“Is that Pierce’s ‘Treasure Planet’?”
Rodimus startled out of his reading reverie and looked over the top of the datapad to see Starscream standing in front of him, his expression one of curiosity rather than disdain. A day after Rodimus had almost broken the orrery, and he expected Starscream to be touchy around him. Yet, this question had been almost pleasant.
“Yes?” Rodimus answered, bracing himself for the inevitable teasing and/or mockery. One could never be sure. “I found it in your library.”
“That’s because I’m an excellent judge of good literature,” Starscream said with a toss of his head and a twitch of his wings. He grinned, tapping the edge of the datapads tucked under his arms. “You do know it’s based on a true story, yes?”
Rodimus raised an orbital ridge. “Impossible.”
“Only if you’ve never left the planet.” The Seeker chuckled. “Oh, it’s embellished, yes, but there are many parts that are true. The Universe Bridge, for example.”
Rodimus shifted, straightening up on the window seat to rest his feet on the floor, Scuttle immediately bumping against his nearest foot. “You mean the portal?”
Starscream nodded. “Yes. It’s nonfunctional at the moment. It lacks a power source in this dimension. But it does exist.”
“You’ve gotta be joking,” Rodimus said accusingly, finding it difficult to believe that there was a universe bridge or whatever. A device capable of taking you anywhere in the universe from a single point in space. “Just cause you think I’m some dumb clanling–”
“I am being honest,” Starscream interrupted, a bit testily. His wings flicked sharply. “I’ve seen it myself. It’s something of a tourist attraction in the Andule Quadrant. There are scores of scientists from all over the universe who are convinced it can be made to work again.”
Rodimus stared at him, unsure if he dared believe. ‘Treasure Planet’ was a fantastic tale, but it felt too much like a fantasy. A whole planet covered in nothing but precious metals and creds? A Universe Bridge? It sounded too good to be true.
“You’ve seen it yourself,” Rodimus repeated as he narrowed his optics. “You’ve actually been off Cybertron.”
Starscream straightened, his head tilting imperiously. “Yes, I have,” he said. “And I can prove it. Granted most of my research was confiscated, but I still have some image captures left.”
Rodimus’ jaw dropped. “You’re serious.”
“Of course I am.” Starscream huffed, his wings twitching upward. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
He didn’t wait for Rodimus to agree. He started toward the library with a determined gait, and Rodimus scrambled off the window bench to follow, tossing the book into subspace as he did. Scuttle chittered and nearly tripped him up in eagerness to come along.
“Your research was confiscated?” Rodimus asked as he caught up to Starscream, slowing his stride to match the Seeker’s, even as they passed the library and kept climbing, toward what Rodimus knew to be a string of locked doors. “Why?”
“For reasons that are no business of yours.” Starscream gave him a sideways glance. “You wouldn’t understand anyway. You’re a clanling. You’ve never experienced life in the city.”
Rodimus shrugged. “Yeah. But from what I’ve heard, I’m not missing much.”
“There are some… amenities that would be useful, but otherwise… yes. There is little to miss of citylife, especially for those of us not in power,” Starscream said, his tone quiet this time, more contemplative.
He stopped in front of one of the locked doors on the hallway and pressed his palm to the field reader. It beeped as it acknowledged him, the door sliding aside, granting him access to a room that was lit only by emergency lights around the perimeter, top and bottom.
“How many planets have you been to?” Rodimus asked as he followed Starscream inside, peering curiously into the dark. He couldn’t see anything but vague shadows. He did, however, hear the quiet hum of consoles in a sleep-state.
“More than you can possibly imagine, but less than I would have liked.”
There was a click before a pale light spilled into the room, doing little to eliminate the shadows, and revealing multiple low shelves strewn around the fringe of the room. The space in the middle, however, was empty, save for a single pedestal with a spherical object sitting in the middle of it.
Why in the desert were they here?
“I’m a bit jealous,” Rodimus murmured as he watched Starscream move to the pedestal, crouching down to open a panel in the base of it. “I don’t really care about the cities, but I’ve always wanted to explore. Go places. See things that you only read stories about.”
Starscream paused and looked at Rodimus over his shoulder, a soft smile on his lips. “No wonder you like fantasy tales.”
Heat flooded Rodimus’ cheeks. He looked away, scratching his jaw. “What are you doing anyway?”
“Proving a point,” Starscream said before there was another click and the ceiling suddenly lit up with pinpoints of light. The globe on the pedestal was emitting a soft glow as well, perhaps the source of the light.
Rodimus looked up, his optics widening. The dots of light were large and small, and ranged in shades of white, yellow, red, and blue. Some were clustered together; some were far apart. In fact, it reminded him a lot of the night sky.
“Wait,” he said as he turned in slow circles. “Are those stars?”
“It’s a representation of them, yes. They are formed of my own memories,” Starscream answered as the lights swirled across the ceiling, only for their configuration to change into something a bit more familiar. “Recognize it now?”
Rodimus nodded and gestured to a cluster of dots just over Starscream’s helm. “I know that constellation. There in the center, that’s the guiding star.” It was the single most important point of reference for a lost clanling. It was what all their charts revolved around. Of course, it wasn’t much use in the middle of a raging sandstorm.
“It’s called Arcturus,” Starscream explained as he crossed his arms and tilted his head, looking up at the star-cluster. “It’s over eighty light years away, and still that visible to us. And yes, it is often called the guiding star by your people.”
Rodimus turned in a slow circle, amazed that the sky had been so accurately recreated on the ceiling. “I see Reticule and the Archer.”
“You’ll probably find many that you recognize,” Starscream murmured, something soft and thoughtful in his voice. “I’ve been to places that I thought only existed in stories. I’ve seen worlds with the strangest of creatures, and the most severe of landscapes.”
Rodimus shifted his gaze to Starscream, watching the Seeker who looked up at the star display with something like longing in his optics. The usually severe lines of his face had smoothed over, allowing his beauty to shine through.
“I once saw a planet that was made almost entirely of crystal. It gleamed in the pale light of its sun, and the surface was nearly blinding,” Starscream said as his wings canted downward, a motion one Rodimus recognized as ease. “There was another world where the entire surface was liquid, and its sentient residents all lived below the waves. There are even other worlds who hold metallic beings like us.”
“Wow.” Rodimus cycled his optics. “Kind of puts a wrench in the thought that Primus made us special in his image, doesn’t it?”
Starscream tossed him a wry look. “I suppose that depends on the strength of your faith.” He leaned forward, fingers brushing over the podium again.
The lights whirred again, until they repositioned themselves, still familiar, but also not. One of the stars in particular was almost as bright as the guiding star, as Arcturus, and it was set in a very familiar constellation.
“That is Alpha Circini, the brightest star in the Circinus Galaxy and the Circinus constellation,” Starscream murmured. “It is also home to the Andule Quadrant and where you’ll find the Universe Bridge.”
“Circinus, huh? We call that constellation ‘the Lovers’,” Rodimus said with a little laugh. Only for the heat in his cheeks to deepen when he realized what he said.
He coughed a vent and scratched the back of his head. “I guess that’s why I’m a clanling and you’re from the city. You know the real names.”
Starscream huffed a laugh and angled his frame toward Rodimus. “Somehow, I think your clan’s name is more charming.”
“Maybe.” Rodimus coughed again. “So, uh, you’ve been to Circinus then?”
“Yes. My master at the time was an adventurer, as much as someone like him could be at any rate. He wanted to see the famed Universe Bridge for himself.” Starscream looked up at the constellation, something nostalgic in his expression. “I was lucky enough to be dragged along. And luckier still to assist him with his research.”
There was a lot of information in that statement, but only one bit of it truly stood out to Rodimus. “Your… master?”
Starscream’s vents stuttered. He whirled toward the podium and slapped a hand against the side of it, the star display abruptly shutting off and casting the room in shadows.
“It’s not important.” His engine growled, less threatening than it was agitated. “And none of your business.”
Like so much else in the little details Starscream let slip. Rodimus was starting to get a better idea of the life Starscream left behind, and it was not a pretty picture.
Rodimus held up his hands and backed toward the door. “I’m not here to pry,” he said. “I just, you know, I’d love to hear about the other planets you’ve been to. If you want to talk about them.”
Starscream moved away from the podium, his armor suddenly clamped tight around his frame, and his expression closed off compared to earlier. “Perhaps another time,” he said, his tone screaming of forced civility. “I’ll leave this room unlocked if you want to come back.”
“Who am I to stop someone from learning?” Starscream paused next to him, withdrawing a datapad from subspace, which he offered to Rodimus. “Instructions for operating the display. There are ways to activate a learner bot as well.”
Rodimus accepted the datapad, feeling as though he’d been given a degree of trust along with it. “Thanks,” he said and dipped his head. “I promise to be careful and not break anything. Well, at least not on purpose anyway.”
Starscream’s lips curved in a slight echo of the openness he’d offered earlier, until the walls came crashing down again. “I believe that much. Have fun.”
“I will. Thanks.”
Starscream left, and Rodimus pretended he didn’t watch the Seeker leave. Not the long lines of Starscream’s back, the sleek curve of his wings, or the subdued nature of his biolights.
He didn’t pay attention to any of it, even as his hands tightened around the datapad and his spark gave a weird flutter.
Starscream returned to the safety of his laboratory, locked the door behind himself, and sank onto the stool at his main workdesk. He pulled out the datapad containing the calculations for the substitute coding, flicked on the desk lamp, and told himself to get to work.
Ten minutes later, he realized he was staring at the far wall, lost in his contemplations, chastising himself for letting down his guard around Hot Rod. But there was something inviting about Hot Rod’s sincerity. He asked questions, and Starscream found himself answering before he realized what words had slipped past his lips.
The clanling was dangerous.
Only a few more days and he would leave. Starscream worried that it might not be soon enough.
His gaze wandered to the tray Hot Rod had brought him yesterday, empty of treats and in need of washing, a few sticky bits clinging to the metal. They’d been delicious.
He told himself Hot Rod had only made them in an effort to earn an invitation to Starscream’s berth. And then he wondered how he could even think a mech like Hot Rod could be so devious. The kid didn’t have a sneaky strut in his frame. He blushed at the drop of a bolt, and stammered over his words, and frag, seemed half-afraid to get within arms reach of Starscream.
Hot Rod had come here for a reason. One Starscream was not interested in offering to him, neither fight nor a night in the berth. Surely, to venture all this way, Hot Rod had not given up on his intentions?
The shriek of Starscream’s alarm system sliced through his thoughts. He startled, nearly tumbling out of stool, and scrambled for the desk to regain his balance. Spark hammering in his chassis, he tapped the nearest console to identify the source of the alert. He’d worry about Hot Rod later.
It was his back door again. What was it this time? Another half-dead clanling collapsed on the doorstep?
The screen went black and white with static. Starscream growled and gave it a smack. Or two, actually, since that’s how many it took this time before the image clarified.
Great. Duryllibears. And this time they were…
Starscream froze and leaned closer, peering at the screen. Disgust suddenly crawled down his backstrut, and he shoved himself back. Dear Primus, they were mating on his back doorstep. Again. Why they kept venturing out of their preferred dens to cause a ruckus around his sensor arrays, Starscream did not know. But it slagged him off.
He growled and reset the alarm, the shrill noise abruptly cutting off. If he didn’t chase those beasts away, the motion sensors would only activate again. Ugh.
Starscream stomped out of the laboratory and stormed up to the second floor, angrily punching his code into his weapons locker. The only interruption more irritating than an unwanted sapient guest, was that of the local wildlife. Sure, they were useful as a deterrent to nearby clanlings, but they were a pain in the aft.
The door slid open. Starscream cast a glance through the array of weapons: from short-range to long-range, bladed and not, blasters and everything in between. He didn’t want to kill the duryllibears, but he did want to chase them away. A sonic blaster would cause harm to the structure of the tunnels. But a flare gun?
Starscream snatched one off the rack, just as the motion sensors were tripped again, and the shriek of his alarms split the quiet. Cleaning drones went rushing by the doorway in a frenzy, led by Swift, the poor, glitched thing.
Starscream sighed and stomped out of the weapons locker, leaping over the rail of the walkway to land on the first floor. He slid into the narrow hall behind the lift, where the backdoor was located down a small ramp, hidden from immediate view. He had little doubt Hot Rod had found it, but he couldn’t open it.
Starscream keyed his code into the panel by the door, resetting the alarm again and deactivating the hologram. He manually threw open the heavy door, the sound of low grunting and other noises floating to his audials. At least he could be reassured they were too distracted with one another to notice the door opening.
Starscream flicked the switch to brighten the tunnel, and eased through the door, wings cast high and alert. He saw the duryllibears almost immediately, rutting as they were just before the tunnel curved away.
There was a reason Starscream had never been interested in zoology. He liked non-messy things. Non-sticky things. Non-mating things.
Shuddering, Starscream lifted the flare gun and fired it right over their thrusting frames. “Get!” he snarled as the gun boomed and an explosive cartridge echoed loudly in the narrow tunnel.
It occurred to him that a smarter mech would be afraid. Duryllibears, after all, were of a size with the average mech, and stronger at that. Only a fool would interrupt their mating haze.
It was too late after he’d pulled the trigger. He thought that maybe he ought to run, but luckily, the flare gun had the intended effect. It startled the beasts, forcing them apart. They staggered around in a blinded haze.
Starscream fired another round, and the resulting bang and flash of light was enough to send the duryllibears loping off into the dark, away from his backdoor. Thank Primus.
Starscream lingered long enough to be sure they were gone, and then he ducked back into his tower. Maybe he should think about setting up some kind of long distance system? Just so he wouldn’t have to come down here all the time to chase them away.
He tabled the idea for later. He had more important things to work on at the moment.
He locked the door, made sure the motion sensors were properly activated, and turned to head back to the weapons locker.
“What was that about?”
For the second time that day, Starscream startled, leaping backward, his wings striking harsh against the door, flare gun raised defensively.
Hot Rod immediately backpedaled, hands raised, a look of alarm on his face. “Sorry,” he said, sheepish. “Didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just, I heard the sirens and I got worried.”
“It’s nothing. I was chasing away some vermin,” Starscream said as he cycled a ventilation, forcing calm into his field. He moved past Rodimus, heading back toward the weapons locker. “Bored already with the astronomy sphere?”
“No. I heard the alarms and figured I shouldn’t ignore them.” Hot Rod fell into step beside him, as if it were no unusual thing. “Did you build that yourself?”
Starscream snorted. “I built everything here myself. What makes you think that is any different?”
“I don’t. I just…” Hot Rod trailed off with a quiet chuckle that almost sounded nervous. “Sorry. I guess I don’t really know many, um, scientists? It’s kind of about survival in my clan and none of us spend much time on science-y stuff.”
“Science-y stuff,” Starscream echoed, amused despite himself. He directed an orbital ridge at the clanling. “There is not a single researcher among your people?”
Hot Rod shrugged and clasped his hands behind his back. “Not like you.”
Whatever that was supposed to mean.
“Thanks. I think,” Starscream said dryly. They rounded the corner, and he sighed to himself.
Damn. In his haste, he hadn’t sealed the weapons locker behind him. Thank Primus the clanling hadn’t investigated it first. His energon bow was in there, as well as all the other weapons Starscream had confiscated from him. Not to mention all of the weapons Starscream used, some of which were his own design.
“Whoa,” Hot Rod said, hurrying past Starscream to peer into the weapons locker. “You’re ridiculously equipped. I don’t even think our warriors are this well-armed. Is that an energon sword?”
Before Starscream could answer, Hot Rod ducked inside, hands reaching for the hilt of two blades Starscream had on the walls.
“Don’t touch those,” Starscream snapped as he chased the Firebrand inside, his fingers hooking around Hot Rod’s wrist before he could touch the sword. “In fact, don’t touch anything in here.”
“Sorry.” Again, the clanling looked abashed. He curled his fingers and tugged his hand away from Starscream. “It’s just… only warriors can use those, you know. I’ve never gotten to hold one before.” There was longing in his tone, and in his gaze, as he stared at the swords with nothing short of appreciation.
Starscream returned the flare gun to its case. “You’re not a warrior?”
“You know I’m a Firebrand, and you still ask that?”
“I’m only vaguely familiar with the culture of the clanlings and all of them have their quirks,” Starscream said as he watched Hot Rod from his peripheral vision.
Hot Rod sighed and crossed his arms, his shoulders hunching. “I’m still a trainee,” he said, and his face darkened as he looked away. “I’ve not been offered the warrior’s badge. Which, if you remember, is why I was out here in the first place. To prove myself.”
Starscream made a noncommittal noise. He turned, bracing his hip against the edge of the display counter. “Energon blades require a lot of training. I am not surprised their use is restricted.”
“Do you know how to use one?”
“Of course.” Starscream waved airily. “I know how to use everything here. I’d be an idiot to keep a weapon on hand I wasn’t familiar with.” He’d be dead twice over if he didn’t know how to defend himself. Surely even a lost clanling knew that.
Hot Rod’s optics widened as his gaze shot back toward Starscream, before he turned in a slow circle, looking around him. “Everything?”
“Even your energon bow.” Though he wasn’t particularly skilled with long-range target weaponry. Starscream preferred broad-spread blasters or energon blades, especially if dual-wielding.
A touch of awe colored Hot Rod’s field. “No wonder they call you the Deathbringer,” he said and gave Starscream a crooked grin. “Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t challenge you. I don’t think I would’ve won.”
Starscream snorted. “Of course not. Aside from the fact I’m far older than you, I have more experience as well.”
“And modest, too.”
“There’s no need to be modest when it’s the truth,” Starscream said with a sniff. “I live out here alone so I have to know how to defend myself, from vermin and unwanted guests alike.”
Hot Rod nodded. “That makes sense,” he murmured, and his gaze wandered back to the energon sword, the broadbladed one, longing so strong in his field that it made Starscream dizzy.
If later asked, Starscream wouldn’t be able to say why he choose to do what he did next. He would possibly even deny it. He couldn’t explain why he felt the need to pull down one of the blades from their display and offer the simple hilt to Hot Rod. Save perhaps that the longing expressed in the Firebrand’s field was so very similar to his own, years upon years ago, when he received his first taste of true education.
“You know how to hold it at the very least, yes?” Starscream asked with a raised orbital ridge. “The pointy end goes away from your frame.”
Hot Rod’s optics rounded as his face colored. “I know that much,” he said and lifted his hands, reaching for the blade, only to hesitate. “You sure you wanna trust me with this? I could do something stupid, you know.”
“I don’t think you’re that big of a fool.” Starscream chuckled. “Now, you could always prove me wrong, but I don’t think you will.”
Hot Rod stared at him, his optics bright and blue. “I won’t,” he said as he carefully took the hilt, fingers curled around it with an almost reverence. It was a heavier weapon, so he used both hands to grip it, as one thumb rested over the activator switch.
“Most of the warriors eventually have these internally connected,” Hot Rod explained as he gave an experimental swing of the unactivated blade. “They power it with their own frames.”
“Yes, well, this comes with an external power pack built into the hilt.” Starscream gestured toward the display case and the box beneath it. “Rechargeable at that. I prefer the smaller dual-wields, but even those are a drain, so I rely on external supplies.”
“Why two?” Hot Rod asked.
Starscream leaned against the counter again, his hands braced on the edge, as Hot Rod gave a few more practice swings. “They are easier for someone with my frametype and fighting style. They are better suited for speed and agility.”
“I’d love to learn someday,” Hot Rod murmured before he sighed and straightened, offering the hilt of the broadblade to Starscream. “Thanks.”
I’ll teach you.
The words almost left his lips, before Starscream reminded himself how foolish they were. The wildling wasn’t going to be around long enough to learn, and the last thing he needed to do was make Hot Rod more skilled. Not if he still carried the intention to defeat Starscream in any kind of combat.
“I’m sure you’ll get one of your own someday,” Starscream said instead. He accepted the blade, returning it to its proper nook. “You seem like a determined mech. I’m sure there’s nothing that can stop you.”
“Well, you’re probably the only one who believes that.” Hot Rod shrugged with one shoulder and crossed his arms. “Anyway, you probably have a lot of work to do, so I’ll leave you to it.”
Starscream hesitated for only a fraction of a second. “If you’re bored, I have a training room.”
Hot Rod paused mid-turn. “What?”
Starscream cycled a ventilation. “It’s probably not a good idea to let you have an active energon blade, because of your inexperience not because I think you’re stupid,” he hastily corrected. “But if you want to practice with some weaponry, I do have a training room. I’ll unlock it for you. If you want.”
“That would be great!” Hot Rod’s spoiler wriggled with genuine delight, and Starscream would never admit how cute that was.
“Then I’ll do it.” Starscream turned back toward the weapons, focusing on them if only to keep from staring at the Firebrand. “It’s directly below the library. Help yourself to anything available there, but do remember, I’m not even qualified as a field medic.”
Hot Rod chuckled. “I’ll be careful.” In his peripheral vision, Starscream saw him back toward the door. “And, um, thanks.”
He left before Starscream could formulate a response. Which was good, because he couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound enormously stupid.
Starscream sighed and braced his hands on the counter. His shoulders hunched as he offlined his optics, trying to regulate his ventilations, while his spark gave off several odd tremors.
He was letting Hot Rod get too close and playing a very dangerous game. Clearly, he’d been alone too long if he was allowing himself to be this nice to a wildling. Especially one who’d come here with an agenda.
An idiot, that’s what Starscream was becoming.
An absolute idiot.
And one that needed to get back to work. Time was running out. Percentages were dwindling.
Because pretty soon, the choice might be taken from him.