Blaster shook his head, "This is where the Decepticons are. They're digging up their ship!"
Mikaela felt sick to her stomach, "That's why there are no shovels. And why people are going missing. They're taking them to help dig up their ship."
"If they get their ship out they'll leave us here stranded on the damn planet," said Sunstreaker irritably.
Maggie frowned at him, "Not before they strip the planet of all it's resources and enslave and slaughter the human race."
"Well yeah, there is that," said Sunstreaker shrugging a little.
"We need to get word to Prowl and the others," said Bumblebee.
"How? We can't use any transmissions. If we do that the 'cons'll hear us for sure," said Blaster, crossing his arms.
"Well... you were saying you wanted to clock your speed..." Bumblebee started.
"And you are the same color as the desert, you blend right in," said Sunstreaker.
Blaster's face fell, "I feel like i'd be abandoning you. I mean, I'm big now. I have more fire power. No offense Bee, Perceptor."
Bumblebee cocked his eye ridge, "It's not the size, it's how you use it. Look Blaster, we promise not to go in after the Decepticons before you bring Prowl and the others back here."
"Unless it's just to sneak out our friends... or do reconnaissance," interjected Mikaela.
"Oh thanks, because that gives me a whole lotta comfort," Blaster gave her a sarcastic look. "It'll take me two days or longer to get to the others in Colorado, then another two days for them to get here... most likely more at the speed they travel."
"You mean the speed Ironhide travels," Sunstreaker snorted, sounding more like his old self.
Blaster ignored him, closing his eyes in thought. After a few minutes he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, "I'm gonna go out into the desert about a day's travel and contact them. I'll make the message short, then I'll high tail it out of there."
"But that'll make you a sitting duck! They'll see your tracks for sure." Mikaela flailed her arms in protest.
"That's a chance we gotta take. There's more at stake now than just us. You've never seen the Nemesis in action. The main canon brought down our sister ship without so much as a 'How you doing?"
Sunstreaker nodded, "Alright, get going. We'll go get our stuff back and try to find the others."
"Hey, who said you were in charge?" Maggie snapped.
"Maggie, he's right... there's nothing else we can do," Mikaela put her hand on Bumblebee's arm and looked up at him.
"Sorry, Mikaela, but I agree with Maggie. It's a suicide mission."
Blaster sighed. He looked at his friend, "Perceptor? What do you think?"
Perceptor was standing at the edge of their campfire, staring off into space. He hadn't said a word since Bumblebee had tried to talk to him before the robbery, "I think I can see Cybertron if I really squint."
Blaster watched him for a moment, "Hey man, are you feeling okay?"
Perceptor stared back, then tumbled over onto his side, optics winking out. Blaster caught him gingerly and lowered him to the ground.
"Easy!" said Bumblebee, pulling the indian wrap off of Percy's body. "Oh... Primus."
Perceptor's bandages were caked in mud and dust- but that wasn't the problem. One portion under his left arm was oozing energon slowly. He shook his head, his optics still dark.
Blaster carefully peeled back the dressing, "Primus, Percy... You're seeping. When did this happen?"
Perceptor shook his head weakly, "I don't know... a while ago."
"Frag, Percy. This is bad," Bee pulled the remaining bandages back to show the wound. The metal around it was eaten through and crumbling. The leaking energon was slow, but steady.
Mikaela stared at it, trying to remember everything that Ratchet had told her about fixing up the bots, "You need real sutures for this, not a bandage. I think it's... infected."
"Infected!? How?" said Maggie.
Mikaela shrugged, "Ratchet didn't explain the how, just what it would look like."
"Well you know what it looks like, so now what do we do about it?"Maggie gestured her hands at him helplessly.
"He said to come get him if this happened," Mikaela hung her head, "I'm so sorry Percy, I should have checked this earlier."
Perceptor turned his head in her direction, "It's okay. If I wanted to be fixed I'd have asked to be."
"What?!" shouted Bumblebee. "What the heck is that supposed to mean? Stop being so slagging dramatic!"
"You're getting fixed whether you want to be or not," snarled Blaster. He looked down at the others crouched beside Perceptor. "I'm going to get the others, including Ratchet, back here. Just try and stop me."