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Understanding

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Blast Off had never been to a prison before. Thank Sigma he wasn’t a prisoner; he’d only been dragged along with the annoying ‘copter to question some person for some annoying unknown reason.

Onslaught had said, but he hadn’t been listening. Blast Off was only responsible for logistics, and sometimes flying errands; he didn’t need to know about things the former military commander ordered his employees to do. All he’d had to do was bring Vortex to Protihex. If he’d known he’d have to enter the high security complex as well, he’d have said he had a lot to do and the ‘copter needed to fly by himself.

Blast Off took out his datapad and started reading. The chair was uncomfortable, but considering where he was, it was probably meant to be.

He never liked flying with passengers. The fact that he had to be close to Vortex shortly after their intimate encounter didn’t make it any better.

At the memory, Blast Off shifted uncomfortably on the chair, and flicked his optics to glance at the heliformer over his datapad.

The other hadn’t shown any sign of discomfort around Blast Off, but he’d made it very clear that he wasn’t going to pretend it had never happened.

”You’ll have time to explain mass shifting to me now,” Vortex had said on their flight to Protihex, staring up at one of the cockpit cameras with a grin.

It had made Blast Off tense, and still did.

Fortunately, the ‘copter hadn’t asked again once they’d landed.

Blast Off sighed quietly, and looked for the line where he’d left off reading. Hopefully they could go home soon. He didn’t even know why he had to sit with the stranger and Vortex in this bleak excuse for a room. He had nothing to do, and definitely didn’t want to see what the ‘copter was doing.

Frowning, Blast Off raised his head slightly once again, optics focusing on the two mechs a few tables away.

What was the ‘copter doing?

* * *

Vortex sat on a desk, swinging his legs. At his feet, a grounder snarled. He was half-transformed, with his legs stuck under him and his arms seized at his sides. Rust dotted his joints, and a crust of acrid residue marked a line from the corner of his mouth to his pocked and dirty hood.

"Oh, Undercarriage," Vortex said. "If only you knew when to cooperate. All I want is for you to tell me what Flame is doing for Solarstorm.”

"Get fragged." Undercarriage's voice buzzed, echo of the strip lights hissing overhead. He strained up with his shoulder, not for the first time, and his cogs gave a grinding screech. "You ain’t the law. You got no leverage."

"Really?" Vortex tapped the mech's chin with the oil-slimed tip of his foot. "The law let me in, didn’t they? I don't have to leave you here. See that guy in the corner? See what he is?"

The grounder hissed his derision, cogs spinning again in a futile attempt to transform around the crowbar wedged in his back. "Shuttle," he spat. "So what?"

“So we could take you anywhere.” Vortex smirked. “We could do anything. Like you said, we ain’t the law. And you’re in our hands now.”

“You wouldn’t.” Undercarriage froze. “I’m not one of hers, you know that!”

Vortex studied Blast Off’s reflection in his subject’s grubby optics. “So you keep telling me,” he said, watching the shuttle watching them. “You’re just a messenger. And yet, they sent you here to rust.” He gave the room a cursory glance: desks and chairs stood in rows all welded to the floor; a projector hung down from the ceiling in a sad wire cage. It was a standard rehab room, for the treatment of violent, dangerous, or politically sensitive felons.

Ignoring Undercarriage seemed to have the desired effect. “It was a mistake!” he cried. “I keep tryin’a tell ‘em!” He rocked on his exposed axles. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t know nothing about Flame!”

“Your file says different,” Vortex commented, noting the slight widening of his subject’s optics, and the un-subtle flare of his vent covers. “You worked for Solarstorm, you-”

“I worked for Onslaught too!” the grounder wailed. “I’m freelance! I go where the money is, you can’t do me for that!”

“The frag I can’t.” Vortex leaned forward. “I can do you for whatever I like. You think the authorities care what happens to you? You’ve got four counts of murder on your tab, sixteen counts of supplying corrupted circuit speeders, a boot-load of minor infractions, and one big nasty count of conspiracy to treason. They don’t give a frag what I do. What was Flame doing for Solarstorm?”

Footfalls rang in the corridor, an alarm began to blare. Blast Off straightened up, and it was pleasing for Vortex to see his subject wince.

“Time’s running out,” Vortex said. “You were there, you saw it. They got out of Kaon real quick, they left you to take the rap. What were they planning?”

Undercarriage looked at Blast Off, then the door. He rocked onto his back axle, his gears whirring so hard Vortex could hear the threads shear.

“You think you’re getting away?” Vortex said. “You hear the guards running down the hall? They’re not here for you. There’s a riot on, they’ve got enough to deal with. No-one cares about you. Look at you.” He kicked his subject in the shoulder, spinning him round. “You’re disgusting.”

Blast Off vented softly, and Vortex’s audios immediately flagged it as significant. Odd how he’d become used to the shuttle, to his arrogance and his silence, and his passive aggressive mannerisms. Vortex glanced his way.

“Is this going to take much longer?” Blast Off said, and it was impossible to tell whether he was intrigued or repulsed.

“I doubt it,” Vortex responded. After a moment he brought his attention back to the foul and poorly-maintained frame of his subject. “Undercarriage here was about to tell me everything.”

“I don’t know!” Undercarriage howled, and Vortex gave him another kick. “I only did the supply run, I wasn’t there at the meetings, I swear!”

“But you saw things,” Vortex said.

“Sure, I saw things, everyone sees things, I didn’t see nothing you’d want to know about, I didn’t!”

“But you saw something,” Vortex pressed, ignoring Blast Off’s mutterings about a double negative being no negative at all. “Tell me.”

Undercarriage squirmed. “He had plans, OK? He kept them in a tube thing all on that holographic plastic film.”

“What were they?” Vortex pressed.

“Plans!” Undercarriage snapped. “I told you, I don’t know! I only got a glance at them the once. They had all symbols on, like chemicals and engineering symbols. I can’t read that scrap!”

“Can you draw them?” Vortex said.

“Can you get this fraggin rod outta my back!”

Blast Off coughed. “I believe the security shields have activated,” he said, slotting his data pad back into his arm. “I hope you have an alternative route of egress in mind.”

Undercarriage gave Vortex a look of vicious joy, as though the tables had turned. Vortex leaned forward and cupped the mech’s face in his hands.

“When did you see these plans?” he asked, his voice only as loud as it needed to be to carry above the alarm. Outside, more feet clattered; a gun discharged.

“I, uh...” Undercarriage strained his head up, away from Vortex’s hands. “The day I got arrested,” he said. “Don’t squeeze so tight! Arg, what are you-”

Vortex slid off the desk, bracing himself on the worn and pitted floor. With a brutal wrench, he tore Undercarriage’s head from his shoulders.

Blast Off gave Vortex one of those intriguingly inscrutable looks. “I’m not sure I want to know,” he said.

Vortex inspected the head; the lips snarled, and the optics stayed bright, alert. “I want a look at those plans,” he said. “I know this femme does mnemonic retrieval, all I needed was a timestamp.”

Blast Off stood. “Find a container for it, I won’t have you dripping on my seats.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I’m gonna carry a severed head in plain view.” He pulled a mesh bag from a compartment on his hip, and dumped the head inside. Judging by the pathetic flicker of his energy field, Undercarriage wasn’t particularly happy about it. “We’re done here,” Vortex said. “Let’s go.”

“You mean we could have decapitated him in the first place, with no waiting around?” Blast Off sighed. “Never mind. Which way?”

“Same way we came in,” Vortex said. He cracked open the door and did a quick sweep of the corridor. “Clear, c’mon.”

Blast Off followed, heavy footfalls audible even over the howl of the alarm. He walked like the civilian he was, two steps further from Vortex than he should have been, his weapon held loosely in his hand, aimed at random bits of the floor.

Vortex performed a scan at each corner. He wasn’t expecting company - the guards should be busy with the riot - but that was no reason not to be careful.

A lone warden stood at the guard post. Vortex shot him in the back, then in the back of the head, and let himself into the control room.

Blast Off gave the dead guard a disgusted look, and stepped over his corpse. “You have the codes for the shields?” he said.

“Nope.” Vortex looked over the controls. “Doesn’t need a code. Here.” He flicked a switch, and the alarm faded to nothing. He pressed a button, and flashed Blast Off a smile. “Done,” he said.

Fifty astroseconds and two corners later, Vortex realised his mistake. The entrance was blocked; a shatter-proof slab of thick plasglass plugged the corridor.

“I thought you said you disabled the shields,” Blast Off commented. He sounded bored, but that was nothing new. “Can we go around?”

Vortex shook his head. “This is a prison, they don’t tend to have back doors. And don’t think about trying to fly us out. If the energon grid doesn’t shred you, the missiles will. We’ll have to go back.”

Blast Off huffed. As far as Vortex could tell from their quarter vorn of acquaintance, it was his exasperated huff. He holstered his weapon, and Vortex was about to ask him what in the name of Cybertron he thought he was doing when a distant boom sounded, followed by shouts and the roar of engines and gunfire.

Vortex went back to the last junction, both guns aimed, and the mesh bag swinging from his arm. Judging by the rise in volume, he had ten astroseconds until contact.

Behind him, Blast Off snarled. Vortex glanced over his shoulder, swinging his rotors down out of the way. He was in time to see the shuttle raise his fist and bring it crashing into the centre of the barricade.

The plasglass cracked.

It wasn’t meant to do that.

Vortex backed up, abandoning the junction. Blast Off threw another punch, and Vortex gaped. The plasglass was reinforced, shatterproof, bombproof. Escape proof. Vortex was a military build, he could punch a tank’s face out the back of his head, and he couldn’t have hoped to have made a dent in this.

Blast Off hit it again, and the cracks spread. A new alarm picked up, covering the clamour of footsteps, the shouts. Five astroseconds to contact.

Vortex stood at the shuttle’s back, guns raised. Blast Off was the priority now, and frag but they built them well wherever he came from.

With a roar, Blast Off threw one final punch, and the shield crumbled. He shook his fist, his knuckles torn. “Now,” he growled. “We fly.”

* * *

Flying in this case meant passing through a gap in the energon grid in root-mode, then transforming around the 'copter and outflying the two missiles on their tail.

Vortex was forced against the rear wall of Blast Off's cargo hold, but his discomfort didn't matter. What mattered was accelerating to at least Mach 6, after which Blast Off lost the missiles and settled to a less hurried velocity.

The 'copter slid down the wall, the bag with the head still hanging from his wrist. Hopefully it wasn't broken, or all this effort would have been for nothing.

A part beneath the metal of Blast Off’s alt-mode nose - a part that served as his hand in root mode - hurt, but he ignored it just like he ignored the stare of the red visor at one of his cargo hold cameras.

Why was the ‘copter staring now? Was he disappointed? Was he annoyed that Blast Off had got them out before he’d had a chance to rampage through the prison? Perhaps Blast Off grabbing Vortex by the upper arm and dragging him along with him in the air had damaged the severed head?

Blast Off heaved a sigh against the wind. Why did he bother about the ‘copter anyway? They needed to call HQ and give Onslaught an update.

“I’m going to call Onslaught,” Blast Off announced over speakers, and gained a nod in return. “Patching him through.”

“This is Onslaught,” a stern voice echoed, weirdly loud, through the space of the cargo hold. “I want a status report.”

“Vortex here.” The ‘copter waved at one of the cameras. It was stupid, their boss couldn’t see them.

Before Blast Off or Vortex could say more, Onslaught spoke. “Why do you sound so hollow?”

“I’m in the cargo hold. Voices kinda bounce off the walls,” the ‘copter replied in which what Blast Off thought was an oddly happy voice.

An exaggerated sigh could be heard from the other side of the line, and Blast Off would have shaken his head about it had he been in root mode. He tensed slightly at the words that followed.

“We talked about this, Blast Off. No more banning people to the cargo hold for no good reason.”

Vortex chuckled.

“I have a reason,” Blast Off countered in a blank tone. “I don’t need anything dripping on my console. Also, Vortex hasn’t asked permission to enter it yet.”

For a moment, no one said anything, and the ‘copter’s rotors stopped quivering.

“Dripping?” Onslaught asked, warily.

Great, apparently now Blast Off had done something else to frag the ‘copter off. Blast Off tried to avoid answering without fully lying. “This is not a secure line, Onslaught,” he began. “I can only say that we, since leaving the prison, we have one more intellect present than what we had when we arrived.”

Another sigh. “The line's secure. Vortex, what did we say about taking people apart?”

At least the ‘copter got some criticism as well.

Vortex shrugged as if Onslaught could see him, and repeated words that had apparently been addressed to him before. “Dismemberment, disembowelment and beheading are actions of last resort, to be undertaken in public or semi-public spaces only when absolutely necessary. In my defence: it was necessary. And I took all the required precautions, I know what I’m doing. I needed to end this before we were interrupted. We just have to extract the information now.” The last word was a gleeful giggle that almost made Blast Off shudder in disgust.

After a moment of silence, Onslaught responded with a short, “Fine.”

It seemed beheading people and dissecting their memory banks was less frowned upon than telling passengers to stay in the cargo hold. Maybe one day Blast Off would understand the difference.

“I’ll send someone to fetch the package,” Onslaught continued. “For now I have another task for you.”

Vortex perked up. Blast Off resisted asking if the said task involved more dismantling, and quietly listened.

“Blast Off,” - he tensed once more as his name was mentioned - “as far as I know you’ve been invited to attend a reunion of your colleagues from a certain science project-”

“How do you know?” Blast Off cut in. He knew he’d deleted the message he’d got from the Institute. He wasn’t interested in seeing the majority of the attendees, particularly not when most of them were still scientists. There was nothing he could talk about with them.

“A mutual friend of ours, Sigma Orionis, contacted me and asked if I know where you live since she knows you’re in Kaon now.”

In Blast Off’s cargo hold, the ‘copter shifted, still sitting with his back against the wall. He looked as though he wanted to say something, but fortunately he kept quiet.

“Does this new task have anything to do with me attending this work reunion?” Blast Off asked, but he already knew the answer.

“It does, yes. I want you to take Vortex with you.”

The shuttle’s ailerons wilted mid-air, and he lost altitude.

“You’ll meet up with Sigma,” Onslaught continued. “She has information regarding your current investigations, and possibly other related issues. Your work reunion offers the best chance for you to meet without raising suspicions.”

This time, Blast Off’s heave of air was intentionally audible, though his voice was flat as ever. “Understood.”

Vortex nodded. Idiot, he still hadn’t got that there wasn’t a visual.

With a soft click, Blast Off cut the comm-line, and took a sharp left. It caused the ‘copter to slide to one side, flailing and giggling. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“Altihex.” Blast Off accelerated. “I need permission for planetary take-off.“

***

Blast Off stuck to official procedure, and landed at the Altihex public airport for on-planet travel. He had to call in a favour to avoid customs and security, but with a severed head as luggage it was unavoidable.

He was just glad he still had contacts and connections to some of the people he’d worked with.

If only they’d stop looking at him weirdly.

He ignored them. He was above their questioning glances and knowing smirks; he went on with his business.

He also ignored the ‘copter walking next to him. He’d told Vortex to go get his own things done, by which Blast Off meant getting rid of the body part that didn’t belong to him. He himself wanted to find a place to stay and to make a few calls – alone.

Vortex hadn’t taken the hint. Instead, he’d followed him without asking, without even making any comment or query. As long as he stayed quiet, he would be tolerable.

They headed to downtown Altihex where the buildings were smaller with fewer floors and the streets a little dirtier. There was still lots of air traffic, loud over their heads as engines and thrusters roared and fired up.

Vortex had his head in the clouds. He looked up, curious, as though he hadn’t seen air roads before. Signs hovered, and lights directed the traffic and set the permitted paths.

Blast Off had to admit that it was more organised than other Cybertronian cities, but it was necessary. The roads were occupied as well, but hardly as crowded as the air space.

“Where are we going?” Vortex asked when they’d almost reached the destination.

Blast Off huffed. “I am going to find a place to stay overnight where I can organise the next stage of our journey. I recommend you meet with whomever Onslaught sends before take-off. I won’t smuggle the ‘package’ through customs a second time.”

“Sure, when Onslaught gives me the call.” Vortex sounded as though he was grinning, smirking maybe, because his voice had the same tone to it as he had in the empty office. The office where Blast Off had stood with his back against the wall, and where the intimate incident had happened that made Blast Off a little uncomfortable now working so closely with the ‘copter.

And that made Blast Off uncomfortable walking so closely to the other. Any closer and Blast Off would be able to feel Vortex’s energy signature. From his peripheral vision, he saw the rotor blades quivering, and didn’t want to try to figure out what the ‘copter was thinking.

“So,” the ‘copter continued when Blast Off kept quiet, “where do you intend to stay? And why’s your work reunion on Luna Two? Who is this ‘Sigma Orionis’?”

With a frown Blast Off glanced down next to him and met Vortex’s gleaming visor. He wasn’t sure if the questions were honest or were supposed to annoy him. It was probably a little of both.

“Horizon’s. Because we’re shuttles. Ask Onslaught.” Blast Off kept his reply short. He couldn’t make any mistakes that way, or give further reasons for annoyance, right? That was what he’d thought.

The ‘copter obviously thought differently.

“Horizon’s? That a hotel? Sounds pretty weird for a hotel.”

Blast Off turned a corner; Vortex walked slightly faster to catch up, and spoke anew after a neon sign flickered up that said ‘Ho--zon’s’, the glyph in the middle having burned out. “That doesn’t look like a fancy hotel? Being a shuttle and all I would never have guessed you’d be satisfied with a residence like that.”

There was something in the voice that Blast Off couldn’t read, and so he responded honestly. “It’s not a hotel. It’s a bar.”

Blast Off opened the door. It didn’t creak; apparently the bar’s owner had finally invested in at least thirty astroseconds of maintenance.

The room was dim lit, a few benches and bar stools could be made out; a smell of cleanser hung in the air.

If Blast Off hadn’t known better, he’d have said it was abandoned.

A door at the other end of the room opened with a rasping sound, and Blast Off huffed in light amusement. At least that was still the same.

A mech with wings at his back and a crate in his hand stepped through, gruffly kicking the door shut, and then froze the moment he saw Blast Off.

“Ha! I don’t believe it,” Horizon said in a thick old Altihexian accent that made Blast Off feel like home. “You ungrateful glitch, you dare show up here?” The tone made clear that he didn’t mean what he said. Even Blast Off could decipher it, and the broad grin on the other’s face made it just as evident.

“It’s been a while,” Blast Off said. He resisted the urge to fall back into his own dialect and kept his speech High Cybertronian. He took a few steps into the room, the ‘copter behind him.

“A while? Frag, feels like a whole vorn, youngtimer.” The mech put the crate on the counter, and turned the lights on. He was taller than Blast Off, but sleeker, the pointy wings standing out at his back. “You’re gonna introduce your friend to me, or is he afraid of strangers? I’ll get him some calming energix if he’s all jittery. C’mon, sit down, take a seat.”

Horizon leant against the counter, nodding towards a booth opposite him.

Blast Off vented quietly as he sat down, not caring if the ‘copter did the same. “He isn’t jittery. He has some business he needs to take care of.”

“Hey there,” the ‘copter said. “I’m Vortex.” He remained standing, his voice unreadable for Blast Off. Though the thin metal of his rotors was still shivering.

“Heh,” Horizon grunted amused, “a rotary name for a rotary build.” For a single astrosecond, his blue optics flashed and the smile morphed into a grin. Vortex tipped his head to the side, but didn’t comment. Blast Off was glad of it.

“Let me guess.” Horizon took an energon cube out of the crate, and threw it towards Blast Off, who caught it. “You’re here because you need a place to stay?”

“And to get some free energon,” Blast Off said, not quite as serious or blank as usual as he cracked the cube open.

Horizon snorted a dry laugh, and turned to Vortex. “You want something? Don’t have anything planet-bound here right now, but I can get something from my storage. Unless you’ve no problem with being knocked out by a single cube.”

The red visor brightening for a moment. “I’m good, thanks.” A brief nod towards Blast Off, and he continued. “Like he said, I still have business to take care of. I’ll be going now. See you later.” Vortex waved with the hand holding the bag, and made his exit without a word.

Slowly sipping, Blast Off hoped Vortex would find himself somewhere else to stay, and wouldn’t get in trouble. They needed to leave tomorrow for Luna Two; Blast Off wouldn’t have time to deal with the authorities should the ‘copter be captured with a head around his wrist.

Though, if that happened, at least he’d have an excuse not to attend the reunion.

“Blast Off?” He was addressed and looked up, blocking out his current musing. He met Horizon’s worried gaze as the other shuttle heaved air deeply. “A heliformer? Really?”

A frown built on Blast Off’s faceplates, optics flicking to the door through which Vortex had left, then back to the other mech. “What do you mean?”

“He’s a military-“

“Ex-military,” Blast Off interrupted, because he could guess what followed.

“Doesn’t matter.” Horizon waved a hand. “You know how those are.”

Blast Off’s frown deepened. “We’re working together. I don’t have much to do with him.”

“Sure.” Another huff from shuttle vents that weren’t Blast Off’s. “Whatever you say. Just be careful. You know what I think about Kaon and you working there. I don’t like seeing one of our kind getting used and wasted in a place like that.”

“It’s not that bad,” Blast Off countered, defending more his current line of work than the city-state. He wasn’t very fond of Kaon itself. It was dirty, the sky was dusty, and the citizens questionable. But it was where the work was.

“What happened to your hand?” Horizon asked, fetching himself a cube.

Blast Off knew he was trying to say something else with his question, probably a hidden criticism, though he couldn’t be sure. He ignored it. “Nothing. At least nothing I can mention without endangering you.”

The disapproving huff was something Blast Off recognised. “Seriously, I know you’re old enough to know what you’re doing, youngtimer, but I’m saying this just in case: if you need a place to go to get out of there, comm me.”

Blast Off merely stared.

Horizon stared back.

“Anyway.” The older shuttle knocked his cube down in one go. “Change of topic! You chose a weird time to come back.”

“Why’s that?”

Horizon pushed himself off the counter, and walked behind itto arrange the energon cubes on the shelves. “A few cycles ago two grounders crash landed in the middle of a road. Fortunately no one else got hurt, but it was some event. And despite that, there was nothing in the news about it.”

“What’s so weird about that?” Blast Off shrugged. “We all know grounders can’t fly very well.” It was a prejudice, but Blast Off couldn’t understand the idea of people whose purpose was ground based managing to navigate flying vehicles.

“Yeah, true. Truer than you might guess. They didn’t crash a plane or anything. They just crashed down. As in, they were dropped. They were dead before they hit the ground.”

Well, while that wasn’t exactly odd in Blast Off’s opinion, although it wasn’t good for Altihex’s reputation. “Was it typophobically motivated?”

“We guess that’s what they wanted to make us think.” Horizon put his forearms on the counter, expression serious and concerned. “Like I said, there was nothing in the media, but I hear things in this bar. Seems that they could recover enough from the mechs’ energy signatures to link them to a burglary in the lower floors of the Xenological Institute a few orns ago. Seems like someone was tying up some loose ends.”

Blast Off tensed. “What was stolen?”

“Fragged if I know. There wasn’t anything about that incident in the news, either. But you know better than me what kind of things are down on those lower levels. You were research staff, not me.”

There was a pause in which Blast Off absent-mindedly looked at his energon, and Horizon continued to pack cubes away.

“Considering all this,” Horizon broke the silence, “it’s probably a good thing you’re not here anymore. Something’s coming. The people on the streets walk differently, the chatter is different. Something’s in the air. I think society realises that there are some big changes ahead. I have no idea if I want to find out what they are.”

Blast Off didn’t say anything to that. He was probably deeper in all this than he ever wanted to be. And if it wasn’t related to Vortex’s and Blast Off’s current mission, then his situation still wasn’t much better.

Tiredly, he rubbed over his face, and exhaled air loudly.

“You look exhausted.” Horizon took the empty crate and rounded the counter. “You gonna tell me why you need to stay in Altihex overnight?”

“I have to attend a workplace reunion on Luna Two,” Blast Off replied shortly.

Horizon burst out laughing, a sound that made Blast Off wince. “Frag, sorry, youngtimer, you have my condolences.” He walked to the still creaking door, before he turned again and glanced back. “C’mon, help me with the crates, then I’ll call ground control for you. You look like you need some defrag time.”

With a grunt, Blast Off emptied his cube and stood up. He thanked the other shuttleformer with a nod.

It earned him a grin. “We want you to get some recharge before your rotary returns and keeps you awake for the rest of the night.”

Blast Off shook his head in annoyance, and would have liked to hit the other over the head. “Just mute it.”

* * *

If Vortex thought that a military grade heliformer carrying a heavy mesh bag through downtown Alithex in the early evening would have caused any comment, he’d have been wrong. Amid the shoppers and the couriers, the tourists and the commuters, he was effectively invisible. As was his luggage.

He swung the bag cheerfully as he walked. Undercarriage was likely in stasis; his wasn’t a frametype designed to withstand decapitation without the shock activating emergency preservation protocols. Still, Vortex was entertained by the idea that Undercarriage might still be awake, aware. It was nothing less than he deserved.

He turned off the broad main avenue into the hive of smaller shops clustered around the spaceport. His comm lit up, exactly on time, and he answered on his internal feed. //I’m here.//

//The courier is en route,// Onslaught said. //I want you to use Titanium Storage. It’s on grid reference fifty-eight by two-five-two, ground level.//

//Box number?// Vortex said.

//One-thirty-one,// Onslaught replied. //It should be by the exit to the main subway tunnel. The access code is the year you first attended the Vos Air Show.//

//Got it.// Vortex picked up a signal for the city’s public datanet, and downloaded a tourist map. //ETA three hundred astroseconds,// he said. //I’ve been thinking about your mystery femme, you gonna tell me how Blast Off knows her?//

//I am not,// Onslaught said. //And she is not my mystery femme. You know our history.//

//Is she safe?// Vortex asked.

//As safe as any politician.// There was a pause, and Vortex could imagine Onslaught re-arranging the datapads on his desk while he thought things through. //Make a good impression,// he said.

//Will do,// Vortex replied, turning a sharp corner and swinging the bag around so it didn’t crash against his thigh.

//I mean it,// Onslaught said. //I expect you back by the end of the orn.// He signed off, and Vortex smirked. A good impression? He could do that.

* * *

It was late when Vortex strolled into Horizon’s. The bar was open, although he wouldn’t have known it from the street. A hulking pair of grounders gambled in a corner, and a racer hunched over a cube of high grade so volatile it was steaming, making eyes at a rough-looking minibot in the seat beside her. Horizon was sitting by the door to the stairs, and stood when Vortex came in.

“You took your time,” he said, his tone friendly. “Got all your business cleared up, have you?”

Vortex gave him the usual assessment - weapons, any visible injuries, estimation of strength - and smiled. “Sure did,” he said. He glanced at the door to the stairs. “Which room?”

“Number three-o-two, top floor on the left.” Horizon grinned. “Don’t keep him up all night.”

Like there was any chance of that.

Vortex passed by Horizon with a conspiratorial smirk - no need to disappoint the mech - and let himself upstairs.

Blast Off was in recharge, or pretending. Vortex hadn't known him long enough yet to tell. And look, there was only the one bed, what a shame. He guessed they’d just have to share.

He checked his compartments, securing anything that was likely to rattle, and went over to the bed. Blast Off didn’t stir. He was laying on his back, one arm draped over his face, the other nearly dangling off the edge of the padding. It gave Vortex a nice view of his chest, and a lovely view of his heat profile when he turned off the light and switched to night vision.

Vortex tested the edge of the shuttle’s energy field with his palm, ready to jump back if he were to startle.

The energy field was warm, stable, neutral; he was definitely asleep. But was he asleep enough to tolerate the presence of another body on the bed?

It wasn’t as though Vortex had a choice, after all. Horizon had given them one room and one bed, and what was Vortex to do? Sleep on the floor?

Yawning, he pulled in his his rotor hub and rotated his blades down. The shuttle really was appealing. The jut of his hip was a nice contrast to the subtle curve of the wiglets on his upper arms, while the chunky solidity of his thighs went very well with the broadness of his chest. And all of that was augmented by how much sheer heat the mech put out.

He was exactly the right size, shape and temperature for sleeping on, although Vortex was pretty sure he couldn’t get away with that just yet.

He sat on the edge of the bed, letting his weight settle, seeing if his presence would set off any alarms for the sleeping mech.

Blast Off didn’t so much as stir.

Getting bolder, Vortex slowly lay down. And damn, but the padding felt good. Smooth and firm, and there was a thermo-reg blanket folded up near the pillows. Not that he’d need it, the shuttle’s warmth spread three times as far as his energy field; it was like laying next to a radiator. Even Onslaught didn’t put out this much heat.

“Guess you’re just hot,” Vortex whispered, hoping Blast Off would wake up. But he didn’t.

Vortex rolled onto his front, settling his head on a balled up pillow in the crook of his arm, and watched the rolling yellows and oranges of the shuttle’s inner workings. A breeze from a vent on his side blew warm air over his rotors, and Vortex sighed.

After a while, when Blast Off completely failed to wake up, Vortex took his optics offline.

What if he was to touch?

Even better, what if Blast Off were to wake up and touch him...

He wouldn't need to move far. And the shuttle’s hands were so big. All that bulk, that strong thick armour, those arms. His smile grew, and he thought of the time Blast Off had held him, pinned him. The shuttle knew his own strength perfectly.

And he was willing to use it. Vortex sighed; he’d taken it slowly in seducing the shuttle, had judged it carefully, and Blast Off hadn’t ripped off his arms and used them to beat him unconscious.

It hadn’t been an unfounded concern. Vortex had seen what had happened the last time someone tried his luck without due care and attention.

But one hot frag against the wall in an empty briefing room had sadly not evolved into regular shuttle rides. Which was a shame, because that first one had been phenomenal. Vortex had no idea why it had been so good, but it had been, and he was determined to have that again. And again. Ad infinitum for preference.

Vortex wasn’t completely sure, but Blast Off had looked at him as though he’d wanted him. Admittedly, it had mostly been when he was angry or frustrated or drunk, but those were the times it should have been most likely to have come to something.

It never had.

There was to be no gentle press of warmth against the shuttle’s large frame, no inviting stroke of fingers over his interface panel answered with a deep rev of a massive engine and those large black hands on his rotors.

Vortex sighed again and stretched, his arms above his head. He couldn’t reach the top of the shuttle-sized bed, nor the bottom with his feet; it made him feel small. It made his fantasy of Blast Off looming and pressing him into the bed a little more real.

He reached slowly down, bringing his fingers into contact with the tip of one of his rotors. The sensors lit up, and he began a slow caress. It was just enough to build the charge in his circuits, just a whisper of metal on metal. The sounds were lost in the muted whir of the shuttle’s vents and the hum of the air conditioning, but Vortex took it slow and careful.

He could always imagine that it was Blast Off touching him. And it was a long while until morning.

Chapter Text

“Stop fidgeting,” Blast Off snapped. “And close your vents, you sound like a blast furnace.”

Vortex rolled his optics, and made a show of spinning the tail rotors that jutted from his elbow. “You want me to overheat?” he said. The hotel lobby was warm, crowded with shuttles and other large airframes. It was the swankiest hotel Luna Two had to offer, and the building’s ventilation didn’t so much feed a gentle breeze through the room as it did suffuse the air with the smell of money. It put Vortex in mind of Swindle; he would have loved it here.

Blast Off glared at Vortex’s hands. “I will collect our keys,” he stated. “Remain here, and try not to touch anyone.”

Vortex watched him go. The shuttle was an enigma, possibly the kind wrapped in a puzzle. He’d woken up that morning a breem or so after Vortex, all warm and buzzing, and had completely failed to act on his own impulse. Vortex hadn’t imagined that impulse; it had been as real as the shuttle’s current tetchiness. And it wasn’t like they hadn’t had the time.

But Blast Off had insisted on a long scrub in Horizon’s shower - alone - before their trip. Vortex couldn’t make sense of that either; it wasn’t like anyone could break atmosphere without getting filthy again. Which he kinda had.

Vortex sighed through his open vents, and watched the shuttles passing by. He wondered how many of them Blast Off knew, how many he’d slept with before he left the Institute. How many of them were his batch-mates.

He flicked his rotors, drawing no small amount of attention, and tried to pick out different sub-categories of deep-space frametype from the crowd.

“Excuse me.” A blocky grounder edged into his field of vision.

“Hmm?” Vortex made his usual assessment. The grounder was staff, the hotel’s logo engraved into her shoulder and chest. Security, he thought; hidden null rays on her arms, a rocket launcher concealed in the curve of a hip.

“I believe Admiral Sigma’s escort is to remain in the barracks,” she said. “Perhaps I can furnish you with a map.”

Vortex laughed. “I’m not military,” he said, cocking a thumb at the long marble counter where Blast Off stood talking to the concierge. “Not any more. I’m with him.”

“In what capacity?” the security officer asked.

Pleasure bot, Vortex thought, but managed not to say it out loud. “His guest,” he said. “I’m here for the convention. You wanna see my invite?”

She gave him a look, and he felt the tingle as she scanned him. “We have a zero tolerance policy here,” she said.

“What for?” Vortex said. “Fidgeting and venting too loud?”

At the desk, Blast Off glanced back, and tensed.

“For disturbances,” the security officer replied. “Of any kind. This is an alpha caste establishment, I would ask that you keep that in mind.”

All he’d need was one astrosecond of distraction and he could have the guard on her face, her own rocket launcher jammed in the back of her head, but Vortex just smiled. “Sure,” he said. “I get it.”

“Just mind that you do,” she responded, and walked away into the crowd.

Blast Off was not impressed, but he managed to keep it to himself until he was close enough to whisper without others hearing. “What did you do?” he demanded, voice low and optics unusually bright.

“Nothing!” Vortex threw up his hands. “Why do you always assume I’ve done something?”

“Experience,” Blast Off growled, and stalked off towards the elevator.

* * *

To say that Blast Off was tense would have been an understatement. It felt like he was walking with that stick up his exhaust that people always accused him of having. He didn’t particularly like the feeling.

On top of that, there was Vortex, once again walking beside him. Only this time it was along the corridor towards the Great Hall where the opening ceremony would take place.

He doubted the evening could get any worse after finding out he’d have to share a room with Vortex. Again. The hotel had messed up their reservation. Even better, it would be the second night in a row he’d have to share sleeping space with the ‘copter.

That morning Blast Off had woken up confused. He’d felt a familiar pleasant feeling he hadn’t experienced in many vorns, and had thought he was back in Altihex. Not in Horizon’s room, but in Windcut’s apartment. The rotary from his past had been very present for a few moments until his memory banks rebooted fully, and his current rotary companion’s grey frame destroyed the fantasy of being back in less complicated times.

But the colour of Vortex’s frame hadn’t been the only reminder. His energy field was different - less sensual, but no less tempting. If only Blast Off had been as familiar with Vortex, then reading him would have been less difficult, and he could have done something.

Blast Off resisted a sigh. At least there were some positives. Until now, Blast Off had managed to avoid running into several old colleagues: former co-workers he wasn’t eager to see, let alone talk to.

At the door to the hall milled people he knew only by sight, and he doubted they would start a conversation. If only they’d stop giving him the same weird looks and annoying smirks Altihex’s spaceport personnel had. Their optics shifted from the ‘copter to Blast Off and back, as if the planet-bound was some kind of nuisance. They had no idea how right they were.

“Where are your weapons?” Blast Off muttered as they stood in the queue, waiting to be let in.

“Hidden in our room,” Vortex replied shortly.

It wasn’t the answer Blast Off wanted to hear, but there was no turning back. At least security hadn’t put him into Detention for bringing dangerous goods into the hotel.

“Your name and function, or former function within the project?” The haughty voice of the grounder made Blast Off frown. The mech was so short he had to stand on a footstool to be almost eye to eye with the guests.

Blast Off puffed air from his vents. As if this ignorant mech even knew what kind of project this reunion was for. “Blast Off,” he answered, matching the haughtiness of the other mech. “Xenological Research Department, Xenological Contact Division, former Advisor for Linguistics and Risk Calculation for Unknown Biospheres.”

Vortex glanced up at him.

Yes, Blast Off used to be more than a simple ‘logistics guy’; he doubted the ‘copter understood what his former occupation really had been.

“Noted,” the grounder replied. “And your... associate?” He eyed Vortex up in a way that displayed all the disgust one could manage to show.

Blast Off raised an optical ridge, but it was the ‘copter who answered. “I’m Vortex.”

The grounder stared as if he expected something to be added.

“Just Vortex,” the ‘copter said.

It was hard for Blast Off not to growl. His engine stuttered softly as he repressed it revving. “He’s my guest,” he said. Purple optics behind his visor brightened slightly, and he made no attempt to hide his discontent.

Just who did the mech think he was? Just because he worked at an alpha caste establishment didn’t mean he was alpha caste himself. He was still a mere servitor caste bot, probably built to clean hotel rooms, and had somehow managed to claw his way up to a position as a porter. Congratulations to him.

When Vortex had been military he’d probably had a higher status than this mech would ever have. And while the shuttle didn’t care if the grounder did Vortex injustice, the whole situation put Blast Off in a bad light.

“Anything else?” he snapped, causing the mech’s appendages to twitch.

“No.” The response was stiff. “Welcome to the Reunion.”

The hall wasn’t crowded yet. There were few shuttles or flyers, just enough to allow people to mingle, but not so many that he had to brush past people as he walked.

Blast Off strode briskly, attempting to reach his table without having to talk to anyone. He didn’t care if the ‘copter couldn’t keep up, and perhaps he’d already lost him. It wasn’t as though Blast Off would be difficult to find, being most likely the only mech trying to ignore everyone else.

Unfortunately, not everyone else was willing to ignore him.

“Hello there, my old friend.” It was a sing-song sound, three overlapping voices speaking in harmony.
Blast Off halted. She knew he hated when she did that.

“There you are.” Vortex was suddenly next to him, distracting Blast Off for the essential moment in which Sigma Orionis approached. She spread her arms, only to wrap them around Blast Off and hug him warmly.

Blast Off tensed. The admiral was taller than him, and in this position one of her many in-built weapons was uncomfortably close to his face.
His frame locked; her energy field rang with a signature that made her amusement and teasing intention obvious. Fortunately, she resisted heaving him off his feet.

Sigma Orionis let go, and Blast Off only realised he’d clenched his hands when he relaxed and his fists uncurled.

“You still don’t like hugs?” the admiral asked, her voice lacking the unnerving sing-song melody, but keeping the unusual tonic triad - her ordinary voice, the result of her vocaliser resonating through her massive frame.

“I don’t,” was Blast Off’s short reply. He knew she was grinning despite her battle mask. It made him wonder a little that she hadn’t taken it off, openly displaying her spacefleet affiliations when even Vortex had declined to wear his.

And thinking of the ‘copter, it was hard not to notice the rotor blades quivering. Blast Off managed not to shake his head.

“I am sorry,” Orionis said, addressing the ‘copter. “Where are my manners? We don’t know each other yet. I’m Sigma Orionis, Admiral of the Fifth Fleet.”

“Vortex,” the rotary’s tone was undecipherable. “Just Vortex.”

Orionis glanced at Blast Off, then back at the ‘copter. “So that’s what you look like.” It was a statement without judgment. “I’ve heard stories about you.”

“Oh?” The grey rotors twitched, the red visor gleamed. “If they’re naughty, they’re all true.”

Blast Off tensed again. Please, Vector Sigma, let the ‘copter not have said that.

He managed to stop himself from burying his face in his hands. He just hoped Vortex realised how embarrassing he was.

“Heh.” Large shuttle vents puffed air as the cannons on Orionis’ shoulders shifted. “You’re funny. I like you.”

With a shuffle of rotor blades Vortex tried unsubtly to draw attention to himself; Blast Off ignored him. They moved smoothly into a shallow kind of small talk which Blast Off refused to listen to; instead, he looked around, searching for mechs he’d rather not see, and mechs he might know and didn’t mind running into.

“Lunar Pulse is not coming,” Sigma said, and it couldn’t possibly have been aimed at Vortex.

Blast Off turned to Sigma Orionis, expression quizzical.

“You were looking for him, weren’t you?” she said, and Blast Off wondered what had betrayed him.

“What makes you think that?”

“I know you. I saw him a few orns ago on Vandeen. He wasn’t going to come, because he knew you wouldn’t show up.”

Blast Off nodded, experiencing an itch of disappointment. “I see.”

“Well, let’s admit it,” Orionis continued, “you wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t asked you to.”

There was no point in denying it, and so he merely shrugged.

“Who’s Lunar Pulse?” The ‘copter cut through the thoughtful atmosphere like a knife.

Reluctantly, Blast Off answered, “A fellow shuttle.” He didn’t like the topic; the ‘copter might get the wrong impression. And frankly, it wasn’t his business.“We were built together.” Another twitch of shoulders in a brief shrug. “It doesn’t matter.”

Vortex’s visor dimmed. Sigma Orionis’ gaze shifted from the rotary to Blast Off and back.

“Right, it doesn’t now.” The triad voice shifted to a more serious tone, stern and subtly commanding. “And it’s not the reason we’re meeting here, is it? Let’s sit down and talk before it gets too busy.”

She led them to a table at the side of the room. It had seating for six.

“I made a reservation, so we might be alone, if only for a short while,” Sigma Orionis said.

Her large back cannons shifted with a soft transformation, swinging up so that she could sit down easily. The cannons came to rest over her head; although it was the only way she could comfortably sit, she wouldn’t be able to go through any doors like that.

Vortex’s rotors shuffled so that his blades didn’t tangle in the back of the chair. Blast Off just sat.

He knew Orionis was ignoring the ‘copter’s persistent stare, optics locked on the integrated weapons at her back. She spoke, more quietly than before. She perhaps didn’t dare use comms. “Right now, I can’t tell you much,” she said. “I still need confirmation on a few things.”

Vortex nodded; Blast Off remained motionless.

“So far,” Orionis continued, “we know something is happening. And not only on Cybertron. I’ve heard rumors of a break-in and possible act of terrorism in space. Namely, on HEX.”

The admiral eyed Blast Off, who tried not to let his tension show. He knew he didn’t succeed.

“What’s on HEX?” the ‘copter wanted to know.

“Nothing of worth, really,” the admiral answered with a shrug, deflecting the question.

Blast Off glared at her. This wasn’t true, and she knew it. There was knowledge there, samples - and memories. HEX was a memorial, disused and long abandoned, but one that Altihex refused to dismantle.

HEX had been Blast Off’s home. It had been Sigma Orionis’ home, too.

But all of this wouldn’t matter to Vortex, so she probably didn’t want to waste time explaining it. He let her continue without interrupting.

“There’s nothing there worth stealing,” Sigma said. “It’s not about robbery, not that we think, but a few decacycles ago, someone broke into the Institute’s lab on Cybertron. In Altihex. We’re not sure if they hacked the Institute’s network, but it’s highly likely that they took the entry codes for HEX. Along with its energy drive core.” She looked at Blast Off. “HEX’s codes were never changed.”

His jaw clenched.

Sigma continued. “I can’t say if it’s true right now, but everything points towards someone wanting to destroy HEX. A few of my sources are very precise, but obviously I can’t name any of them in official channels. I need to rely on you two.”

“Rely on us?” Blast Off frowned. “In what manner?”

“If it comes to what I think will happen, I’ll need you to go to HEX.”

At this statement, the soft sound of Blast Off’s ailerons clicking reached them from under the table.

“I’m not asking you to stop whatever is about to come,” she added quickly. “I just need someone to investigate. I can’t make this official, like I said, due to my sources, and because it isn’t under Spacefleet’s remit. But neither Altihex PD nor the Senate are taking the break-in seriously.”

“So,” Vortex cut in, tipping his head, “what do you think will happen?”

Immense dreadnaught-class intakes vented air deeply. “It may sound unbelievable, but I suspect the group - criminals, terrorists, whoever they are - plan to drop HEX on Cybertron. Possibly even on a major grounder-centered city such as Iacon or Praxus.”

The ‘copter’s rotor blades twitched, and Blast Off glared. Was the glitch excited?

“But wouldn’t it burn up in the atmosphere?” Vortex asked.

“It’s too big for that, imbecile.” Blast Off shook his head. A condescending huff left his vents. How was Vortex so stupid?

“Blast Off,” Sigma Orionis said, giving him a look.

Sometimes her consideration for planet-bound mechs, and her forgiveness of their ignorance for everything space related made him angry, but it was easier just to let it be. A discussion would only lead to more correction and he really didn’t need that tonight. Especially not in front of a mech like Vortex.

“When my information is confirmed,” Sigma said, “I’ll let you know. So far, I need you to-”

“Blast Off!” The shuttle’s name was spoken again, in fake enthusiasm that caused him to flinch. He knew that voice. “And Sigma Orionis! So good to see you both.”

Another shuttle sat himself uninvited at their table. He was the same build type as Blast Off, only with a bright yellow paintjob, his metal over-polished. The colour stung the optics. Star Reign, wonderful.

A planet-bound flyer was with him, and tentatively took the seat next to the newcomer, glancing at the group apologetically.

Sigma Orionis and Blast Off exchanged looks, and Vortex just sat there; if he was confused, he didn’t show it.
Orionis glanced at Star Reign, but didn’t give him the courtesy of a word or even a nod; Blast Off knew she hadn’t had the best experience with the mech.

But neither had he. Star Reign was one of the very few people for whom Blast Off’s dislike bordered on hate, and it stopped short only because - as the compulsory counselling he had been forced to endure on HEX had taught him - he was incapable of so strong an emotion.

“Hey, your rotary got a repaint, didn’t he?” Star Reign turned and addressed Vortex. “Did you change it to get less attention, or does Blast Off like the military look?”

The aforementioned shuttle would have valued a hole to hide in. Orionis shot him a sympathetic glance, and turned her massive bulk to cut Star Reign out completely.

Thankfully, the ‘copter didn’t answer, and merely stared. He put his elbows on the table, and rested his chin on his hand, his visor pointing directly at Star Reign.

The yellow shuttle laughed, a disgusting sound. “Heh, looks like you’ve got your planet-bound so well trained he won’t talk to alphas without your permission.”

Blast Off raised an optical ridge, pondering how he could clear this mistake up. But the opportunity passed as Star Reign continued. “Anyway, I was surprised to see you here. It’s not common for the project leaders to invite criminals to official functions.”

Blast Off froze.

He knew Star Reign wasn’t referring to his current job. With the exception of Orionis, his former contacts didn’t know he worked for Onslaught, or that not all Onslaught’s business was legal.

Trust Star Reign to bring up ancient history.

“Everyone knows I didn’t do it,” Blast Off countered.

“And yet you were dismissed.” Star Reign grabbed a cube from a waiter’s tray. “Honestly, every criminal says they’re innocent, don’t they?”

Blast Off couldn’t become any tenser, and he had to force himself to relax enough so that his joints didn’t lock.

Vortex showed no reaction, his optics fixed on Star Reign. The shuttle was glad that there was no curious questioning and prodding. Orionis continued to ignore Star Reign, though it was any guess how soon her patience would wear thin.

“As far as I remember,” Blast Off said, resisting the urge to snap, “you were guilty of breaking the UP3 four times, so look who’s talking.”

“Maybe, but they never fired me, unlike you-“

I did not do it,” Blast Off interrupted, not becoming louder, but his voice was an angry, resolute growl.

Star Reign crossed his arms. “So? If you didn’t misappropriate research funds, then why did you access the main computer and delete the protocol logs showing what you did do?”

Blast Off’s hand clenched to a fist. There was nothing he could say. Nothing to defend himself. He had accessed the computer, but not to move money. He couldn’t have cared less for money. He had altered the star map, and worse, he had deleted a whole star system from the map. It wasn’t only forbidden, but also dangerous for everyone flying in that area.

And it was treason.

If anyone had found out, they’d have stripped him off his shuttleformer body. They’d have rebuilt him to never be able to reach space by himself, and exiled him from Altihex. Considering this, the fraud for which he had been blamed was a minor, albeit belated, punishment for what he’d actually done. However he looked at it, it was preferable.

Unconsciously, he reached for his heat shield on his lower arm, as though reassuring himself it was still there.

“Hmpf,” the yellow shuttle huffed in disdain. “See, you can’t answer that, either.”

“Star Reign,” Sigma Orionis said, without looking at him. “Four point seven two billion. That is the number of sentient lives your dismissal of the UP3 cost, not counting the deaths of the variety of other life forms that had developed on that planet. I do believe that being responsible for the extinction and death of so many people, and for the Cybertronian race being forbidden to enter the star cluster S4fXµ without a local escort, you should think before blaming someone for crimes where guilt has never been proven.” She sipped from her cube, and only then did she turn a condescending eye on the bright yellow mech. “Especially not if you only continued working for the Institute because a certain higher senior partner was very fond of your chassis.”

Now it was Star Reign’s turn to tense, and Blast Off couldn’t help but enjoy the view. He was also glad that Orionis had intervened. Blast Off wasn’t always the best at arguing with others if it was about personal matters. As for Vortex, he was still silent, still watching.

The lights in the room dimmed as the opening ceremony began, preventing Star Reign from responding to Sigma’s accusations.

The ceremony was boring. They talked too much, and about things everyone in the room knew, since everyone in the room had worked on the project. Well, almost all of them; Vortex most certainly had no clue.

He didn’t seem very interested either, and was still staring at Star Reign, his red visor bright in the gloom.

Star Reign shifted on his chair.

A ping reached Blast Off that made him wince in surprise.

//Are all of your ex-colleagues such aft-heads?// Vortex commed on a private frequency.

//Fortunately not, no.//

//What did you do to him?// Vortex wanted to know.

Blast Off frowned. //Why do you think I did something to him?//

//Just guessing. You know, the way he looks at you.//

Blast Off couldn’t suppress the huff from his vents. //I refused to suck up to him, that’s all.//

//Heh,// Vortex laughed, his visor flashed for an astrosecond. //Maybe you should have done more… Say, introduce your fist to his shiny midsection? His plating looks weak there.//

Blast Off very subtly shook his head. //He doesn’t deserve that much attention.//

The crowd gave a small applause when the person on the podium made room for another. More talking followed, and Blast Off hindered himself from sighing.

//So,// Vortex continued their conversation when Blast Off had hoped it would have ended. //What’s the UP3?//

//Underdeveloped Planet Preservation Pact,// Blast Off answered, and hoped he wouldn’t need to explain it further.

//Uh-uh, and what’s that?//

Venting deeply, Blast Off put his elbow on the table and rested his chin on his hand. //It’s a pact between most space-faring races not to land on planets whose civilisation hasn’t reached a certain technological level.//

//Ah, okay.// Vortex shrugged, the metal of rotors reflecting the little light in the room. //And landing on those planets is a crime?//

//It is.//

//And he still did it a few times?//

//He did.//

//So, he’s actually a criminal, right?// Vortex said with the weirdest tone; Blast Off couldn’t decipher it.

//He is,// the shuttle answered. The topic made him uncomfortable. Blast Off hoped the heliformer would stop questioning him, and not want to know more about what he had done to be convicted.

But Vortex didn’t ask more questions. He nodded briefly, his rotor blades twitching once as he replied, //Interesting,// and cut the comm-link.

Blast Off sighed more loudly than he’d intended, and endured the rest of the ceremony.

Eventually, the lights came on again, and people started speaking. The murmur of mixed voices rose, as did Star Reign. He seemed in a hurry, glaring at Vortex who continued to look at him.
“I’d better be going,” he said, and bowed his head just a little to Sigma. “I don’t want to be seen too long sitting with a rogue shuttle. Admiral Orionis.”

Blast Off winced; the offence stung more than he’d liked to admit. At least the other had left, stalking off quickly. His companion stood at their table a moment longer, bowing in an apology.
“I’m very sorry. He’s…” the flyer stopped, raising himself again, and sighed. He shook his head. “Just, I’m sorry for his behaviour.” He left as well.

Why of all people did Blast Off have to run into Star Reign? He wasn’t sure what he’d done to the universe to deserve that. His already low mood had sunk somewhere beneath his feet, and he would have loved to have hidden in his room and recharged.

“I will have to leave you as well.” Sigma Orionis nodded and stood up, her cannons shifting into their former alignment. “I need to attend to my duties as a representative of spacefleet, and talk to people I couldn’t care less about. I’ll be in contact when I have further information. Enjoy the evening,” she said, then turned to Blast Off directly, “and don’t do anything you’ll regret later.”

Vortex uttered a questioning noise, but Blast Off wasn’t going to explain it. He’d probably get drunk despite her words.

The moment the admiral had gone, Blast Off pointed at a corner of the room. “If you like you can go to the buffet and try all the different types of energon,” he said, without condescension this time. The buffet was wasteful, but it might keep Vortex busy for a while. On HEX they’d been subject to restrictions and rationing. He valued well-prepared fuel, but could guess that half of the offered energon would be thrown away later. He sighed, he lacked the energy to care. “Apparently this hotel is famous for all the things they do to the taste and consistency of energon.”

He got to his feet, his field unintentionally flaring with frustration and exhaustion, and glanced at the exit.

“You’re not gonna try some?” Vortex followed Blast Off’s gaze. “Where’re you going?”

“The bar. I need a break, and a drink. Or ten.”

* * *

A drink sounded good, but no sooner had Vortex risen to follow the shuttle than a blue hand lay on his forearm and a wide pair of wings swung into view.

“I really am sorry.” It was Star Reign’s companion again; pale yellow optics, pleasing waist-to-shoulder ratio, no weapons. "He's not usually that abrasive."

Vortex laid on a sympathetic smile, just for him. “Your friend?” he said.

“My team mate,” the flyer answered. He gave an awkward shrug, and tucked his hands behind his back. “We try not to let him out in public, but you know how it is.”

"You should have him on a leash," Vortex commented.

The mech rocked back on his thrusters. "Believe me," he said, "the thought has crossed my mind. Uh..." He gave his feet some consideration. "Is your, um, colleague? Is he all right?"

"Sure," Vortex said. "It's nothing a few cubes won't fix. You got a designation to go with those wings?"

A smile appeared and vanished in a fraction of an astrosecond. "Swiftshot." the mech replied. "I'm a network analyst for CFV."
Vortex gave him an encouraging look.

"Cybertronian Future Vision," Swiftshot said. "We test sub-space network capacity for vassal worlds. What is it you do?"

"I'm a consultant." It was the answer that usually cued a change in the topic of conversation, but Swiftshot's expression registered only attentive interest. Vortex decided to elaborate. "I specialise in site security and personal defence for private businesses."

"Oh really?" Swiftshot said, sparing a glance for the empty weapons mounts on Vortex's forearms. "I have a batchmate in Praxus who's thinking of opening a security firm. Perhaps I can pass her your details."

It was all part of the apology; throw some business his way and Swiftshot could dump those nasty bad feelings about Star Reign's rudeness. The jet was trying so hard, and he looked so appealing standing there fishing around inside his cockpit for a datapad. Vortex gave him a valid comm freq, on the assumption that any batchmate of Swiftshot's was likely to be just as attractive, and passed back the pad.

"Excuse me." One of the hotel staff drew up alongside them, his energy field pulled so far in that he hardly felt alive at all. "A message for sir," he said, and handed Vortex a holo-sheet.

"I have to go," Vortex said. "Where are you staying? Maybe we can catch a drink or two later?"

"Room thirteen-five-nine-two," Swiftshot replied with a conspicuous lack of hesitation.

"Are you bunking with Captain Mouthparts?" Vortex asked.
Swiftshot nodded and laughed. "He's not so bad when you get to know him. Honest."

Vortex wasn’t sure that was true, but didn’t stop to argue; he knew where Star Reign was staying, and that was all the information he needed for now. He made his way through the crowded function room, dodging wings and drinks and gesticulating limbs, until he found the secluded booth indicated on the holo-sheet. Sigma Orionis gestured for him to sit, and a convenient group of chatty shuttles moved into place to block them from view.

“Our friend sends his regards,” Vortex said.

Sigma smiled. “How is Onslaught these days? It’s been a while.”

“He’s good,” Vortex replied, and relaxed into his seat. So the area was safe, they could talk.

“And business?”

“Also good.”

“But it could be better?”

Vortex smiled. “It’s a big universe,” he said. “There’s always room for expansion.”

“Of course.” Sigma laughed softly and toyed with the stem of her glass. It looked tiny between her fingers. “I hear he’s looking for investment opportunities.”

Vortex nodded. “Is it true they’re privatising Altihex Spaceport?”

“As soon as the right bribes hit the right palms,” Sigma said with no small measure of disgust. “The Senate will retain controlling shares on behalf of the good people of Cybertron, but yes, minority shares will become available.”

“Onslaught is looking for thirty percent,” Vortex said, and Sigma laughed.

“He never does things by halves,” she said.

“Nope, he doesn’t. He’ll need to be on the list of approved bidders though.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“We appreciate it.” Vortex leaned his elbow on the table, affecting mild intoxication and flirtatiousness. “Is there anything we can do for you?

Sigma’s optics flickered. “I’m sure there’s a lot you could do for me,” she said, and leaned closer. “There’s a public aid programme for hunger victims and the rust-poor in Kaon and Polyhex, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Someone’s making their work very difficult. There have been abductions, sabotage. An aid worker was murdered, a transit team were badly beaten.”

“Yeah, I saw that on the media feed.”

Sigma gave him a steady look. “I want the threat eliminated.”

“I can do that,” Vortex replied. “Empties don’t really concern us.”

“Well they concern me,” Sigma said. “I realise this is going to cut into someone’s bottom line, but I hope I’m right in saying it won’t be yours?”

“Nope,” Vortex said. “Not ours.” All those circuit speeders spilling out of the Kaon warehouses would find a buyer, no matter the good efforts of the conscientious few.

“I expect the charities to be able to work in peace,” Sigma said. “I’m not blinkered, I don’t expect you to cease operations in that area, but I do expect you to make it easier for us, not harder.”

Vortex shrugged. “Sure, no problem. I’d do anything for a shuttle. So, do you want this to show up on the news feeds, serve up a nice little warning to anyone else fragging with your charity bots?”

“I’ll leave that to your discretion,” Sigma said. “Thank you.”

Vortex took his cue and stood. “If there’s anything else I can do for you,” he said, making his offer as clear as the blades on his back.
Admiral Sigma Orionis smiled. “Send my regards to Onslaught.”
* * *

Chapter Text

The bar was dim lit and empty. The barkeeper, a tall, sleek grounder, was the only mech in the room. He stood behind the counter, quietly humming.

He stopped when Blast Off sat down, and gave him a brief nod of acknowledgment.

“How may I help you, sir?”

Blast Off covered his surprise. It had been ages since anyone had addressed him as ‘sir’. “Anything,” he answered. It didn’t really matter to him; something that burned, that’d be good.

“I can recommend a quadruple distilled high grade with platinum and solid nitrogen topping.”

Blast Off shrugged. “No, that would be a waste. I just want something strong.”

The barkeeper smiled. “Of course, something strong coming right up.” He took a cube and filled it. The stench of high-potential energon reached Blast Off’s olfactory sensors before the cube was in front of him. “Bad day?”

Blast Off huffed, and downed the cube in one go. The fast infusion of high grade made his processor spin and his optics flicker. He huffed a reply, “The worst.”

“Oh dear,” the mech uttered, and vented a sigh. “We all have those days. Look at this way: It can only get better from here?”

“Hm.” Another shrug. “I don’t know if I’m allowed that much optimism.” Blast Off shoved the empty cube towards the grounder. “Another.”

He drank the second cube more slowly, musing on why he was there at all.

Blast Off could have gone to their room, evading all this. But there was another problem, as it was their room, as in his and Vortex’s. And all it had was one large bed.

This would have been only half bad if they’d actually put the bed to some use, Blast Off mused, and dismissed the idea. He should be glad to have at least a little of his dignity left.

That it had happened once was bad enough. So many people at OnsCorp HQ had seen them head off to that briefing room together. Blast Off could very well guess what they said behind his back. Fortunately no one had mentioned it to him so far. Perhaps they were already talking about someone else, considering how quickly Vortex changed his partners.

The shuttle huffed, and drank from his cube. He didn’t know if it was still the second or if he’d begun the third already.

The morning had been tempting. The ‘copter had been awake earlier than him, but had lain there, staring. He hadn’t initiated anything, however, and even if he had Blast Off wouldn’t have responded.

He seriously didn’t need everyone, and even worse Vortex, thinking he was that desperate. Especially not when he was a member of a much higher caste. It wasn’t appropriate for him to give in like that, and it was certainly against his honour to be a one-time frag.

It was too late to regret the latter, though, and unnecessary to stick to the former. All his old colleagues most likely thought he and Vortex had a thing going on anyway. Star Reign’s stupid remark had only confirmed that.

Even now, Blast Off had no idea how he’d earned the questionable reputation of having a thing for rotaries.

Okay, that might not have been completely true. He just had no idea how one partner could lead to such a reputation. It wasn’t even accurate. He didn’t have a thing for rotaries, he just liked things he was used to, and he was used to rotaries. Well, more so than he was to tanks, for example.

Blast Off frowned and emptied his cube. Yes, fragging Brawl would be very weird. He wouldn’t even know where to touch him, not to mention that slow processor of his. But he wouldn’t frag his CPU, so it probably didn’t matter – and why in the pit was Blast Off thinking about interfacing with Brawl?

The shuttle groaned and put his forehead on the counter.

“Sir? Are you all right?”

Blast Off grumbled an unintelligible response. Realising his lack of verbal clarity, he sat up, and answered anew, his speech slurred, and his HEXian accent most present. The mix almost didn’t sound like Cybertronian at all. “Yes. Well, no. Whatever.” He waved a hand. “How much did I have?”

The grounder smiled. “Six cubes.”

“Huh? Already?”

The barkeeper tipped his head to the side. “Yes, Sir. You finished a cube, and nodded towards the dispenser. You… are not a speaker for the Reunion Party, are you?”

“Oh frag, no. I ain’t. Slag, that'd just be what I needed,” Blast Off muttered, and held out the empty cube to the grounder.

The mech filled it again. “I’m relieved to hear that, sir. I’d have gotten in big trouble if I’d made an orator drunk before his speech.”

Blast Off shrugged. “No, I ain’t an orator. I ain’t even here because I want to be. This stupid nonsense. All hypocrites here to show off, and brag about useless things no one’s interested in anyway. And everyone pretends to have been so important in the project even if they were just some minor accountant while they look down on a really important person just because he was let go of from the Institute. This event is all a big scrap heap. Some huge, unnecessary, stupid pile of rusted scrap metal.”

The grounder’s face didn’t change, but his tone showed amusement as he said, “Isn’t it inappropriate for an alpha to use this kind of language?”

Blast Off huffed, glaring. “Isn’t it inappropriate for a servitor to reprimand an Alpha?” Venting deeply, he regretted snapping at the mech and could hear Sigma Orionis giving him a talking-to about the injustice, inequality and misused privileges of the caste system. “My apologies.” Blast Off rubbed his temple with two fingers. “That was uncalled for.”

He missed the confused flicker of the barkeeper’s optics, and almost missed the nod and appreciative smile too.

Both mechs grew quiet.

Then the barkeeper went back to polishing cubes, and cleaning the ones Blast Off had used. And Blast Off just sat there, sipping slowly, musing on his misery.

He hadn’t been to HEX in vorns, and soon he may well have to visit. He wasn’t very fond of the idea. He was nostalgic for the place, and a part of him was looking forward to it, but HEX had been closed for so long. And Blast Off had a very bad history with visiting abandoned space stations.

Recalling a few incidents, Blast Off resisted another groan, and merely covered his optics.

He sat at the counter for what felt like a vorn. It definitely felt as though he’d drunk as much high grade as someone would during that time. His optics were focused on the half empty cube in front of him, his thoughts drifting; he didn’t notice someone else sauntering into the bar.

“Hey, Blast Off. You still torqued about Star Reign?”

With an optical ridged raised, the shuttle attempted to focus. There he was. Vortex. And he was talking. His processor poisoned by the high potency of the liquid, Blast Off could hardly make out the words. It didn’t help that Vortex’s rotors were quivering, and Blast Off’s CPU became immediately absorbed with imagining all the ways he could make the ‘copter squirm beneath him.

“Blast Off?” the ‘copter asked again.

The shuttle’s energy field flared, and he shuddered at a wave of hot sensation down his back, beneath the heat shield.

“What?” he eventually answered, speech slurred with his accent, and optics shamelessly locked on the rotor blades. He was aware that in addition to all the other reasons for not interfacing with the ‘copter, he could now add his inebriation.

“Uh, you’re drunk, aren’t you?”

“Nope,” Blast Off said, and turned his head forward to his energon cube, raising it as though for a toast, then emptied it in one go. “I’m completely wasted.”

* * *

Wasted was only the start of it. Blast Off was also uncooperative, belligerent and very very heavy.

“Just walk,” Vortex said, one arm around the shuttle’s waist, his shoulder creaking as Blast Off leaned on him. “I can’t exactly carry you. I’m not one of those shunting drone things, whatever the frag they’re called. They shunt shuttles in space. A shuttle shunt.”

“Whatever’re you babbling about?” Blast Off said, his voice harsh with overcharge and an accent that sounded nothing like his usual upper caste Altihexian. He swayed in Vortex’s grip, pitching them both towards the wall. Vortex braced himself, and used the alpha’s momentum to swing them all the way around to the right direction.

He was rewarded with a hand on his rotor hub.

“You want us to get to our room?” Vortex growled. “Cause that ain’t the way to go about it.”

“Whattayou gonna do about it?” Blast Off countered. And there it was again, that trace of an accent Vortex hadn’t heard him use back in Kaon. An offworld accent; rougher than his usual, not so intrinsically condescending.

“More than you could right now,” Vortex muttered. “All right, put your hand on the wall. OK really, you need to put your hand... Your hand. No. Not there, frag not there… Not yet, anyway. There. Your hand. On the wall. That’s it.” Even with Blast Off propped against the doorframe, it took both hands and all of Vortex’s remaining attention to dip the key card and turn the handle to open the door. Whoever thought a lock that complex was a good idea for a hotel room was a sadist. They were probably watching through the security cameras laughing their stupid afts off. Crankshafts.

“I want to lie down.”

Vortex didn’t dignify that one with a response, but tugged Blast Off into their hotel room and steered him towards the recharge platform. And what a platform. Electrum on the headboard, triple density foam with a real organic cover; it even had steps leading up to it, like it was on a podium of something. Vortex half expected there to be mirrors on the ceiling, and was a little disappointed when he looked up and there weren’t.

Blast Off tripped on the bottom step and swore, and Vortex couldn’t quite be bothered to make the effort to catch him. Thank frag the bed was strong enough to cope with a falling shuttle. He dimmed the lights and locked the door, and made a quick sweep of the room for recording devices.

Laughing into the soft greelskin leather, Blast Off rolled over. “C’mere,” he demanded.

“Why?” Vortex asked, poking his head into the shower cubicle. Frag, this place was posh. Inlets on all sides, three different kinds of cleanser, five waxes, speed air-dry; it had everything.

“Cause I said.”

“Well argued.” Vortex closed the shower cubicle door. “The room’s clean, in case you’re interested.”

“Of course it’s clean, they’ve got little drones and servitor class things and things for that. It’s a hotel.

“I meant,” Vortex said, climbing up onto the platform, “it’s clean. There are no recording devices. We can talk, no-one’s listening.”

Blast Off lifted his head and gave Vortex a curious look. “You want to talk?

Hot scrap, the shuttle was big. So tall and bulky, and deliciously substantial. Vortex grinned. “Not particularly.”

Blast Off pushed himself up, kneeling to free one hand. It went straight for the nearest rotor, and missed. Vortex caught it, the knuckles rough and dented, split from the force of Blast Off punching his way through the security wall at the prison, evidence of the power contained within the shuttle’s body. That thought sent a rush of heat through him, and he couldn’t resist raising the large hand to his lips, his optics fixed on Blast Off’s, taking in any change of the shuttle’s normally blank expression.

“What are you d-,” Blast Off’s intakes hitched.

The metal was even rougher on the sensitive nodes of Vortex’s glossa, abrasive, painful even. The torn plating was ragged, and little flakes of dried energon clung to the edge. It tasted bitter, the normal tang of half-processed energon combined with a distinct note Vortex couldn't describe.

He let his energy field flare, a temptation and an invitation.

Blast Off’s fingers twitched, the visor brightened, and Vortex didn’t know how to interpret it. Had he overdone it? His rotors twitched as he tried to suppress their quivering, and let go of the hand.

“Huh?” the shuttle uttered. “I didn’t tell you to stop.”

“But you didn’t tell me to keep going either. I don’t fancy getting my arms ripped off.”

Blast Off shrugged. He reached out and this time he didn’t miss the rotor blade. The touch was clumsy, and the force applied wasn’t even close to what he’d done to the prison wall. Yet it was still far stronger than anything Vortex had felt in a long while, and as such it was perfect.

“I fragged you before,” Blast Off said, looking at his own hand fondling the rotor. “In that office in HQ, remember?”

“Uh-huh…” How could Vortex forget? And what the scrap was he doing? This wasn’t time to question Blast Off’s state of mind. It was time to let that large hand spread shivers all up his struts, to let the shuttle push him firmly back into the springy surface of the luxury recharge pad. So what if Blast Off was fendered? He was forceful and hot, and it was about damn time he threw his inhibitions out the window and took what Vortex was certain he wanted.

“Open,” Blast Off demanded, and Vortex didn’t hesitate.

It was fast and rough, and the total opposite of their cautious gentle ‘face in the empty briefing room back at HQ. Vortex gave himself over to the shuttle’s superior strength, his determination to touch exactly what he wanted to touch exactly when he wanted to touch it, and to the smelter with anything slow or subtle.

Connection couldn’t come soon enough, and with the surplus of fuel overload was unavoidably quick. The second time was longer, less frantic. Overcharge didn’t leave much room for coordination, or for coherent thought, but when Blast Off rolled him roughly onto his front the better to access his blades, Vortex had enough presence of mind to catch the connector wrenched accidentally from his port and plug it straight back in.

The break was a mercy. Those few astroseconds gave the charge enough time to ebb, and Vortex could just about keep up with the shuttle’s demanding rhythm, and the urgent barrage of synaesthetic data sparking phantom sensations in every part of his frame.

It wasn’t what he’d imagined, but it was hot and heady and it was exactly what he needed. He tensed beneath the shuttle, braced against an overload as sudden as it was violent. Then gasped as Blast Off slumped on top of him, venting hard, his left hand still wrapped tight around Vortex’s wrist.

Vortex could live with that. Feeling small, compressed, overpowered. It was a good way to end a good, rough frag. At least, for the first breem or so.

After a while, it became obvious that Blast Off wasn’t about to move without prompting. Slowly, Vortex employed a little tactical fidgeting, and Blast Off obligingly rolled over. Always ready to take any opportunity offered him, Vortex slithered sideways and hauled himself onto the shuttle’s broad chest.

“You can’t be dissatisfied,” Blast Off said with a yawn.

“No.” Vortex made himself comfortable, laying his head on his folded arms. He had a lovely view of the alpha’s unfocused optics.

“Then what-”

“Shush, you’re warm.” And so was Vortex, but the room was climate controlled, and a gentle breeze from the air conditioning compensated perfectly for the lack of airflow to his chest vent. “You know, I learnt something interesting when you were at the bar.”

“What’s that?” Blast Off’s optics glimmered brighter, then dimmed again as he stifled another yawn. “Not work, I hope. This is hardly the-”

“Not work,” Vortex said. “I found out where Star Reign is staying.”

Blast Off frowned. “Why should that be of interest to me?”

Vortex leaned forward. He licked his lips. “Because he’s a problem,” he said quietly. “And I can make problems go away.”

Blast Off’s frown deepened. “He’s… I… Are you offering to kill him for me?”

“If you want,” Vortex said. “I suppose maiming’s always an option, but he looks like he can afford the repairs.”

“No!” Blast Off said. “No killing, no maiming. This conference is bad enough as it is!”

Vortex wriggled and sent a pulse of warm satisfaction through the connection. “Oh,” he said, “it’s terrible.”

“You know what I mean.”

Vortex laughed and settled again. He yawned, stretching out his legs and flexing his blades in their mounts. “If you change your mind,” he said, and pinged the lights to plunge them into darkness.

Chapter Text

Blast Off didn’t want to wake up. His processor only booted at the constant pinging of his comms array, and completely against his will.

Regaining consciousness was like flying through a comet's tail, and every rock hit hard.

Blast Off wanted to raise his right arm, but something heavy was laying on it, and so he used the other. Rubbing over his face, he kept it there, covering his visor.

His comm-link pinged again, but he ignored it. It was an annoying twinge in his head, but that was still better than registering sound. He didn’t trust himself to speak. Not after all the high grade he’d had the night before.

Blast Off tried to remember just how many cubes he’d drank, but the only vivid memory that came to mind was what happened after he’d stopped drinking.

The bar, the hallway, the room, and then the ‘copter.

Carefully bringing his optics online, he slowly lifted his hand from them, and looked down at his side. The optical input stung, but it didn’t have anything to do with the rotary.

Vortex lay next to him, on Blast Off’s arm. He must have slid there during recharge, with his arm still on Blast Off’s chest and his face half-hidden against his side. Blast Off smiled at the similarity to scenes from his past. When he realised what he was doing, his expression turned into a grimace.

Thank frag Vortex was still asleep.

The ping came again, and Blast Off continued to ignore it.

Groaning, he offlined his optics, and wondered if he could plausibly deny remembering what had happened the night before. That might not be easy, considering they were still connected. Pretending memory loss might spare Blast Off the awkwardness of waking up together, though.

Blast Off decided that yes, faking amnesia was indeed the most sensible plan. He longed to go back to sleep. If only this person, whoever it was, would stop constantly pinging his frequency. It was doing nothing good for his headache, or his queasy tanks, or the feeling of disorientation which wasn’t entirely unlike weightlessness. He’d have coped with actual weightlessness a lot better.

Someone knocked on the door – very loudly.

Blast Off winced, his optical sensors booting by reflex.

A second knock.

A third.

Vortex stirred.

There was a mutter behind the door, but Blast Off was too tired to be worried.

“Morning,” Vortex said, not moving much, craning his head a little to look at Blast Off.

The door opened, and Sigma Orionis stomped in.

An engine and its auxiliary units revved dangerously. “Blast Off, why didn’t you answer me?” the triad voice bellowed, then added rather more sedately, “Good morning Vortex.”

“Huh?” Vortex uttered, a pulse of drowsy amusement travelled along their connection.

It was too much for Blast Off. He groaned in pain, his headache throbbing and stinging all at once. Rolling over, his back to Vortex, he raised his newly freed arm and draped it over his head. He couldn’t cope with anything right now.

Especially not the embarrassment of the admiral seeing him connected to a planet-bound.

“Blast Off,” the admiral said, voice stern and not as easy-going as the evening before, “I’ve commed you several times. Don’t you dare ignore me.”

“I’m not under your command,” Blast Off mumbled. It was hard to form words, and he didn’t care if she understood him.

“Vector Sigma,” Orionis growled.

Vortex snickered. The berth shifted. He’d probably sat up, but he didn’t bother to disconnect them.

“I told you yesterday not to get drunk,” Sigma said.

Blast Off shook his head, but it wasn’t noticeable under his arm. He examined the memory file from the day before, and countered, “You said I shouldn’t do anything I might regret.”

“That’s rivet-picking.”

Blast Off only huffed at that. He didn’t regret drinking maybe a little too much high grade, and it wasn’t as though the following events with the ‘copter had been extraordinary bad…

“Fine, whatever. Vortex?” Orionis asked, obviously annoyed. "Yesterday you asked me if there was anything else you could do for me. Well here it is. Are you responsive and able to process the information I have?”

“Sure thing,” Vortex replied cheerfully, making Blast Off frown. How could someone be so excited and happy in the morning?

“Thank you,” Orionis continued. “This morning, at two-nineteen joors, the main functions of HEX reactivated. The satellite is back online.”

Blast Off tensed. His ailerons clicked.

“So, that’s not good?” Vortex asked, confirming Blast Off’s suspicion that he had no idea how huge HEX was and what kind of threat it posed.

“No. Not good at all,” Sigma said. “I hadn’t expected it to happen so soon, but we did discuss the contingency yesterday. The Altihex Police Department has scheduled a lift off for an exploration team for this afternoon. But it could be too late by then. HEX will be over the next big city in three joors.”

Blast Off groaned once again. Drawing his legs up, he curled himself into a ball. He didn’t want to hear any of that, and he certainly didn’t want to deal with it. Not now, not ever.

Sigma clearly had other plans.

“I’ve organised a lift-off window from the hotel in just under a joor,” she continued. “Please, Vortex, give me your frequency so that I can send you the exact time, the details I expect you to investigate, and things to be careful of. The file will also include data about the readings from HEX’s core.”

Blast Off tried not to think about it, but his dizzy processor still began to assess the best way in.

“Okay, yeah. Here it is.” Vortex shifted again on the berth, and a gleeful thirst for adventure came across the interface.

Blast Off wordlessly fumbled for his panel, and unplugged Vortex’s connector.

“Will he be able to fly like this?” Vortex asked, his voice doubtful.

“He will have to,” Orionis replied dryly, but with the slightest hint of amusement. “But don’t worry. He once managed to break atmosphere and fulfil a safe re-entry while completely wasted,” – how did Sigma know about that? – “and help an evacuation mission when significantly more overtired than he currently is. He’ll be grumpy and in a bad mood, but he’ll be able to do it.”

“Heh, sounds like fun.” It was hard to say if Vortex was being sarcastic.

“Just,” Orionis added, “see if you can wake him up a little first.”

“Sure thing.” Vortex’s cheerfulness couldn’t mean anything good.

The ‘copter and the admiral exchanged a few more words, but Blast Off’s mind was already on the space station, thinking again about his former home and going back there.

His tanks became even queasier, and it had nothing to do with his hangover.

* * *

Vortex relaxed in the co-pilot’s seat on Blast Off’s flight deck, a can of coolant in one hand and his slightly rumpled rotors mashed into the seat back. The events of the previous night had been exactly what he’d needed, and now they were off on an adventure. Life was looking pretty good. He gave Blast Off’s onboard camera a bright smile. “You’re not a morning person, are you?”

“Would you like to be vented into space?” Blast Off asked. It wasn’t the first of the day’s threats. They’d begun as soon as Sigma left, an expression of Blast Off’s sincere distaste for a) mornings, b) hangovers, and c) people requiring him to do things in the morning while hungover. Having to haul aft out of bed and through the busy hotel to the spaceport had only compounded his native grumpiness.

“Just askin’,” Vortex said cheerfully. He grinned as Blast Off banked and Cybertron rose to fill the windscreen. He whistled through his vents. “Do you ever get tired of that?” he said.

“No,” Blast Off said. “Do you ever get tired of speaking?”

“Sometimes. Is that it?” Vortex craned forward, pointing at a growing patch of black against the bulk of the planet. Behind it Iacon blazed, each point of light a star, each road a glowing ribbon of orange fire.

Blast Off grunted in reply, and Vortex forgot the injunction on leaving his seat. Leaning as close as he could to the glass, he tried to make out the form of the space station, picking out its cylindrical hub, and its trio of rotating segments, each one shaped like a wheel with spokes radiating to a distant slender rim.

Sit,” Blast Off snapped, and Vortex shuffled reluctantly backwards. “ETA three hundred astroseconds.”

“Where do you dock?” Vortex asked, but he didn’t care that he didn’t get an answer. HEX seemed to grow from the gaps between Iacon’s lights, a darkness swarming from a million points of black. Then Blast Off’s lights struck a surface impossibly close - a gently curving grey plane clung with rivets and pocked with a scattering of shadowy dents - and Vortex gripped the seat by reflex as though the shuttle were about to swerve.

The rim passed gracefully overhead, and it was only the proximity to the structure that enabled Vortex to perceive that they were slowing. The second wheel appeared, impossibly large, and the bulk of the satellite’s axis eclipsed the glow of Iacon.

Vortex expected them to dock there, but they were coming in too fast, and then they were through the spokes and heading for the third and final wheel.

“Put the lid on your coolant,” Blast Off said, and Vortex fumbled to comply. “Watch what you’re doing!”

“It’s OK,” Vortex said, leaning to swipe at his knee without taking his optics off the screen. “I spilled it on me, not you.”

“The point is you spilled it,” Blast Off snapped. His engines changed pitch, and the hub vanished from view, replaced by a spoke that looked so slender it might snap. There were cabochon crystals embedded in its length, crystals that became windows as the spoke got gradually closer and the rim appeared before them like a great blank wall. And closer, until Vortex could see Blast Off’s shadow on the pale grey metal, and the scale of the satellite became suddenly, tank-lurchingly clear.

“Frag, that’s big.”

“I’m banning liquids,” Blast Off commented. “The next time you want to drink, you can do it in the cargo hold. Ping me the landing code Sigma sent you.”

Vortex sent the code, for the second time that morning. “Sigma said-”

“I know what Sigma said, you don’t need to repeat yourself.”

Vortex bit his glossa to stop himself from snickering, and settled back to watch. It wasn’t often he had a front row seat to watch a shuttle dock with a space station. A portion of HEX’s rim extended, a concertina of gleaming white plastic forming a tunnel or tube. Blast Off did not move, but held still as the fabric engulfed them, stiffening and closing in behind them. A trail of yellow lights cascaded along the ribs of the structure, and Vortex shivered as an unfamiliar energy field rippled through him.

Then they were through, and Blast Off was transforming around him, disgorging the half-finished can of coolant as the entry gateway collapsed flat to the wall behind them and the heavy doors slid shut.

“Good morning, Blast Off,” a friendly female voice rang out. “Good morning, guest of Sigma Orionis. Please proceed to decontamination.”

Vortex looked around. “Woah, it knows you?”

“It knows my energy signature,” Blast Off explained. “Good morning, HEX. Deactivate door locks, sector eight through fifteen, alpha ring, upon proximity of my or guest’s presence.”

“Affirmative,” HEX said. “Will that be all?”

“For now.”

“Have a productive day!” HEX replied.

“Hold on.” Vortex grabbed Blast Off’s arm before the shuttle could head off. “Is HEX sentient? Is she like… a metrotitan or something? Has she got a root mode?”

“No,” Blast Off sighed. “And no, and no. HEX is an it, not a she, and if you don’t let go I swear you’ll have one less arm… What happened to your rotor blades?”

“What?”

“You’re damaged, you… Oh. Ah.” Blast Off stiffened. “I didn’t realise I’d been so… forceful. It was not my intention.”

“It’s fine.” Vortex grinned. “Just for the record, I like you forceful. And it’s not like I’m going flying up here. You can buy me a replacement set when we’re back at the hotel.”

Blast Off huffed, but made no complaint. He gave the rotors another glance, then sighed. “All right,” he said. “We’re heading for the core, where I will input the codes, and you will provide backup in case we have any difficulty. You will stay close to me at all times, you won’t enter a room without my permission, you won’t try a door without confirming with me first that this is the way we are going. Is that understood?”

“Yeah, sure.” Vortex rolled his shoulders, and unclipped his borrowed sonic disruptor from the holster at his hip.

“Oh, and don’t put anything in your mouth,” Blast Off said. “This is - was - a research facility. Who knows what they left behind.”

“Yeah yeah.” Vortex followed the shuttle through the first set of sliding doors. The corridor illuminated in front of them with a soft white light. He glanced back to see the lights in the room they had come from fade out. “Neat.”

“Neat is not the word,” Blast Off said.

“Then what is the word?” Vortex asked, trying to look everywhere all at once.

It was a while before Blast Off replied, and when he did his voice had a strange aspect that Vortex had yet to learn to read. “HEX,” he said, “is magnificent.”

* * *

It had been ages since Blast Off had last been on HEX. It was like a lifetime ago, like another life completely.

HEX’s condition was amazing considering how long the space station had been abandoned. There wasn’t much rust, or any defunct lights. It would probably change soon, considering his and Vortex’s presence. They should have gone through decontamination, but they had passed the restricted area and decontamination chambers a while ago.

It was good to be back, and Blast Off couldn’t help but miss the everyday noises, and the louder hum of the main systems working at full capacity, taking care that every lab, every console and computer was powered. The sounds of people chatting, and many feet on the metal floors. Doors sliding shut, and opening up, and music coming through the vents from the habitation ring mingling with HEX’s voice asking for attention while making announcements over the speakers.

He had disliked it back then, the crowds and the busyness, but it had been home.

It was good to be back on HEX, though it was too quiet. It felt wrong.

Blast Off sighed softly. His headache hadn’t much improved, and any other time than now would probably have been better to fly here. At least the task didn’t seem too complicated. All they had to do was put HEX back to sleep.

Rubbing his temple, Blast Off glanced at the sign on the wall, not paying much attention to the heliformer walking next to him. Vortex looked from one spot to another, and Blast Off had to admit that he liked the ‘copter awestruck. He ought to be; not many planet-bounds from any city other than Altihex had ever set foot on the space station.

The last door of the current spoke slid aside and opened onto a large part of the center of the ring. It had been a place for social interactions once, with stalls and some shops at its edge and a huge glass ceiling.

Now it was lifeless and dark. The benches were covered by fabric or plastic, the fountains were dried up, and the organic plants behind the glass tubes had long since died.

“Wow,” the ‘copter said and produced that whistling sound again. Blast Off resisted shaking his head. “You guys really knew how to show off with this place,” Vortex added in that tone that Blast Off knew by now meant he was entertained or amused.

Blast Off shrugged. “It was like any other city.”

“Yes, like any other city - in space.” Vortex nudged Blast Off’s side with his elbow.

The shuttle growled. He didn’t have the patience to explain the space station’s former purpose, or the use of a fleet in space. He also didn’t have the patience for more physical contact.

“Where do we go next?” Vortex wanted to know, peering around as if looking for the way.

“Just follow me.” Blast Off went in further. They passed a deactivated fountain behind glass. Next to it was a large boxy item hidden under fabric.

Blast Off stopped at the sight, pondering.

Vortex chose that moment to ask yet another question. “What’s wrong?”

“You really never get tired of speaking, do you?” Blast Off huffed in response, not bothering to look at the other as he stepped closer to the box.

“Hehe, and you never get tired of being grumpy. What is that thing?”

Blast Off would have loved to put the ‘copter with the fountain behind the glass in the hope it was sound-proof, but he didn’t say so. Instead he uncovered the box, revealing a vending machine. Its lights blinked, having come online with HEX.

“Frag,” Vortex uttered, “you really had everything here, didn’t you?”

“Hardly,” Blast Off replied, remembering the supply shuttles arriving too late and the artificial gravity deactivating because of missing spare parts. The vending machines were only ever filled with the standard kinds of energon, and were not comparable to the ones on Cybertron. But they had been considered ‘fun’, and offered an alternative to getting one’s energon from the dispensers in the habitation wheel.

“Is it still working?” Vortex tilted his head.

That was what the shuttle wanted to find out. He could do with some high octane right about now. It might help with the headache, and wake him up a little.

Blast Off pushed a few buttons, and flared his energy field against the scanner.

The machine rumbled and beeped. Another light flickered, and the clattering sound of a cube emerged from the hatch near Blast Off’s feet.

He was pleasantly surprised to find the cube full. They must have forgotten to empty the vending machines when they’d given up HEX - or they hadn’t cared.

“The frag, you really wanna drink that?” Vortex’s voice was doubtful when Blast Off cracked the energon open and sniffed. “So you can drink that stuff, but I’m not allowed to put anything in my mouth? It looks like it’s gone off.”

Its colour was a deep purple with a pink shimmer. It still smelled okay. Already portioned in cubes, that sort of energon hardly went bad even after vorns. “It’s high octane, it always looks like that,” Blast Off explained, and sat down on the bench next to the fountain.

“Why are we taking a break? Shouldn’t we be on the alert and hurry a bit more?” Crossing his arms, Vortex indicated the gun in his hand.

Blast Off shrugged. “You can be on alert, quietly, while I refuel. I haven’t drank anything this morning.”

“Well, you drank enough yesterday evening.” The red visor flashed.

Blast Off’s engine growled. “Just be quiet.” The first sip of the dark pink-purple energon was bitter, but it changed to a pleasant tartness soon, and the energon was good for the system. It gave Blast Off a small energy boost, and he relaxed at the taste. It was reassuring and just what he needed for dealing with a hangover.

“I don’t like being quiet,” Vortex announced. “But you know a way to make me shut up.” The visor brightened again. “It worked last night.”

Blast Off resisted rubbing his face. “Can you just keep your vocaliser offline for a few astroseconds?”

“If you tell me where we’re going next, maybe. We’re at the centre? But this isn’t the core.”

Blast Off vented air deeply. “There.” He pointed at a direction to his right. “We’re going there next.”

The ‘copter turned his head, following Blast Off’s hand, and remained still for a moment. He was even silent for that time, and Blast Off liked him better for it.

“But the signs only say it’s the way to some living quarters,” Vortex spoke up anew.

“Of course, this is an urban area.” Blast Off drank the rest of the high octane, offlining his optics. He let the effect settle in for a moment, and stood up. “We need to go to the laboratories. Follow me.”

“Where were your quarters?” the heliformer asked, catching up to Blast Off.

“It depended. We only had lockers that belonged to us.”

“Huh? I don’t get it.”

Blast Off shook his head again. “I don’t expect you to.” There was no explanation so as not to give the ‘copter even more details that would spawn even more questions. Social interaction wasn’t something Blast Off was currently keen on.

Thankfully, Vortex followed him without any more queries.

They went further into the centre where more signs pointed in different directions and a staircase opened up before them. Blast Off walked down, knowing where to go, but Vortex stopped in front of the sign on the wall, staring at it.

“This thing has trains?”

Blast Off turned. “Yes. You wouldn’t want to walk all the way from one ring to the other.” Not waiting for Vortex, the shuttle followed the stairs down to the tubes.

There were three of them, but none of the transports were there.

“HEX, send a shuttle to urban hub three, we need to travel to the laboratories.”

Vortex appeared at the stairs and jumped down, looking as if he was having way too much fun.

It took an oddly long time for HEX to respond.

“All shuttles are either out of service or are occupied. Contacting the chief mechanic failed, please contact them personally, or change to urban centers two or four for functioning transport.”

Blast Off frowned. He’d guessed that maybe one of the transport lines was offline, but that they were occupied didn’t make sense.

“What do you mean by ‘occupied’?”

Blast Off saw Vortex look up, then step over to a console for the train control.

“Gamma Ray is standing in the doorway of one of the shuttles, preventing me from closing the door safely. Do you want me to ask him to step aside?” HEX answered with its neutral helpful voice, but it made Blast Off tense.

“No,” Blast Off insisted, “don’t contact him.” His mind reeled.

“Who’s Gamma Ray?” Vortex glanced at him, but Blast Off didn’t answer.

For a few astroseconds, he merely stared as Vortex played with the buttons, looking through the other mech while his processor clocked fast.

“He was my supervisor once,” Blast Off answered absent-mindedly, and stepped up next to Vortex at the console.

“Okay? I take it Orionis didn’t ask him to come here too?”

"She didn't," Blast Off huffed, but there wasn’t a trace of condescension. "He’s dead.”

Chapter Text

For a long moment, Vortex only looked at Blast Off. Eventually, he said, “Are you sure he’s dead?”

Blast Off stiffened, his ailerons clicked against his legs, the hinges so tense. He remembered the incident, recalled the images. His former supervisor was definitely dead, and had been for a very long time. Which meant that someone had stolen his identity to gain access to HEX. “I’m sure,” he replied shortly.

Vortex didn’t comment, and Blast Off didn’t give him time to start talking. “HEX,” he addressed the space station, “give me a list of every person on Ring Beta. Display it on shuttle terminal C-3.”

“Affirmative. Displaying list of everyone in Ring Beta. There are seven people currently working.”

With a nod, Blast Off skimmed through the names HEX had identified. “Gamma Ray is dead, Stardust, too,” he muttered while Vortex looked at the list with interest. The shuttle pointed to another name. “If she’s the one I think she is, then she’s dead as well. I don’t know the other three, but Heliopause can’t be here, either. He was exiled, and not a shuttle anymore.”

Next to Blast Off, Vortex vented air in a dry laugh. “Heliopause, eh? Yeah. He’s dead too.”

The shuttle flicked his optics to the heliformer, eying him up. “Good,” he said before he could stop himself. He didn’t feel sorry for that particular person. How Vortex knew him Blast Off didn’t want to know - not now anyway. “This pattern considered,” he changed the topic back to the matter at hand, “I think we can assume the other three names are of dead people as well.”

“So, I take it we don’t have a ghost problem?” Even Blast Off could hear Vortex’s frown.

“Someone must have hacked HEX’s archives and changed the energy signatures in the personnel files.”

“But why would they need to do that?”

“Otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to set foot on HEX.” Blast Off looked at the heliformer. “HEX has security measures. People whose energy signatures aren’t registered are vented out, or worse.”

“Ah, that’s what Orionis’ code was for?”

Blast Off gave a quick nod.

“Then…” Vortex mused, “how did they hack HEX when they weren’t allowed to get in?”

Blast Off remembered what Horizon and Sigma Orionis had told him. The break in to the lower levels of the Institute where someone had stolen HEX’s energy core and had tinkered with the computer network. They would have had to change the files, but it would have been next-to-impossible to detect a trace of their subterfuge, the adjustment would have been so small. Changing or downloading any other file, anything scientific or research related would have been detected within joors, and the people would have been caught.

“When these people stole the energy core and HEX’s entry codes, they must have hacked the archives,” Blast Off explained his train of thought.

He sighed, and stepped away from the console. Pacing, he rubbed his forehead. His headache had got worse at the news, and it didn’t make it any easier to come up with an alternative route to the core.

“HEX?” Vortex suddenly said, and caused Blast Off to pause.

“Yes, guest of Sigma Orionis.”

“Uh, can you show me the video logs from the laboratory from the last three joors?” Vortex didn’t sound very confident, maybe because he was speaking to someone he couldn’t see.

“There are no video logs available. Video recording was taken offline by Gamma Ray 3.24 joors ago.”

Blast Off sighed. “Frag.” He needed a way to get to the laboratories without the shuttles and without walking there. Whoever the intruders were they might be patrolling the access points, plus it would take too long.

“Display the technical sheet of this area on the console,” Blast Off demanded, and went to the screen again.

Vortex tipped his head to a side, and came closer. “You’ve got an idea?”

“Maybe.” Blast Off looked at the sheet in in front of him, a technical drawing that was complicated with too many details, but it showed what he was looking for.

“Ha,” he uttered. “There!” His index finger tapped on the screen.

Vortex shrugged, his rotors quivering. “I don’t see anything on there, but does it mean we’re going?”

“We are.” Blast Off didn’t explain where to go, just gestured for Vortex to follow him as he jumped on the tracks, crossed them, and climbed over the railing on the other side.

They followed a gridded catwalk along the empty tracks. Several times Blast Off had to duck under low-hanging pipes.

When they reached a sign on the wall reading AL-23-5, Blast Off stopped and looked for the manual sliding door. It was stuck and difficult to open, but just when Vortex started to say, “Do you need-” it slid aside with a loud clatter.

Behind it was another catwalk with stairs leading down. Blast Off followed them, then climbed down an unstable ladder, onto a thick walkway made of pipes. There was a cable on the wall to provide some support, the improvised hand-hold clearly needed as oil dripped from above. It smelled of coolant and other substances. The stench intensified once Blast Off stepped out into a hall full of idle cranes, mechanical arms and other machines. In the middle were rails, between which was a hole with even more mechanisms.

The hall was an immense tunnel, the ends so remote as to be invisible. Light flickered somewhere in the distance, giving a small idea of how long the tunnel was.

“What is this place?” Vortex whispered, but his voice was still incredibly loud in the ghostly silence.

“The assembly line.” Blast Off didn’t remember it from the time of his own construction. He’d woken up when he was complete, the moment he was ejected into space. He’d only been here a few times after that, but back then parts had lain around, components that would soon be new shuttles.

It had been a hopeful place of life being built, now it was empty and dead.

“HEX, send the closest construction sledge to the assembly line sector 23-5,” Blast Off said, his voice bouncing off the walls.

“Affirmative,” HEX answered. “ETA 48 astroseconds.” The rails began to hum and metal shuddered.

Vortex stayed quiet, looking around as if trying to take everything in.

With a screech, the construction sledge stopped near them, and Blast Off started walking again.

“On HEX everything’s big, isn’t it?” Vortex said, his visor focused on their ride. “Why’s it so huge?”

“We’re built in alt-mode.” Blast Off didn’t want to give a longer answer. If he hadn’t had a headache and had recharged longer, he might have welcomed Vortex’s curiosity about his former home, but he wasn’t in the mood to talk. Let alone to ask Vortex why he was looking at him so weirdly.

Blast Off powered his thrusters and landed on the narrow edge near one of the brackets. There wasn’t much space to step on, and no way to secure himself.

Vortex landed next to him, and tested the edge. “You could transform and sit on this thing?” he suggested.

“No,” Blast Off shook his head. “There’s not enough space. I would damage myself. We need to grip tight when it starts moving.”

“Heh,” Vortex uttered, but Blast Off couldn’t tell if it was due to displeasure or anticipation.

Leaning with his back against a bracket, Blast Off grabbed whatever he could reach for support. Vortex did the same, and only after the heliformer stopped fidgeting, the shuttle spoke up. “Start moving the sledge to Ring Beta, HEX.”

“Request Denied. Please note: the construction sledges are not for personnel transport.”

“I know, HEX,” Blast Off grumbled, “Activate override. Do it anyway.”

“Understood. Moving construction sledge 3-a5 to the nearest sector of Ring Beta. Please hold on.”

The sledge jolted as it was freed from the mount, then started accelerating.

Blast Off had to admit that he hadn’t expected it to go so fast. He was pressed against the bracket, and his fingers clenched on the railing-rod. Above him the construction systems passed, and his processor sent a warning of unbalanced pressure inside his lines.

As quickly as it had taken off, the sledge suddenly stopped when it reached the mount, and decelerated from almost full-speed to zero.

It was only by reflex that Blast Off let go and activated his thrusters as he was flung forward. Vortex tumbled, and Blast Off grabbed him without thinking, before he could fall into the dark gap between the rails.

Blast Off needed some time to collect himself as he hovered in the air, Vortex hanging limp and giggling softly.

After a moment Blast Off looked for the exit, but none was obvious, and so he landed at the nearest corner.

“Hehehe,” Vortex laughed, swaying and seeming not at all with it as he leant against the wall. For an astrosecond, Blast Off thought he might slide down.

Thankfully the ‘copter kept his feet; Blast Off gave him a moment to recover. “Tell me when you’re ready.”

Vortex nodded, and pushed himself off the wall. He didn’t look very stable, and kept one hand on a pipe for support. “Hehe. That was awesome,” the heliformer said, as cheerfully as if he was drunk. “Can we do that again?”

Blast Off sighed loudly. “You’re impossible.”

“Heh,” the ‘copter giggled again. “I’ll be fine.”

It was beneath Blast Off to react to that. He used the time Vortex was recovering to take a look around. He’d never been in this section, but he knew there had to be a way to the road part of the axis: a ladder, or more stairs, or-

“Hey, look at that.” Vortex was still swaying, but he’d discovered what Blast Off had been looking for.

Next to a large air shaft was a ladder. It didn’t reach to the floor; they’d need to fly up to it. Hopefully the heliformer wouldn’t crash.

“Let’s go,” Blast Off muttered, keeping his concerns to himself.

Some rungs of the ladder were missing, and while Blast Off didn’t mind, the ‘copter below him grumbled a curse more often than not, and any suggestive comments Blast Off might have anticipated failed to appear.

Not that Blast Off was disappointed, this way he had fewer things to be annoyed about.

It was a long way up. Even Blast Off started wondering about it, and had began to doubt their path until he finally heard the hum of HEX’s two hulls moving around the roads.

He knew what to expect when he pushed the hatch open, but the increase in noise was still stunning as it washed over him. The outer road hull rotated. It was a shifting wall made of cables, plates, generators and circuits that slid slowly by, on their long arcing journey around the road and rail ink. The inner road hull was hardly visible. It was a grey shadow above them, a long static pipe.

Where the hatch opened was a line of nothingness that looked bare compared to the loud rolling parts beside it. There, low charged lightning and sparks flashed over parts that remained still, and made lingering near the ladder uninviting.

Blast Off climbed higher. Vortex followed, and the moment he spotted the rotating hull was marked by his surprised uttering, “What the frag?”

The static grey shadow of the inner hull grew as the climbed up, and finally they reached another construction catwalk. It sagged a little when Blast Off stepped on it, and for an astrosecond he’d thought it might break.

Vortex stared at the outer hull, not seemingly bothered by the unevenness of the paths.

“What’s that thing for?” he shouted over the noise.

“The outer road hull,” Blast Off answered equally loud. “To stabilise trains and roads in the axis in case of gravity loss.”

The heliformer looked at him, but Blast Off didn’t question why.

He turned, and carefully started walking on the unstable path. The railing was missing on most parts, and though Blast Off knew he could fly, it still wasn’t comforting. Keeping a hand on the wall for support, he looked for the numbers on the lifting plates as they passed. HEX could lift them to access the road, or provide access from the road to the outer hull if something needed repairing.

Blast Off had hated that kind of work. He’d been always glad when he hadn’t been on the maintenance roster and had instead been scheduled for lab work.

//Are we nearly there yet?// Vortex asked over comm-link, and Blast Off started to get annoyed.

Questions questions questions, all the slagging time.

Sigma Orionis should have given the ‘copter a map of the space station, then he wouldn’t have to start talking every few astroseconds.

Blast Off made a mental note to remember to do that next time. //A few more steps, then we can get out.//

//Uh-huh,// the heliformer muttered unnecessarily.

It was enough for Blast Off, and he sent a request to HEX to open the next panel.

“Affirmative,” HEX’ voice spoke, mingling with the noises. A mere astrosecond later, the wall hissed as long-dormant hinges loosened and the panel was lifted.

Light shone from the roadway, and the noises of the outer hull ebbed when Blast Off stepped through.

Venting deeply, the air got stuck in his intakes when he saw a foreign mech near the door to the laboratories. He had his back to the shuttle, and Blast Off retreated to the maintenance path, almost knocking Vortex off it.

//The frag? What was that for?// Vortex spat, glaring at Blast Off as he pressed his back to the tunnel wall.

//Stay there, we’ve got company.//

The heliformer tipped his head to the side, then craned his neck. Standing at the other side of the opening, he tried to take a look outside.

//How many?// he asked.

//Just one.//

Vortex nodded. //Just saw him, he’s coming closer.//

Blast Off cursed inwardly. He should have scanned the area before having HEX lift the panel.

Muttering could be heard from outside, unintelligible due to the hum. Steps became louder and Blast Off tensed.

Frag, he was too tall to be overlooked, at least Vortex was the same grey as the panels.

The heliformer readied his weapon. The red visor gleamed, and the shuttle suppressed a huff. Military mechs were all the same, he was probably looking forward to-

The stranger stepped into the opening, staring right at Blast Off.

Without thinking, Blast Off shot out his hand, fingers wrapped around the other’s throat, and squeezed tight.

The green optics glowed; a hand fumbled for a weapon, then went limp. The optics flickered, and shortly before they went dark, Blast Off saw Vortex standing close. Energon dripped down from the stranger, and Blast Off let go.

“Urgh”, he uttered, stepping back to see Vortex removing a laser knife.

Blast Off could almost see the grin beneath the ‘copter’s battle mask, his visor was so bright. The dead mech sunk down, causing the unstable walkway to sink even more.

//Let’s get- What are you doing?// Blast Off stepped even further away as Vortex beheaded the mech. The lifeless body tumbled over the edge, and onto the moving hull. It was ripped apart, a scorched smell filling the air.

//Heh, cool,// Vortex said enthusiastically, looking down to where the last pieces of the mech burned up.

Blast Off shook his head //What is it with you and beheading people?// With a few steps, he entered the roadway where the noise wasn’t that loud, and the lights were brighter. Vortex followed, one hand putting something away, the other throwing the head behind him.

//Their memory banks might be useful.//

A condescending huff left Blast Off’s vents, and he switched back to his vocaliser since the background sounds had ebbed. “Don’t spill anything in my alt-mode, or I’ll vent you into space.” They were close to the laboratories now. A huge wall blocked the road covered with a sign, and a ridiculous small door sat in a larger gate.

“You should come up with another threat. You use that one too often,” Vortex replied, way too amused.

“Don’t tempt me to show you why it’s a threat to planet-bounds no matter how often it’s used.” Blast Off’s headache was getting worse again. Vortex looked up. His red visor flashed, but whatever he’d wanted to say was interrupted by the ridiculously tiny door opening.

Vortex moved swiftly; Blast Off’s optical settings couldn’t switch quickly enough to focus on the gun charging. A shot was fired, and the femme in the doorway was flung back by the force.

Blast Off rebooted his optics. “I don’t think you’ll be able to use that personality component,” he commented.

Vortex huffed, still not appearing as if he was bothered by the situation. “Let’s go.”

The heliformer hurried through the door, leaving Blast Off behind.

Stupid ‘copter. He didn’t have any idea where he was meant to be going. And now the intruders knew they were here.

Blast Off sighed when he stepped over the corpse.

Two down, five to go...

Chapter Text

It was almost as though Blast Off wasn’t having any fun. Vortex rolled his optics and made an executive decision: he was going to have enough fun for the both of them.

And HEX was fun. It stank of faded grandeur and the egos of the rising Golden Age. Behind every door was a surprise, and each new vista seemed to awaken something in Blast Off that Vortex was determined to understand even if he had to be vented into space to do it.

It wasn’t like Blast Off would leave him out there.

Probably.

Vortex followed the shuttle, going first or hanging back as Blast Off indicated. Mostly. It was a sound tactic; Onslaught would have been proud. Or maybe just torqued seeing as they were on a space station and not at the reunion schmoozing politicos and trying to raise Onslaught’s profile among the spacegoing classes as planned.

But Vortex was having fun, and he was damned if he was going to let a grumpy partner and the ghost of Heliopause ruin his day.

“Stop,” Blast Off said quietly, putting an arm out to bring Vortex to a halt. “The core is through this door, turn left, then immediately-” But he didn’t get the chance to finish.

Something dropped from the ceiling, all whirling blades and magenta lowlights. It landed on Blast Off’s shoulders, and Vortex launched himself at the pair. He caught the worst of Blast Off’s fist with his shoulder, but he also managed to grab a handful of axle. And got his hand stuck, wedged in the gap between their attacker’s foot and her ankle. She snarled, and went for Blast Off’s optics. The shuttle seized her waist and squeezed, while Vortex fumbled with his knife, trying to jam it anywhere that would hurt.

Footfalls sounded; a shadow turned the corner, and paused to aim. Vortex seized his borrowed pistol and fired wildly at the newcomer, straining to wrench his trapped hand free. Blast Off grunted, and the magenta rotary swore, and a spray of pale fluid caught Vortex in the face.

Blast Off heaved, tearing her from his shoulder. Vortex stumbled, carried with her to the ground. She scrambled for her weapon, her torso torn and twisted, legs twitching in a pool of the same fluid that blurred Vortex’s vision. He aimed a bolt from his pistol directly between her eyes. She froze, her frame locked, and as he fired Vortex finally managed to twist his hand free. He wiped his visor in time to see Blast Off put his foot through a dark mech’s chest.

“Nice,” Vortex commented, and Blast Off gave him a look.

“There’s three more,” he said. “Don’t waste time salvaging the parts, you can come back for them later.”

Vortex pulled a face, and wrenched a sword from the rotary’s stiff hand. There was still a flicker of light in her optics. He gave her an astrosecond, long enough for her to work out exactly what he intended on doing with it, before driving it through a weak point under her optical orbit, straight through her head.

He tugged out the sword, hefting its weight, and went over to the other guy. “Just checking,” he said. “You gotta make sure they’re really dead.”

“Uh-huh,” Blast Off replied. He wiped his foot on a stretch of non-slip matting around what looked like a miniature energon dispenser, before heading for the corridor. “You’re not taking that with you,” he said.

“I sure am.” Vortex swung the sword, liking the way it swished in the air. “I always kinda fancied rotor swords.”

Blast Off didn’t reply, which was a shame, but Vortex fell in beside him, still swishing the sword. Then HEX began to speak, and it was as though Blast Off’s limbs seized.

“Altercation in Axis Maintenance Path Five, Junction A. All available security personnel to attend. Repeat, all available security personnel to Axis Maintenance Path Five, Junction A.”

“Oh no.”

“She finally caught up with events?” Vortex asked, but Blast Off was off again at a quick stride, fists balled, and Vortex had to run to catch up.

“Fatality in Axis Maintenance Path Five, Junction A. Fatality in - Altarcation in Axis alpha to beta maintenance access shaft. All available security personnel to attend. Inappropriate disposal of spare parts detected. Dispose of all waste responsibly. Remember, a clean home is a calm home.”

“What the frag?” Vortex drew level with the shuttle, checking the corridor for signs of life. “Is HEX meant to do that?”

“No,” Blast Off said. “Yes, but no. HEX is malfunctioning.”

“Altercation in core corridor three F, medical personnel to attend. Altercation. A clean home is a calm home.”

They turned a final corner, and Blast Off headed straight for a thick white door with a bright blue cyber-hazard sign right in the middle. Vortex was about to follow, but movement caught his eye and he was firing before he knew exactly what he was firing at. He glanced at Blast Off; the shuttle was plugging into the panel by the door. Then a clatter sounded, and a shout in the distance was followed by a sinister tinny rolling, and Vortex ran.

The explosion was nothing, but Vortex knew those pale grey canisters. “Acid cloud incoming!” he screamed at Blast Off. “Either we get through that door in four astroseconds or we double back. I am not getting caught in this!”

“Hush,” Blast Off snapped, and Vortex swallowed. The cloud was building; already the walls were beginning to steam.

“HEX,” Vortex said. “Increase ventilation in… in this location. Where I am. Now. Away from me!”

“Ventilation has ceased,” HEX replied. “Altercation in core corridor three F. Two casualties, medical personnel to dispose appropriately. Cease hostile activities. Station security has been summoned and your identity has been logged.”

“Frag frag frag.” What was taking Blast Off so long? Two astroseconds and they should already be running. One astrosecond.

The door slid open, and Blast Off dragged Vortex inside. The door locked behind them and Vortex immediately wished that it hadn’t.

“That’s a bomb,” he said, staring straight at the device clamped to HEX’s workings. “That’s a bomb on the cylinder thing. Frag!

Blast Off did not respond. He simply sat down and patched himself into the room’s main console. Vortex took a deep vent, and approached the bomb. A professional job, no visible timer, no handy exposed parts that he could attempt to deactivate with his complete and utter absence of any bomb disposal training.

At least the group who had planted it were trying to escape. That meant the bomb wouldn’t go off until they were at a safe distance. Vortex wished he knew how much time that gave them.

“You need to leave,” Blast Off stated.

“What? No way!”

“This is non negotiable,” the shuttle snapped. “You need to get to the control ring, the way is marked from here. Follow the black arrows along the main pedestrian routes. There’s something I need you to do.”

“And I’m getting through that how?” Vortex waved at the door. “That stuff eats your vents from the inside!”

“It’s localised,” Blast Off said. “Run. I’ll catch you up.”

Vortex glanced at the bomb. He flicked his rotors. “Frag, all right. What do you need me to do?”

“I’ll tell you when you get there,” Blast Off said, and he must have deactivated the lock because the door slid open. “Now go.”

Vortex brought the covers closed on the insides of his vents, and ran.

* * *

As soon as the door closed, Blast Off turned back to the main console.

Connecting with HEX was exhausting. Useless information had to be blocked out while filtering the codes he needed to activate the emergency protocols. It didn’t help that no one had ever showed him what steps needed to be done, and what to do first.

But HEX was already malfunctioning, pinging him constantly as if Blast Off was some sort of maintenance drone.

“Frag,” he hissed, and opened another hatch on the console. His interface panel clicked open, and he plugged himself in, using the hardware for what it was originally intended.

The flood of information was more bearable this way, and his processor slowed down, although only slightly. Focusing on the files popping up in his HUD, Blast Off went through the information, filtered and sent orders to HEX to make Vortex’s way to the command ring easier.

A few times HEX told him random things as the core heated, and Blast Off got a notion of what would make the bomb go off.

He cursed again when the trace of acid gas that had entered the room itched in his vents. A note from his self-repair appeared, and Blast Off shut it down.

His processor didn’t need more information to deal with.

//Where are you?// he commed the ‘copter, and hoped he’d be there soon.

//I have no fragging idea! I’m flying root mode through the tunnel, can’t tell if it’s the right direction, though.//

Why the frag was the ‘copter flying? If he’d taken the route Blast Off had described, he’d have reached an emergency shuttle to the Gamma Ring already. But it was useless to state his annoyance, and he just skimmed further through the protocols.

One of them made Blast Off frown, but he didn’t dwell on why there were measures against flooded areas when nowhere around the space station was there any kind of liquid.

//Ha!// Vortex’s triumphant yell made Blast Off wince. //I see the gate. Where do I go from here?//

//Just do as I said earlier and follow the black arrows. I locked every door other than the ones you need to go through. If you’re in the main control room, go to the large console on the center left and activate the screen.//

Finally Blast Off found what he was looking for. The codes for the worst case scenario protocol were huge, and all he could do from here was wait for Vortex to initiate the necessary steps from the main room.

It would take another few kliks for the heliformer to arrive. Setting a notification for when the main screen was turned on, Blast Off focused on the reason he had remained.

Venting deeply, and regretting it instantly due to the sting on his insides, he accessed HEX’s archives.

Most of the data was also saved in Altihex, and some on the smaller consoles in each lab. But not all of it by far. There was information on the core computer he couldn’t allow to be lost.

There was no time to look for a data crystal, and Blast Off knew what he was about to do was insane. But it wasn’t as if he had any other choice.

He overrode his cache program, and removed the writing-block on his alt-mode hard drive, the drive he usually used for scanner readings and additional data storage during long space trips.

Dismissing the warnings from his HUD, Blast Off started the data transfer from HEX.

It hit him like a meteorite.

Gasping, he offlined his optics. It was so viscerally physical, the push of data through his interface cable and the data cable on his helm. He could sense his hard drives working, the rapid clocking of his processors.

He’d underestimated the strain on his systems, but there was no turning back.

Blast Off’s hands clenched at the edge of the console, bending the metal there. His optics fell on the bomb, his anger focused on the people who had put it there.

It made his optical sensors glow, and under the data flowing through him unfiltered, he sent another download request to HEX.

>>> Affirmative

The writing appeared as an overlay on his HUD, followed by:

>>> Main Control Screen: Activated

* * *

Vortex stumbled through the door and fell into the single seat, the console lighting up in front of him. //I’m in!// he commed Blast Off, and swore as he realised he’d left the rotor sword behind

There was no going back for it now. The door closed by itself, thank Sigma, but damnit he was itchy. From his vents to his joints to his blades, everything was a nasty crawling aggravation. Stupid corrosive gas, and he’d only been inside the cloud for five astroseconds. When he got his hands on the crankshaft who’d flung that cannister, that crankshaft was going to pay.

He heaved clean air, drawing deep and trying to resist the urge to scratch. There wasn’t time. And even if there had been time the barrel of his pistol was too short and chunky, and he didn’t have a long-handled brush. He didn’t have any brush.

“Fragging frag frag.” He drummed his fingers on the console, staring at the welcome screen and waiting for Blast Off to tell him what to do.

That was another irritation. Taking orders from a civilian, like some servitor class cleaning drone. But this was Blast Off’s territory, and Vortex really needed to get out of there alive.

He rubbed his rotors against the seatback, and tapped his feet on the base of the console. “Fraggin hurry up!”

//Input Sigma’s access codes,// Blast Off said. His voice was drowsy over the comm.

//Done,// Vortex said.

//Do it again, it needs double verification.//

Vortex tapped in the code again and hit the activation key. //All right, I’m in. Now what do I do?//

//I’m going to transfer some code,// Blast Off said. //I want you to copy it into the master control box. Do you understand?//

//Copy and paste,// Vortex said stiffly. //No, I’m confused.// He wiggled to increase the friction on his rotors. //Yes I understand! Then what?//

//Then you’re going to activate the emergency protocol.//

//Which protocol?//

//The one in the code,// Blast Off said. He went quiet, and Vortex began to wonder if the gas had got in.

//What does it do?// Vortex prompted. //Blast Off? Blast Off, fraggin’ answer me! What does the protocol do?//

//It breaks HEX into her component parts,// Blast Off said quietly. //It will stop her crashing into Iacon.//

//What? Can’t you just eject the bomb? Can’t HEX just destroy it?//

//HEX is compromised,// Blast Off replied. //There has been… data removal. Corruption.//

//And you’re connected to that? Vector Sigma!//

Blast Off sighed, and the sound send a chill up Vortex’s struts. //Why didn’t you tell me earlier?// Vortex growled. //This thing’s gonna crash into Iacon and you’re sitting there hooked up to it?//

There was no answer. The text flashed up in the lower left corner of the screen, and Vortex brought it over to the terminal.

//Run the code,// Blast Off said.

Vortex vented deep. //You’re sure?//

//Yes,// Blast Off said. //Do it.//

* * *

Connected to HEX, Blast Off could feel the space station working through the emergency protocol with every wire of his frame. Like digital vibrations it rattled through him while more and more input ate away more and more space in his hard drives.

Another warning about his limited hardware showed up in his HUD, flashing between strange images and scrolling text he had no way to process. He ignored all of it, his fingers digging deeper grooves into the metal of the console.

Blast Off sensed his processor and energy core heating, and he hoped it would go back to normal once he disconnected.

Then he fell. Or felt like he did. Stumbling, Blast Off brought the visual back on his HUD.

The ground was shaking.

The Beta Ring broke apart. Spokes and labs and parts of the wheel all disconnected from one another. Shutters closed; zones fragmented.

And HEX’s energy core heated up even more.

Blast Off’s visual input started flickering.

>>> Warning: Unidentified hardware near the core.
>>> Emergency Breakdown in progress
>>> Time until Emergency Breakdown complete: 4.6745 kliks
>>> Hardware near core identified as harmful
>>> Core corruption detected
>>> Hardware near core identified as unremovable
>>> Time until Energy Core burn out: 5.7824 kliks

Blast Off didn’t need a timer to know how long it was before he had to leave.

Having HEX’s full schematics now, he knew which way to go, and how long it would take to reach the nearest emergency hatch and escape the explosion.

If he didn’t underestimate the force of the explosion, of course, but he couldn’t waste any processor power on worrying.

3.0019 kliks until burn up. Blast Off unplugged himself.

His vision was blurry, shorting out more often than not. He fumbled to put his cables away. He was shaking; his head reeled and his legs were weak.

He didn’t have to time to recover. He sprinted through the dregs of the corrosive gas and ran around the core. On the other side, on the floor HEX’s schematics indicated a hatch. It lead down to an air shaft or maintenance shaft, Blast Off couldn’t tell from the image. He only knew that it was big enough to run through.

With his optics flickering, it was as though everything moved. But maybe it did, and the vibrations were real this time as HEX dislodged bit by bit from her axis.

It wasn’t even half a klik, but it seemed so much longer to Blast Off before he opened the hatch and found a ladder leading down. Not bothering with the rungs, he jumped. He hit the walls a few times, a winglet on his upper arm bent, but he didn’t care. It wasn’t painful, at least not compared to the storm inside his helm where his processor tried to keep his own memories separate from the downloaded information.

Blast Off’s legs almost gave in when he hit the ground, and he reached for the wall.

A curse left his vocaliser, and he started running again. The exit wasn’t far.

Blast Off called to the space station. “HEX,” he uttered, breathless, dodging pipes and loose wires. “Initiate manual override for emergency hatch in sector 7-B, beta ring.”

“Affirmative,” HEX’s voice was as calm as always; she didn’t have a reason to panic, she wasn’t sentient, not a real AI. She only pretended to be, just a user interface program to make interaction with the space station more relatable.

It still felt surreal.

Blast Off reached the hatch; he could see space through a small window. He batted a cable away and opened a panel on the wall, revealing a lever. When he started to pull it down, HEX’s voice rang anew.

“Goodbye, Blast Off.”

The shuttle froze.

“Have a safe journey.”

Blast Off stomped on his vocaliser as he wanted to reply, “Thank you”; HEX was malfunctioning, that was all.

It had been ages since he’d last answered the space station, and yet her voice still was so natural, just as natural as replying to her. This realisation was accompanied by an unnerving pain, a sensation deep inside that couldn’t be detected by any scan and caused a feeling as if something was stuck in his intakes.

A part of him didn’t want to leave, even though he knew it would kill him.

Venting deeply, Blast Off muttered, “Farewell, HEX,” and pulled the lever.

* * *

It was only after he had activated the code and the floor began to quake that Vortex realised he had no idea what to do next.

Blast Off was gone, the comm dead. Metal groaned, deep and long; stars spun past the portholes. Gravity failed, cutting Vortex loose, and suddenly his itching vents and rotors were the least of his worries. He wrapped one foot around the stem of his chair, trusting that it was bolted to the floor.

The console showed a diagram of HEX, sedately flashing amber and blue. A rumble like the groaning of a metrotitan vibrated through the room.

“HEX,” Vortex said. “Gimme a progress report.”

No response; he tried again. “HEX, I need a progress report. I need to know where to go now.”

The station howled; the diagram on the screen began to fragment.

“HEX? HEX!” //Blast Off! What the frag am I meant to do?//

In the absence of an answer he leaned forward, and began to type. This was a control module, and Vortex hadn’t met a control module yet that didn’t double as an escape pod. A blaze of orange and blue was Cybertron passing the windows, then the vista turned black again with a scattering of bright white lines. The stars whirled, and Vortex typed, and still HEX made those deep and mournful howling groans.

The next time Cybertron passed the portholes it seemed bigger, closer. Vortex thumped the console beside the keyboard, leaving a dent. HEX remained silent.

Completely silent.

The groaning had stopped, the vibrations too. Slowly, Vortex unhooked his leg and kicked away from the chair. Gravity had well and truly failed. He pressed his face to the nearest porthole, catching the barest glimpse of the central axis broken into three, a blur of grey where the furthest wheel should have been.

He felt like he was tumbling, but the stars were slowing, and the world came around to a vast and curving horizon tinged with steely blue. He clung to the handle of a maintenance hatch, spotting pale grey sticks like snippets of wire spinning out towards the planet.

Catching sight of the hub again, he could see them for spokes, fragments of HEX’s great wheels.

They were getting smaller.

//Blast Off.// He tried his comm. //Come in, Blast Off. Seriously, answer the fraggin comm. Blast Off?// The line hummed; Blast Off did not answer.

The main body of HEX swung again into view. The three pieces were now thousands. Fire lit the largest chunks from within, feeding on trapped air. Blocks of metal floated, the edges half melted and indistinct.

A hum on the edge of hearing changed pitch, and Vortex began to notice it. It came with a rapid thump as the floor rose to meet him and gravity was reasserted.

Escape pod, thank Sigma.

He wasn’t sure which Sigma - Vector or Orionis, either would do. He staggered back to the chair, and stared at the keyboard. Even escape pods had controls.

He hit up Blast Off’s frequency again, and listened to the buzzing. Soft and calm, it could have meant anything.

He rubbed his rotors on the seat, the irritation sneaking back. Glaring at the console, he called up a different frequency. “Security clearance ID 677-803-920 point 559,” he said, and waited for the beep. “I have a message for Admiral Sigma Orionis, designated Urgent and Confidential.” Another beep, notification his call had been connected. “HEX is in pieces, Blast Off’s gone. I’m in the control module and I can’t find the controls.”

He stopped. Blast Off was gone. He didn’t like it. He contemplated punching the console again, but once was probably enough.

He thought of the little pockets of blazing atmosphere sealed in the segments of the broken axis. “Three enemy agents escaped, they bombed the core, don’t know their alts. Dunno where they went.” Frag, this was useless. “We got four of them, don’t know where they docked or who they were flying. They didn’t have any distinguishing markings. Pickup required ASAP.” He broke the connection. How was this so hard?

Then the floor began to shake anew. Vortex grabbed a hold of the console as the screen went wild with notifications about access requests and depressurisation of the outer breach and doors opening, and he tried in vain to remember the emergency protocols for getting vented into space.

But he wasn’t vented into space. A chill wind scoured his intakes as a door slid gently open.

Blast Off took a wobbly, swimming step into the room. He looked at Vortex, head tilted as though he was struggling to focus. “Get up,” he said, “we’re leaving.”

“Leaving?” Vortex said, heaving himself over the chair. “What the frag happened to you?” But Blast Off wasn’t listening, and Vortex realised he couldn’t hear himself. Couldn’t hear HEX. The air had gone, whistled out through the door of the escape pod. Out into space.

Vortex gave a voiceless cry as Blast Off grabbed his wrist and hauled, and then he was being vented into space, and it was just as horrible and as cold and as shocking as he remembered. He scrabbled for the shuttle, for the escape pod, for anything, but Blast Off was distant now, spinning away, and Vortex spun his ragged rotors and fired up his root mode thrusters, and managed a tumbling lurch that nearly got him decapitated by a speeding slice of HEX’s dermal plating. Then his thrusters failed, the fuel freezing in his lines, the cold a deeper, crueller burn than even the sting of the poison gas.

He hit a chunk of debris, stars filling his vision, and they might or might not have been real. Then came the bloom of mass shifting, and was that real? It was a fractured explosion, an expansion in violent fractals as cold as starlight, as mesmerising as the disintegration of HEX. An astrosecond passed like an aeon, and it was all Vortex could see. Another astrosecond and Blast Off had transformed around him, and Vortex was suddenly inside him, strutless and aching, plastered to the wall with the force of the shuttle’s acceleration.

You vented me into space, he tried to say, but he was cold, so very cold, and he couldn't talk. He couldn’t even access his comms.

All he could do was hurt, and wait for it to be over.

* * *

Chapter Text

Blast Off’s systems booted slowly. His processor was sluggish, thoughts difficult to form and sticky like glue.

He lay on something warm; it was comfortable, and he didn’t want to move.

Had he been drinking last night? Was it even morning? What time was it?

He accessed the log of the time he’d gone into recharge. He’d been unconscious for over a day.

In surprise, he booted his optics. They flickered without giving any visual input.

“Hey, look at that, you’re awake,” a familiar voice said, but Blast Off couldn’t quite place it.

Just a few more astroseconds unconscious, or maybe even a klik, he thought drowsily. There was a dull throb in his helm. Unlike a real processor ache it wasn’t unnerving, just confusing.

Eventually, his vision reset, and he realised he was laying on his side. A heliformer sat on a chair at the table near the berth, and Blast Off knew his name.

Why was it so difficult to access his memory banks?

He didn’t bother to realign his visual input, and looked at Vortex who, due to the angle, appeared to be sitting sideways.

The memories returned bit by bit. They were in the hotel on Luna Two, at the reunion, and he had drunk too much high grade. But that had been the day before yesterday. And there were files missing. Or if not missing, they were difficult to locate quickly. There had to be a reason why Blast Off’s hard drives were that fragmented after so long a recharge.

“Urgh,” he uttered as he tried to sit up.

Vortex laughed drily. “Don’t bother. You can stay where you are. We won’t be leaving for a while.”

“Huh?” Blast Off didn’t feel like responding with coherent speech.

The red visor gleamed, rotors started quivering, and there was an edge in Vortex’s voice that Blast Off couldn’t recognise. “The hotel is under quarantine.”

* * *

Vortex craned to look at his rotors in the elevator mirror. White spots told of burnt out sensors, and one of the three was still significantly crumpled. He coughed and tried to itch the back of his throat with his tongue. The hotel had better have an on-site repairs suite. Riding out the quarantine with an itchy everything and a barely conscious shuttle did not appeal.

It didn’t help that no-one seemed to know what the quarantine was for.

He managed to stop scratching his tail rotors as the elevator slowed to a halt and the doors opened. The lobby was deserted. A few staff milled around the desk, and the security guard gave him a quick glare, but the rich and famous obviously had somewhere better to be.

Probably their rooms, watching the media feeds, enjoying room service. Vortex was tempted by room service, but Onslaught would probably charge him for it. After the news about the quarantine, Blast Off had grunted and fallen back into recharge. Vortex had frisked him - carefully - for cash and that wonderful alpha-class credit card the shuttle had flashed when they checked in, but his available compartments yielded only a scuffed data pad and that data crystal he’d been tinkering with before he’d fallen asleep the first time.

Vortex had put them back. The crystal was tempting. It was the first thing Blast Off had called for when they’d arrived filthy and exhausted from their ordeal on HEX. One data crystal, the expensive kind by Mnemotec, with specs Vortex didn’t catch he was so quick to jump into the shower. He’d emerged to find the shuttle lying diagonally over the palatial bed, the crystal plugged into a socket on his arm, and his fingers twitching.

When he’d finished, he’d put the crystal away and rolled onto his back with his arm over his face. Sadly, he hadn’t been up for a repeat of the previous night. Vortex could have done with it; even without the near death experience, it would have distracted him from the abominable itching, but Blast Off wouldn’t so much as pop his panel for him, so he’d given up and turned his attentions to the mini bar until he passed out on the sofa.

He’d found out about the quarantine when he woke up. The media feeds were clogged with it, despite the lack of concrete detail. There was also a text, very brief, from Sigma. Understand both returned safely. Debrief after recharge.

Vortex sauntered over to Reception, clean and itchy, and with his borrowed pistol clipped to the inside of his chest armour. “Can I get directions to the barracks?” he asked. “They are inside the quarantine zone, right?”

The security guard’s antennae pricked up, but she didn’t come over.

“Of course, sir.” The concierge on duty pulled out a plastic flimsy from under the counter. It showed a neat little holo-map of the hotel and all its ancillary amenities. “And yes, the barracks are within the quarantine zone, all hotel amenities are.” He pointed at a glowing section in the main building. “We’re currently here. The fastest route is to exit via this door and take the pedestrian way to here. I take it sir will not be flying today?”

“Nope,” Vortex said. “You got anywhere I could get a new set of blades?”

The concierge’s blue optics widened in sympathy. “I’m afraid not today,” he said. “We have a state of the art boutique for all mechanical and cosmetic work, but our aestheticians were unable to report in to work this morning due to the quarantine.”

“What about a medic?” Vortex said.

“I’m afraid the quarantine has us at something of a disadvantage, sir,” the concierge said. “As a token of good will, I can place a twenty percent discount tag on your account, valid as soon as the boutique is able to re-open. May I have your room number?”

“Six-five-eight,” Vortex replied. He thought of Blast Off in recharge, slow-clocked and not exactly useful at this precise moment. “Have you got any of that shuttle stuff, the high octane energon?” he asked.

“Of course, a full menu is available via room service or in any of our hotel bars, all of which are currently open.”

“Can I get two cubes sent up to my room in, say, half a joor?”

“Of course, sir. Although I’m duty bound to caution all non-space-faring frame types that is it quite-”

“It’s for the shuttle,” Vortex interrupted, and the concierge smiled.

“Will you be adding this to the room’s account?”

The room had an account? “Sure. And throw in a cube of regular high grade with titanium sprinkles. And a sixteen block tray of purple label gels.” He might as well give himself something to look forward to when he got back. He gave the map another quick glance, thanked the concierge - for the benefit of the security guard - and headed for the side door nearest the barracks.

A few dozen vorns earlier, when he had been new to civilian life, Vortex would have been surprised that a hotel came with a military installation, but he’d learnt enough from Onslaught and his parade of former employers not to be surprised at anything where alphas were concerned.

The great and the good, Vortex had learnt, did not travel light. And a fair number of them travelled extremely heavily indeed.

Sigma Orionis was no exception.

The barracks heaved with activity. Shuttles and seekers and angular tall grounders with artillery alts strode through the hallways, each dead set on a mission of their own. There was no milling around, no casual flirtation or raucous gossip. This wasn’t a barracks in peacetime, it was a base under threat of direct attack.

Vortex wove through the throng to the reception console. He signed himself in, feeling a little weird using his real details. The console asked him for his number, and he typed it in. It was strange to register himself - his actual self, not some persona he’d invented - and for the console to display for his confirmation: Gamma Class Airframe Vortex, Rotary Subclass, most recently attached to Offworld Intelligence, Sector Five Five Eight.

Most recently. As though he’d ever think of going back.

“Sir?” A smart looking flyer came to a halt beside him. “I’m Lieutenant Commander Airflow, Admiral Sigma’s adjutant. If you’d follow me.”

If it weren’t for the itching, Vortex would happily have followed her anywhere. “Sure thing,” he said, as she let him through the bombproof glass door into the barracks proper. It was the kind of glass he’d liked to have seen Blast Off put his fist through.

“Admiral Sigma is currently in a meeting,” Lieutenant Commander Airflow informed him. “I can’t say how long she’ll be, you know how these things are.” She plugged herself into the lock to open the next door. “I’ll take you to the rotary rec room, you can wait there.”

“There are rotaries?”

Airflow laughed. “Not many,” she said. “But yes.”

“I need to return a pistol,” Vortex said. “Magnex mark two.”

Airflow nodded and took him on a route past the armoury. She politely averted her gaze as he unclipped his chest and retrieved the gun.

“It’s been fired,” she commented, as she gave it a quick inspection.

“Will there be paperwork?” Vortex asked, and was pleased to see a glimmer of a smile on her dark red face.

“These things happen on the shooting range,” she said, and passed the pistol through a gap in the wall. Vortex couldn’t see who accepted it, but a set of energon bars came down the moment she took her hand away.

Airflow left him in a small, bright room well supplied with the kinds of chairs he couldn’t get his rotors tangled in and an energon dispenser in the corner. Vortex headed straight for it.

Something clattered in the doorway. “Oh hey, pull one for me would you? I’m gasping.”

Vortex glanced back, and grinned. “Quarter, half or full?” he said.

“Full. More than full.” The rotary shuffled his blades - all six of them, three per mount attached to his shoulders - and tipped his chair back on two legs. “Are you with the Senatorial Guard? I don’t think I’ve seen you around.”

Vortex drew a second cube and joined him at the table. “I’m here to see the admiral,” he said. “I’m retired. Vortex, I used to be in intel.”

“Vortex? No way. Frag.” The new rotary shook his head. “I’m Blade Storm, friends call me Stormy. You used to be black ops right? Torture corps?”

“Is that what they’re calling it now?” Vortex grinned and drank a nice long swallow. “Good stuff,” he said. “Not like the sludge they used to feed us.”

“It’s worse in the colonies.” Blade Storm pulled a face. “Could do with some high grade though. How’d you get caught in this mess?”

“Favour to a friend,” Vortex said.

Blade Storm laughed. “Ain’t that always the way?”

“Hey Stormy, save some for us.” A pair of rotaries filed through the door. Gamma class, Kaon-manufacture; grey and red where Vortex was grey and teal, but there was no mistaking the shape of those helms.

“Hey.” Vortex grinned, flicking his rotors. The pair grinned back, giving him the standard scan and appraisal of heliformers of the same build type, then they split, one to the table, the other to the energon dispenser.

“Where’d you find him?” the first asked, elbowing Blade Storm in the side.

“He just wandered in. Vortex, this is Incision and the one balancing a cube on her head is Heliotrope.”

“Hey,” Heliotrope said, planting two cubes on the table. She batted Vortex’s rotors. “The frag happened to you?”

“Too much fun,” Vortex replied. The back of his throat began to itch again, and took a slug of his drink to smother it. “I’m blaming the shuttle.”

Heliotrope sniffed. “What did she do, run into you in alt mode?”

Vortex’s grin widened. “Different shuttle. And nah, he just held on a bit… tight.”

Incision snorted a laugh. “Did he cause the burnout too?” she said. “‘Cause that’d have to be one hell of a hook up.”

“Indirectly,” Vortex said. “You know what they say, don’t frag and brag.”

Heliotrope grabbed a hold of the end of one of Vortex’s blades. “Only said by people doing exactly that.” She leaned closer. “This is acid damage. It’s recent. Open your vents.”

“Kinky.” Blade Storm smirked, and Incision kicked him.

“Flap the closures,” Heliotrope said. “Now lemme take a look at your mouth. Yeah… As ranking medic in this room, I’m saying you need a scrub down, vents and all. I’m not gonna ask how this happened, but it’s still eating you and it’s against my programming to let that go on. How long have you got?”

“Until the admiral gets out of her meeting,” Vortex replied. He turned his rotors slightly, signalling his deference.

Incision shook her head. “So you’ve got all day then.”

* * *

They didn’t replace his rotors. They couldn’t spare the parts, and it wasn’t like he’d be going flying any time soon, what with the quarantine. But they scrubbed his vents and cleansed his paint, and swabbed him with so much medical grade solvent his olfactory sensors stung.

When the admiral found him, he was still sitting under the driers, one of Heliotrope’s tiny drones hooked up to the port on his neck. The drone clicked and buzzed as it ran the final checks, and Sigma pulled over a chair.

The sudden absence of anyone else in the medbay was not lost on Vortex.

“I was hoping Blast Off would be with you,” Sigma said.

“He’s out cold.” Vortex rolled his shoulders as the drone disconnected. It flew off, still clicking to itself. “I think it hit him hard.”

“I can imagine.” Sigma’s cannons shifted, signalling a minute relaxation of her frame. “I’ll need your log of events,” she said, and passed him a datapad. It looked tiny in her hands, and oversized in his. “I’ll also need you to sign a confidentiality agreement. I know it isn’t usual to apply these in retrospect, but this is hardly a usual situation.”

Vortex sat straighter, tugging out his wrist cable and plugging into the pad. “This looks official,” he said.

“HEX has been destroyed,” Sigma said. “The Planetary Defence Grid self-activated for the first time since the War of Emancipation. We had to shoot our own space station out of the sky. It doesn’t get any more official.”

“Frag. You were built there, right?”

Sigma sighed. “We all were. There isn’t a dreadnought class space cruiser that wasn’t constructed on HEX.”

Vortex began to copy his memory files onto the pad. “So what happened,” he said, “after the thing blew up? I sent you that message, then Blast Off turned up and vented us into space, and it got a bit weird after that.” Weird was an understatement. The shock of the cold, the ice crystallising in his lines, the pressure. He had a shaky recollection of arriving back on Luna Two, of making their way into the hotel. Blast Off had done all the talking, and Vortex didn’t know if he’d walked or flown or been carried. He suspected the latter; nothing had felt quite real.

“The defence grid came online,” Sigma said. “But there were glitches. It barely caught the largest pieces before they got close to planetfall. It’s been an embarrassment for the Senate.” Her optics brightened, and Vortex thought he detected a note of bitter amusement in her energy field. “Five vorns now we’ve been pushing for upgrades to the grid. But it’s never a priority, it’s always ‘next session’ or ‘we’ll put it on the agenda for the new budget’, and it never happens. If HEX hadn’t broken up before detonation, chances are we’d have a far larger mess to clear up.”

“Some of it got through?” Vortex asked. He kept his expression suitably sombre as Sigma confirmed impact sites in Iacon’s commercial district, the Towers, the road to Praxus.

“Fifty-two confirmed dead,” she said, “two hundred and four injured. The Senate imposed a media blackout; they can start reporting on it at fifteen hundred joors.”

“That explains why there wasn’t anything on the news,” Vortex said. The files finished copying, and he read through the confidentiality agreement. It was standard, with barely a change in punctuation since the last time he’d had to sign it. He added his glyph and gave the pad back. “Any idea why we’re under quarantine?”

“No,” Sigma replied. “I know it was ordered by the Department for Public Health, but aside from that I’m as much in the dark as you.”

“You don’t sound worried.”

Sigma shook her head. “I’ve been in five quarantines on this moon in the past two vorns. Three times for cosmic rust, once for space leeches, and once because graduates from the Vos Flight Academy decided to play a prank. Frankly, I have bigger things to worry about.”

“For cosmic rust?” Vortex sniffed. “They don’t quarantine for that in Kaon. So it’s not anything to do with HEX?”

“If it was,” Sigma said, “I’d know about it.” She rose to her feet, the muzzles of her cannons only just shy of the ceiling. “You can tell Blast Off my people are out there collecting the remaining debris. The labs have not been compromised.”

“You still want to see him?” Vortex rolled off his seat and shook out his clean and blissfully non-itchy rotor blades.

“This evening,” Sigma said. “I’m chairing the plenary discussion for the long-range space mapping talks, we can speak afterwards.”

Vortex nodded, then, as though it was an afterthought he dug through his hip compartment and brought out the excised memory core. “I took this from one of the guys on HEX. Thought it might be useful. There was another one, but I kinda lost it.”

Sigma nodded, making no move to accept the sparkling clean but rather gruesome gift. “Hand it over to Airflow,” she said. “She’s in the loop. I’ve seen enough of the insides of dead mecha for one day.”

Vortex followed her to the door. “Has something else happened?”

Admiral Sigma paused in the doorway, her face in shadow and her purple optics dim. “You could say that,” she said. “A pair of jets made an attempt on my life. It did not go well for them.”

“Did they have anything to do with HEX?”

Sigma laughed, and the vibrations shook Vortex to the bolts. “Time will tell. We’re analysing their databanks now. You can wait here, Lieutenant Commander Airflow will collect you shortly.”

Chapter Text

“Quarantine,” Blast Off muttered, having to think about the word’s meaning. His optics flickered again. “Why?”

The ‘copter shrugged. “Don’t know. No one really knows, not even Sigma. She says it’s not because of HEX.”

HEX.

More memories returned, saved in odd scattered parts of Blast Off’s hard drive. And finally, even that made sense again.

The space station was destroyed; he’d downloaded too much information and uploaded it to external storage, then deleted it from his databanks again. It hadn’t helped that he’d been hungover. No wonder his memory banks felt like someone had shot a wall with a scattergun.

“Urgh,” he mumbled once again, and rolled onto his front, hiding his face in the soft covering. It was so comfortable, he didn’t want to ever get up.

HEX was gone, and Blast Off was partly responsible for it. And now they wouldn’t even be able to leave the hotel because of some quarantine. It was probably just some beta class who’d brought in cosmic rust, and now everyone had to follow this stupid protocol. Or one of the shuttles had space leeches. Maybe it was Star Reign. Blast Off thought the arrogant aft deserved some space leeches.

“Oh,” Vortex interrupted Blast Off’s train of thought, making him turn his head slightly. His optics flickered when his processor reeled with dizziness. He looked at Vortex with one optic. “And there was an assassination attempt on Sigma Orionis.”

Blast Off’s optics brightened for a moment.

“But she has it under control,” the heliformer added. “It seems she’s used to that.”

Blast Off gave a one sided shrug. It was probably something people in her position had to put up with. He was glad that the attempt had been unsuccessful. Losing two things from his past wasn’t something Blast Off was sure he’d be able to deal with in one day.

“Did you know this hotel has shops?” Vortex began anew. Why was the ‘copter so awake? “It’s like a fragging mall downstairs. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Blast Off heaved air through his side vents. “Why are you talking so much?”

“Because you don’t talk,” Vortex replied. “Hey, don’t go back into recharge. You just woke up again.”

The shuttle gave a displeased grunt. There was no point in staying awake if they weren’t able to leave any time soon.

“I’ve got us some snacks,” Vortex continued, and stood up, rummaging through a pile of bags and small containers on the table. “And some high octane for you.”

High octane might be a reason to stay awake. That and the prospect of a shower.

It was an effort to sit up, and even more so to get to his feet. Blast Off’s equilibrium reset twice until he felt stable enough to move.

“Where are you going?” the ‘copter asked. He was beaming, holding a box in his hand that looked suspiciously like the kind that usually held very expensive gel treats. Blast Off would have to check later if his credit card was still on him.

The shuttle didn’t concern himself with a verbal reply. His voice was still hoarse from the strain on his systems, and this question didn’t need more than a nod towards the shower.

Turning to it, Vortex started moving as well. Now a verbal response was unavoidable.

“And where are you going?” Blast Off wanted to know.

“I thought I’d help you with the filth on your back?” Vortex offered, causing Blast Off to huff.

“Sometimes you shouldn’t bother thinking. Don’t come in, or-”

“You’ll vent me into space?” Vortex completed. “You already did that. Remember?”

Stupid, cocky heliformer, the shuttle thought. “Just don’t come in.” His tone showed more of his tiredness than he intended, but Blast Off was too worn-out to worry about it.

To his surprise Vortex didn’t open the door and he didn’t come in. Blast Off wasn’t sure if he should be disappointed or glad. It wasn’t like he actively disliked the ‘copter, but he needed a moment of peace where he could clean the scorch marks from the explosion off his wings and thrusters. His lower legs hurt, his rear having been caught in the spreading fire when the core had burnt out and had taken down the axis.

Blast Off had only distantly seen the rings separate, spreading as they spun away from the centre. From somewhere shots had been fired; one had almost caught him before he’d been able to find the pod Vortex was in.

Blast Off was in the shower for almost two breems, but the heliformer never showed up.

Maybe he shouldn’t have vented him into space.

But it had been the quickest way to leave, and speed had been very much of the essence.

Leaning his forehead against the tiles of the shower, Blast Off allowed himself to offline his optics. Vortex probably had no idea how narrowly they had escaped, and Blast Off wasn’t sure he wanted to explain it to him. The image of HEX breaking apart, of fires and explosions in the axis stung. He didn’t want to remember it, and yet he knew what he’d done to Vortex had been reckless and dangerous. The rotary was planet bound, and Blast Off hadn’t really been with it, with the shock of the breakup, his drives a mess.

He sighed. Maybe he ought to apologise.

* * *

Temporarily rejected, Vortex slouched on the palatial bed, and waited for the shuttle to be done in the shower. He still felt cold, like a deep and restless ache. He wanted to move, needed to, but he needed rest just as much, to feel the fluids moving in his lines, the pulse of his laser core.

At least he wasn’t itching any more.

When Blast Off finally emerged he looked a little more alive, even with the injury to his wing and lower leg. Vortex would have loved to have reached out and touched him, to have tempted him into an interface, but it was so hard to tell whether he’d be receptive.

Probably not. He’d just seen his home blow up, all those memories scattered to the winds. That had to have an effect on a mech.

“How’s the damage?” Vortex asked.

“I’ll live,” Blast Off replied in that dry way of his. “I’m designed to withstand worse gasses,” he added, and Vortex knew there was a joke in that, but couldn’t bring himself to find it. Blast Off glared at his leg, as though it had done him personal insult. “That, however, will need fixing before I attempt atmospheric re-entry.” He sat heavily on the bed. “Where’s the high octane?”

Vortex’s rotors gave a needy twitch, and he gestured at the table. Blast Off sighed.

“You could say please,” Vortex said with a smirk. “Maybe I’ll fetch if for you.”

The curse the shuttleformer uttered wasn’t particularly intelligible, but it was rather graphic. Vortex waited, lips pursed; he wasn’t having it all his own way. Eventually, the shuttle ground out, “Please would you be so kind as to hand me a cube?”

“Sure thing.” Vortex tried not to let his amusement ring too triumphant, and sprang off the bed. He came back with the cube and perched next to the shuttle, making sure their hands touched as he gave it over.

Blast Off took it with a nod.

“Cheers,” Vortex said, raising his own cube of high grade.

Blast Off didn’t respond. He shuffled up the bed, making himself comfortable with his wide shoulders against the padded backrest. He cupped the high octane with both hands, one leg bent, and drew the scent noisily through his vents.

Yep, he certainly had no lingering problems with acid gas. He seemed to be having no problems with lingering charge either. Unlike Vortex.

“This high octane,” Vortex began, looking for a distraction, “is it some sort of special shuttle high grade?”

Shaking his head, Blast Off mumbled against the rim of the cube. “No.” He drank some more before he explained further. “It’s special distilled energon with additives. It keeps your systems running even when you’re tired.”

“Like a drug?” Vortex asked, shuffling closer.

“Only for planet bounds.” For a moment he looked as though he was about to elaborate, but decided against it. Which, on the one hand, was a shame, because Vortex was rather enjoying the cultured tones of his voice, but on the other hand, he could now watch the shuttle drink. He had nice lips, well-sculpted, tempting.

He was certainly mulling things over, not at all conscious of the way he looked, hardly conscious of Vortex watching him. The shuttle’s gaze settled on his knee, and the ailerons on his uninjured leg clicked. He seemed to startle, lost in thought, and palmed a compartment as though he’d just remembered something. He brought out the data crystal, and gave it some consideration.

Must have been a shuttle thing. Vortex knew he ought to give it more thought, that he could unravel the enigma of the shuttle, of HEX, the crystal. But he couldn’t be bothered. Clean as he was, the ghost of the gas still bit, and he shuddered despite himself, wanting nothing more than to just stop thinking for a while.

Carefully, Blast Off put the crystal on the bedside table, and only then seemed to realise that he was being watched.

“Why are you staring?”

“No reason.” Vortex shrugged. He flexed his damaged rotors, looking for any response.

Blast Off frowned. “You’re not looking at me like that because of nothing.”

Vortex shrugged. “Yeah, maybe.”

Blast Off gave him an expectant look. “And? Why is it then?”

Vortex felt his smirk die. “Are you okay?” he asked.

That took the shuttle off-guard. “What?”

“I went down to that mall thing earlier. There were loads of shuttles there, and everyone’s talking about HEX being destroyed.”

Blast Off’s optics flickered. He wasn’t sure he liked where this was going. “So? Do you want me to talk about what happened to HEX? It’s unnecessary. You were there.” he huffed. “And I’m not everyone.”

Vortex risked edging closer, and tried to meet the shuttle’s gaze. “You’re not sad?”

* * *

Blast Off was taken aback by the question, and merely stared back.

He knew what sad was - an emotional state. He’d learnt the definition ages ago, but it was one of those emotions where he wasn’t sure how it felt.

He was melancholic because his home was gone, but HEX had been out of commission for vorns. Was he unhappy? Depressed? Gloomy? He wasn’t good at analysing himself. Did any of those descriptions even justify designating his psychological state as sad?

He huffed, and cursed the mandatory counseling he’d received on HEX. He wouldn’t have bothered thinking about it if they hadn’t made him do it.

“I don’t know,” he answered truthfully to Vortex question. “I’m tired.” He didn’t just mean his physical state. It wasn’t the same, but hopefully that’d be enough for the heliformer.

“You recharged for more than a day,” Vortex said, “And I got you high octane.”

“That sounds like you want me to do something,” Blast Off grumbled. He really didn’t want to fly anywhere again. But that couldn’t be it since they weren’t allowed to leave the hotel complex.

Well,” Vortex replied, drawing the word out unnecessarily. “You owe me.”

Yet again, Blast Off was taken by surprise. “Owe you? I can’t think of- what are you doing?” His intakes hitched.

Vortex had pinched the intact aileron, fondling the hinges and making Blast Off’s foot twitch.

“Don’t do that,” Blast Off spat, but it lacked bite. This was better than having the ‘copter ask about his mental state.

Vortex looked up, not grinning, but with a gleam in his visor. He emptied his cube and threw it on the ground. It didn’t break, but Blast Off followed with his optics as it tumbled on the floor.

He was aware of Vortex shifting, moving on the berth, but it was only when Vortex straddled his lap that Blast Off looked at him again.

"Blast Off,” Vortex said, placing his arms on the shuttle’s shoulders, “I had a near death experience because of you, and then you vented me into space. Space.”

Blast Off’s optics flickered again, not sure how serious the ‘copter was.

“After what you put me through, I deserve some compensation, don’t you think?” Vortex’s energy field rasped against Blast Off’s. It was rich with sensations Blast Off didn’t know how to describe. The closest concept that came to mind was ‘troubled’.

But Vortex didn’t appear troubled. He merely sat on Blast Off’s thighs, one hand playing with his shoulder plating, while his rotor blades twitched. It wasn’t their usual quivering, rather a jerking at an unsteady pace, but Blast Off doubted there was a difference.

Keeping his energy field to himself, Blast Off stayed quiet, and kept his expression blank. Wordlessly, he put his cube away, and placed one hand on the other’s waist.

“Well, I can offer you a discount on personal transport the next time you-”

“Are you kidding me?” Vortex didn’t sound amused. His mouth a thin line, and the visor bright.

Blast Off allowed himself the tiniest grin. He leant in, and rasped into Vortex’s audial, “I am.”

Whatever Vortex had wanted to say was stuck in his vocaliser. Only a gasp escaped when Blast Off flared his energy field and let it wash over him. The ‘copter’s field withdrew submissively, letting Blast Off take control.

And it wasn’t only Vortex’s energy field that changed. The heliformer shifted his rotors down, his shoulders slumping so very slightly.

Blast Off’s optics roved over the other’s frame, hands on his shoulders, tensing but not forming fists. Vortex’s ventilation slowed to deep heaves of air as if he tried to focus on Blast Off teasing him with his field.

The shuttle kept his hand on the waist, tracing over a transformation seam while he stroked with his other over Vortex’s thigh, to the ‘copter’s aft and further up.

Vortex arched closer to Blast Off as the black fingers caressed the small of his back, and came so very close to the rotor hub without touching it yet.

“Keep your hands where they are,” Blast Off ordered, voice unexpectedly clear of static. “Do you understand?”

Vortex’s intakes gave a hitch before the heliformer nodded, the visor bright, the signature needy.

As though it was a reward, Blast Off stroked down the full length of a rotor, paying more attention to the spots where he knew the functioning sensor clusters were. It earned him the first moan, stifled through Vortex’s clenched jaw.

Blast Off liked the sound as much as he liked to watch Vortex squirm. The heliformer shifted on his lap, and the energy field extended in arousal - only to be pushed back again by Blast Off’s.

Vortex shuddered visibly, but kept quiet, bowing his head a little and seemingly staring at Blast Off’s alt-mode vents.

The shuttle took his time, exploring Vortex’s frame slowly. He wasn’t in a hurry when he teased the rim of his interface panel, or traced over the brackets of his rotors, taking in every one of Vortex’s reactions: the suppressed noises, the shivering metal under his fingers, the frame heating up; it made Blast Off heat up as well.

Vortex’s cooling system switched on, and his head dropped, his chin on his own chest as he shuddered under the measured touches. He scratched over the metal of Blast Off’s shoulders or clutched at them, his grip tightening.

He sighed, a staticky sound almost like a whimper, and Blast Off huffed. “Don’t beg.” Another order, but this time his voice was hoarse, and not from his exhaustion or the trouble they’d gone through.

Vortex whimpered again, rotors quivering.

Blast Off enjoyed the view; he liked Vortex obedient like that. It was a nice distraction from the thoughts he would otherwise have had.

Caressing the edge of a rotor blade, Blast Off leant in again. His large hand over Vortex’s interface panel, he revved his engine, shaking them both with the vibrations. His lip plates brushed against Vortex’s audial. “Open up,” he murmured.

The hatch under his hand moved instantly, clicked, and revealed the hot hardware. Tiny sparks crackled over Blast Off’s fingers from Vortex’s port, giving an impression of just how much Vortex wanted this.

Blast Off didn’t care why, he only welcomed it, that and Vortex’s gasping when he flared his field from his hand and let it penetrate the ‘copter’s interface hardware.

It was obvious in the signature that Vortex wanted a connection - now. And while he kept quiet, his urging was transmitted by the pulses of his field against Blast Off’s. Its frequency had already begun to align with the shuttle’s without them even being connected.

Blast Off waited another few moments before he gave in and took his connector. Plugging in, he stopped his systems from sending the first rush of charge, only allowing himself to do so when the interface was complete.

Vortex moaned, a sound between relief and need as he clutched harder at Blast Off's shoulders. His cooling fans switched on, there was no reason to stop them. They both shuddered, Blast Off's ailerons clicked and EM field flared, wavering in intensity as Vortex took everything he had to give.

Blast Off let his stream run free; he didn't bother to change data, to alter the information. It wasn't worth the trouble. He let his hand rove over Vortex's plating, over his rotor blades and back while the 'copter urged them even closer. Pressed against Blast Off, his cooling systems working, their sound was almost drowned out by the loud rumblings of Blast Off's engine.

The 'copter said something, muttering with his forehead against Blast Off's chest, but it was unintelligible.

Charge flowed, increased and rose. It stimulated sensors and made Blast Off's net sing. It was good, because it made thinking difficult, and that was what he needed.

Then Vortex mumbled something new, uttering a keen that was as troubled as the edge of his field's signature. Blast Off tried to ignore it, but couldn't when the data from Vortex morphed into something precise. Pictures, memories and sensations that were neither pleasant nor arousing: rotor blades itching from corrosive gas, the acid eating its way through plating, killing sensors and opening important wires.

Blast Off's HUD flickered. It wasn't the memory of what had happened on HEX, it was further in the past, something Vortex had suppressed until now. That he didn't want to share it was as obvious as his discomfort, and Blast Off growled. He let go of Vortex's interface panel, and closed his hand around the 'copter's throat, keeping him from uttering more strained noises that weren't caused by pleasure. He altered his stream, too, something he hadn't wanted to do, but needed to now.

His alpha coding worked, breaking through the heliformer’s first layer of protection as Blast Off forced Vortex's memory back, replacing it with his own. Data about pleasure, giving him calm images of being in Cybertron's orbit, enjoying the heat of its dying star rising on the horizon. It tickled on his plating, radiation rich and heavy on the low frequencies.

Vortex relaxed, and shuddered again, and this time it was entirely in pleasure. Their energy mingled to one without warning, and a moan left Blast Off's vocaliser.

The shuttle's engine revved hard, and he got insights that Vortex actually liked being restrained like that, his vocaliser almost crushed by Blast Off's hand.

"I like you forceful," the 'copter had said. Blast Off just hadn't realised how much.

The pictures and impressions of corrosive gas vanished completely; the itching stopped, and Blast Off changed his data once again, causing Vortex to moan loudly when his rotor blades started heating.

Blast Off didn't think about it being too intimate, too soon for them only having interfaced twice before. He knew what he was doing, and Vortex didn't seem to mind at all.

The feedback loop was intense, everything he sent through the connection came back doubled, and Blast Off let loose once again.

Arms were tightly wrapped around Blast Off's neck, and he had to let go of Vortex's throat. It earned him a disappointed whine that was interrupted by a staticky groan when Blast Off clung to the rotor hub.

"Frag," Vortex gasped, shivering on Blast Off's thighs. "Frag."

He didn't want it to stop, but overload was close.

It didn't need much to push Vortex over the edge. Blast Off extended his part of the field, and wrapped his hand around the already dented rotor, squeezing again.

Vortex was loud, fingers digging into a transformation seam on Blast Off's back. He went stiff for the first hot flood of overload. It reached Blast Off only a fraction of an astrosecond later, burning his sensor net with pleasure and the promise of his own climax. He clung to it as long as he could, and then let go.

The moment of overload made his processor stop. Control was lost, and memories that weren't his own crossed his mind. Blast Off didn't know if it was HEX's or Vortex's, and he didn't care as long as they went away again.

They did, along with the waves of climax that faded to post-overload tingles on strained sensors. Plating started to cool, pinging now and then.

Blast Off let it be for a klik before he activated his coolant system; the contrast made him shiver.

The heliformer was slumped against him, rotors still quivering, their energy fields still merged.

Blast Off kept quiet, enjoying the silence as long as it lasted, glad for once that Vortex seemed not to be in the mood to ramble on again.

The dented rotor blade now had another kink. Blast Off huffed, his thumb stroking lazily over its tip as though to make up for it.

Maybe he could convince Onslaught that it had happened on HEX and he wouldn't need to pay for a replacement set. There was also the damage from the acid gas, and that was hardly Blast Off's fault.

Vortex shuffled slightly, turning his head to look at Blast Off's hand on his rotor.

"You smell of medical solvent," Blast Off said, his voice still staticky.

"Hmhmm," the 'copter murmured drowsily, and shuffled closer, hands against the shuttle's hip. "They washed off the corrosive stuff."

"I see."

"That it was on me in the first place was your fault." Vortex didn't sound accusatory, but the next statement did. "And you dented my rotors again."

"You already needed a new set, don't pretend it's so bad." Blast Off stopped stroking the blade, and rested his hand on his leg.

"I didn't mean for you to stop," Vortex said, sighing as their energy fields finally parted. "You're good at it."

Blast Off shook his head minutely, but didn't continue. It didn't seem appropriate, too intimate for now. He also wasn't about to mention Vortex's memory that he'd seen and sensed. It was better to forget about it.

"You ever interfaced with a rotary before?" Vortex sat up a little.

The shuttle's optics flickered. "Why do you ask?"

"Hm." Vortex shrugged. "Like I said, you're good at it." A rotor flicked closer to Blast Off's hand. "And your aft-head of a colleague mentioned something about 'your rotary' having got a repaint."

A frown built on Blast Off's face. He wasn't about to discuss that. "That's none of your business."

"Heh. Just being nosy." Vortex didn't sound satisfied with the answer, but didn't press on further. Instead he changed the topic, and Blast Off was thankful for that. "Did you ever get a repaint?"

The shuttle wasn't sure why that was of interest, but it was far better ground for a conversation if he had to have one. "Only when I needed one," he answered honestly.

Vortex sat up more, raising himself enough to let his optics wander over Blast Off's frame. "You always had these colours? Isn't it some alpha thing to change your colours all the time?"

"Maybe?" Blast Off wasn't very interested in fashion. "I never bothered changing them. It's not like anyone’s going to appreciate your paintjob in space." He shrugged, feeling a little uncomfortable with the topic. He'd never really thought about it before. It was another thing that was probably expected of him that he hadn't cared about. Why was society so difficult? "I like my colours, and the procedure to change them takes ages and it's expensive for us.”

Vortex tilted his head. "Is that so? Why? Because you're so big?"

"That too. We have to be re-painted in alt-mode, so the paint has to be mass-shifting compatible," Blast Off explained, and leant back against the head end of the berth, relaxing as much as he could. "And it needs a special paint to withstand the cold and heat of space and re-entry. And..." Blast Off pondered, he didn't want to go on a monologue about shuttle paint. "So, yeah, it's expensive."

"And?" Vortex asked, a grin on his lips. "You wanted to say something more." He crossed his arms on Blast Off’s chest, and put his chin on them, glancing up.

Of course Blast Off should have known the 'copter would pick up on that. "Not much more, just... it's special paint. If you had it on you for quite a few re-entries, it combines with your plating due to the heat, and if you're dark like me, you'd have to replace that plating in order to get a brighter shade." He shrugged again. "It's not worth the trouble."

"What do you mean it combines with your plating?" Vortex shifted, his energy field flared a little with amusement. "Like, if you get scrubbed off the paint, you have spots that are still purple and brown?"

"Something like that, yes." Blast Off laughed softly at that image, and that it had actually had happened to him once. "I'd look like a Shewhoo then. But it'd take ages until all the paint would come off."

Vortex didn't ask about the alien with the dotted fur, but asked something else instead, smirking. "The paint's that hard, huh?"

Blast Off huffed. He took one of Vortex's hands, and guided it to his upper arm. Their fingers were just below his dented heat shield as he applied enough pressure to make Vortex's metal squeal. Dragging them over his plating, it created an awful sound, but no scratches appeared. Blast Off let go of Vortex's hand. "See. Pretty solid for paint. And now imagine that having to be scrubbed off."

He didn't mention how old his paint on his arms was by now, having become harder with every re-entry. He rather enjoyed Vortex's amazement and the new arousal that came through the interface. Wordlessly, Blast Off returned to trace along a sensor cluster at the tip of the dented rotor.

"So," Vortex said, voice slightly more staticky than before. His fingers touched the plating under Blast Off's alt-mode vents. "I could scratch all your plating and it wouldn’t show up at all?"

"Well," Blast Off replied, drawing out the word as long as Vortex had done before, "probably. But to do that I’d have to allow you to touch me."

Vortex scratched along a transformation seam; Blast Off let his engine rumble.

"You want me to stop?" Vortex dared with a broad grin. “Make me.”

Blast Off lifted Vortex off him, and threw him on his back on the berth. The 'copter uttered a surprised hiss, but moaned and arched up as soon as Blast Off leant over him, pinning Vortex’s hands above his head.

Blast Off leant low, growling against Vortex's audial. "No touching, and no talking this time, or I'm going to leave you here as a quivering mess alone on the bed."

He sent a rush of charge through the connection, and Vortex nodded with a groan.

Chapter Text

It was their first trip outside their room, and they had gone shopping.

Vortex curled his lip at a garish jumble of plastic and metal sitting centre stage in a window of the one of the hotel’s many shops. “What the frag is that?”

“How should I know?” Blast Off replied, not really looking. He was scanning the merchandise with an expression of detached disgust. It was the same expression he’d worn for the last breem, ever since they’d abandoned the warmth of their shared bed for the delights of the hotel mall.

It was fascinating.

Blast Off shopped like he smashed through exploding space stations: purposefully and with a deep sense of regret. Vortex tagged along, smiling to himself as the shuttle made abrupt demands of the staff, refused to touch anything on open display, and sniffed at the prices as though they were a personal affront.

It was almost as entertaining as the look on the security guard’s face as Vortex had wandered side by side with Blast Off through reception. He’d made no effort to hide his damaged rotors, and would have loved to know what the guard whispered to her partner-in-crime-prevention. Whatever it was, he’d looked scandalised.

Vortex found that he liked making high class people look scandalised. It wasn’t exactly hard with alphas or the elite servitors they employed.

He followed Blast Off into yet another shop, trailing his fingers through baskets of alien imports, fingering trinkets and testing the textures of the strange offworld materials. The shop assistant gave him an unhappy look, but said nothing, presumably because they were in the presence of Money.

Not that Money had bought anything yet. Vortex watched Blast Off limp to the counter. He was hiding it well, but irritation was clear in his voice as he barked at the assistant, “Ceramic paint, Nebuchrome, shade two five four.”

The assistant tore his optics from Vortex, his throat wobbling as he swallowed.

“Do I need to repeat myself?” Blast Off growled.

“No, sir. Right away, sir. Which size does sir require?”

Blast Off sighed. “What sizes do you have?”

Vortex smirked and dunked his whole hand in a large pot of globular gel pouches. Some kind of special grade lubricant or something, he had no idea. Something organic, judging by the aroma, but the packets were fun to run his fingers through.

Next up was a heap of alien furs, arranged artfully on a stand until Vortex tugged one out to see if they were red stripes on a blue background or blue stripes on red. He heard Blast Off mutter something about looking with his eyes and not with his hands, by which point he’d moved on to a rack of polishing cloths which varied in price from expensive to ridiculous.

“May I help you?” a voice chirped from the other side of the cloths. A head appeared, a rounded helm with large blue optics.

“Nope,” Vortex replied, testing the weight of a cloth that cost more than his cockpit glass. “Just browsing.”

“Of course. But perhaps sir would be interested in our range of holo-illusion paint. It provides a flawless finish over any damage.”

“Nope.”

“Ah, then perhaps a stylish alt-mode accessory cover? We can custom make covers to fit all sizes of rotor blade, and match to your exact shade of paint or metal.”

Vortex picked up the most expensive cloth, trying to work out if he could feel a difference between that and least costly option. He turned his smirk on the assistant. “Do you really think I’m gonna buy a rotor cozy?”

Satisfying as it was to give people that scandalised look, it was more fun to do it in Blast Off’s direct line of sight. Vortex abandoned the assistant and the heap of over-priced chamois leathers and went to the counter. “Does this mean I get to paint you later?” he purred, drawing stares from everyone within hearing.

“Not any more,” Blast Off replied. He drummed his fingers on the countertop. Vortex stepped closer, bringing their energy fields into contact.

“Really?” Vortex said. “Cause I have very steady hands, and I can-” His comm beeped, the caller ID flashing on his viewscreen. “I gotta take this, I’ll catch you up.” He left the shop at a fast walk, hitting reply on the panel on his arm. “Receiving,” he said. “Gimme a sec, it’s all kinds of noisy in here, and I can’t get my comm to divert to internal.”

“You’re damaged?” Onslaught asked.

“A bit. It was like the rebel base on Tapon Three all over again,” Vortex replied. “Only without the dissolving feet.”

“Pleasant,” Onslaught commented. “Where is Blast Off?”

“Shopping.” Vortex steered himself past belligerent clusters of alpha caste mecha and their hangers on, until he reached the exit closest to the military base. It was locked. “Frag.” He turned on his heel, heading back to reception and the main entrance.

“That was quite a light show last night,” Onslaught commented. “Were you involved?”

“At the request of our mutual friend,” Vortex replied. “You know that ‘any assistance’ thing you offered? She took you up on it.”

“How is she?”

Vortex gave the little hologram a smile. “She’s good. She says hi. Gonna put you on hold.” He didn’t, but he pretended to press the button for the benefit of his favourite guard standing at the exit and her three shiny friends. She stepped aside to let Vortex past without so much as a word.

He tried diverting Onslaught to internal comm again, and this time it worked. //All right,// he said, //we can talk.//

//What happened?// Onslaught said. //I hear HEX has been destroyed and you’re under quarantine.//

//Yeah,// Vortex said, //pretty much. Apparently there’s some political scrap so Sigma couldn’t act directly. Someone got in, they stole some data, then started up the core again and put a bomb on it. Long story, but I got gassed and the shuttle vented me into space. I’m expecting an ‘imminent threat of death’ bonus for this.//

//I expect you are,// Onslaught said. //What did she say about Altihex?//

//She’ll see what she can do,// Vortex said. //She’s not exactly on friendly terms with the Senate right now.//

Onslaught hummed, amused. //Oh,// he said, //I have a feeling her star is in the ascendent.//

//How come?//

//Turn on the news,// Onslaught said. //She’s the saviour of Cybertron. Her quick thinking in the face of a terrorist attack saved Iacon from virtual destruction. All the channels are talking about it.//

Vortex snickered. He found himself a stretch of the hotel wall not bathed in neon light to lean against. //Funny how things turn out,// he commented. The hotel grounds were quiet, the crystal sculptures brightly lit but void of admirers, and the winding paths were empty. It was a contrast to the road down to the barracks. A small convoy had assembled, and the yard beyond the gate was heaving.

//It is,// Onslaught agreed. //Has anyone said how long it’s likely to be before the quarantine is lifted? You’re due to meet Swindle at fifteen hundred joors tomorrow on Luna One. He’s anxious that you keep your rendez-vous.//

//We’ll be there,// Vortex said. //We’re gonna need to get Blast Off to a repair shop before we go planetside again though. He’s got some scrap wrong with his re-entry thing. I dunno.//

//I’ll arrange it with Swindle,// Onslaught said. //We’ll have a repair team waiting for you at the depot.//

//I’ll need new blades too.//

//I never would have guessed. By the way, Sitrep has finished her analysis of the storage device you sent us.//

//Yeah?// Vortex pushed out of the shadows, taking the path to the base. Something was happening in the barracks yard, a fight perhaps. He couldn’t quite see.

//Undercarriage wasn’t exactly in the know,// Onslaught said. //But he has given us two more names - Flame’s assistants, Cauter and Metacade, I’m sending their descriptions now. And he’s given us Flame’s last known location. Presuming you’re still at the hotel, it’s about half a mechanomile away.//

//That would’a been useful yesterday.// Vortex took a look at the descriptions of Cauter and Metacade. //With the quarantine they may as well be in Praxus. Are we any closer to finding out what Flame’s doing for Solarstorm?//

//Sitrep has made copies of Undercarriage’s view of the plans he saw. Engineering is working on it.//

//Hmm.// Vortex pulled close to the hotel again, zooming in on the yard. There was definitely a fight, but he didn’t recognise anyone involved. //You got anything on the quarantine?// he said.

//Nothing,// Onslaught replied. //If it isn’t lifted by midday tomorrow, I want you to bribe your way out. I won’t have an upper caste panic about cosmic rust disrupt my business.//

//I bet it’s space leeches,// Vortex said. //Who the frag quarantines for rust?// Gunfire sounded, and the fight in the barracks yard was over. It gave Vortex a brief attack of nostalgia; someone was going to be sore when they woke up. //You got anything else for Sigma?//

//Not at present,// Onslaught said. //You did well. I expect you to stop by the office tomorrow evening as soon as you get in. Both of you.//

//We might not get there til late.// Vortex rolled his optics as the soldier - almost certainly an extremely drunk soldier with faulty logic chips - heaved themself off the ground and started throwing punches again.

//I’ll wait,// Onslaught said. //Now, unless there’s anything else?//

//Not yet,// Vortex said. //I’ll call you if something comes up.// He cut the comm, and settled back to watch the fight.

* * *

It was beneath Blast Off to watch the copter leave. He was glad to be alone, and hoped it meant people would stop staring at him.

Eventually the shop assistant came back, with four cans of paint in different sizes.

“Sir, we have these sizes of-”

“I’ll take the second smallest one,” Blast Off interrupted the mech, startling him again. He gave a hasty nod in return. Everything was less aggravating now the ‘copter wasn’t touching all the things he shouldn’t.

At this point Blast Off was relieved that he’d clarified the rules earlier. He didn’t think he could cope with being groped like that all the time.

Not that Vortex would be interested in him any more when this ordeal was over. He was convenient, that was all.

“Can I help you with anything else?” the sales mech interrupted Blast Off’s train of thought.

“Coolant. Quality 9.8, pure white with E85-SR2 compatibility.”

“I’m afraid all our coolant is sold out. We’re short on basic supplies due to the quarantine, and there’s been a great demand for coolant of all kinds in the last few joors.” The mech shifted uncomfortably, but Blast Off didn’t care.

“Where can I get coolant then?”

“I, well,” the assistant stammered, testing the shuttle’s patience once again. “A little further down is a store with repair supplies. They might still have coolant, but I can’t promise they’ll have the special kind sir needs.”

Blast Off huffed, making his impatience audible. He gave the briefest nod, paid and left. There was no use in wasting more words.

The mall sector was oddly empty. It had been busier before Blast Off and Vortex had entered the store - or at least Blast Off had thought. He wasn’t sure any more, and it didn’t matter.

Maybe it meant he’d get the things he needed quickly and without further interruption due to limited supplies and touchy-feely heliformers.

When he entered the next store, which looked less exquisite and alpha class, he was greeted by someone yelling at the person behind the counter.

"But I told you I need it!" There was a flyer in front. It wasn't a shuttle, and Blast Off frowned at why he appeared so desperate.

"I'm sorry.” The assistant sighed. Her own wings wilted. “We don't have any cooling boards. We have chemical cooling bags and pads, but no external cooling sources that require power. Did you ask in other stores?"

"I did!" the flyer said, burying his face in his hands. “They told me to come here!”

Great, Blast Off thought. He could have done without this display of drama.

Suppressing his engine from revving, Blast Off tried not to listen to the conversation, and looked over the tools on the shelf. He found a tiny welder, and a basic tool set. He'd ask for them from storage. Who knew who’d had them in their hands when they lay around in the open like that?

Blast Off huffed. He might doubt average people were as bad about touching everything as the 'copter, but the hotel was under quarantine. Better to avoid any risk of getting it, whatever it was. He could certainly do without cosmic rust, especially after having been almost blown up not that long ago.

The desperate flyer spoke more quietly now, and agreed to take a few cooling pads. He left in a hurry.

The assistant vented air deeply.

Counting to ten, Blast Off gave her a moment. He couldn't deal with overwhelmed sales personnel, and hoped that if he gave her time she could serve him without any conversation or interruptions.

He approached the counter, causing her to look up.

"How can I help you?" She smiled, appearing less formal than the shop assistants in most of the stores Blast Off had visited.

"I need the small welder and the FL-5 tool set with original packaging."

"I'll have to get it from the storage room. Anything else?" She seemed less troubled now, but it changed as soon as Blast Off added, "I need quality 9.8 Coolant."

"Oh my," she muttered, her optics dimmed, and her intakes vented loudly in a sigh. "I'm sorry. We have only quality 4.8.62 coolant left. Are you overheating, too?"

Blast Off was taken aback. He resisted snapping that it was none of her business, and settled to a less annoyed answer. She had nice wings; they were blue. "I had a rough time, and need to refill my systems."

"I see." She smiled again. "I'm happy to hear that. Well, the not overheating part. I’m sorry about your rough time.” She spoke quickly, laughing softly to herself. “As you’ve probably heard, there's a huge need for coolant, and lots of people run in here and want it ASAP. I think the quarantine is making them panic. I’m glad I’m not cooped up in a hotel room like most of them." Shrugging, her wings moving slightly, she tilted her head. "But anyway, I’m sorry for rattling on. The hotel bar often uses high quality coolant as additives for their drinks. I can ask one of the barkeepers and come back to you later, if you like? I'll just need your frequency."

It was a surprising offer, but Blast Off needed the coolant. He wouldn't stop functioning without it, but re-entry would be less pleasant. He nodded. "Sure, why not." He pinged her on an open channel.

"I'm Haze," she replied as she pinged him with her own frequency in return.

"Blast Off."

She gave a brighter smile, and turned. "Just getting your things, I'll be back in an astrosec." Her wings flicked when she left through the door behind the counter, and Blast Off's optics flickered.

He wasn't sure what had just happened, but at least he'd get his coolant later.

He hoped.

* * *

The last part of the panel had already begun by the time Blast Off entered the conference hall.

Sitting down at an empty table in the rear corner he half listened to the people on stage.

He knew enough about long-range star mapping. He'd collected information for enough star sheets in his early life, and was glad that he didn't need to do it any more. As much as he'd loved to explore the distant regions of space, he'd seen enough that he was happy to fly only to areas where he knew what to expect.

Well, mostly. Space never was a safe place, even if you had a map that had 98% of the details noted.

With a sigh, Blast Off helped himself to some snacks from the plate in the middle of the table. An energon stick, solid fuel with a sweet taste. It was almost too sweet for him, but nibbling was acceptable.

He ignored a movement next to him. He watched through his peripheral vision as a yellow shuttle sat much too close for his tastes. He bit harder on the stick.

"Hello, Blast Off," Star Reign said, causing him to tense.

He refused to look at the intruder, and muttered, "Star Reign," to show how little he welcomed the other.

"You look battered," the yellow mech stated in a neutral voice. It didn't mean much for Star Reign, since he was good at pretending, always with a plan ticking away in the back of his processor, working out how he could question Blast Off's integrity.

It had always been like that. When Blast Off had been much younger, when they'd still been on HEX, he'd often asked himself what Star Reign had against him.

"What do you want?" Blast Off asked bluntly, keeping his optics on the stage.

Star Reign was quiet for a moment. Eventually he said softly, “HEX is gone.”

Blast Off nodded, unsure how else to react. Did the other know something about his involvement? Why the comment about his battered leg? He frowned, and hoped his visor hid his optics well enough it wouldn't be seen.

"Even you feel something, don’t you?" Star Reign continued in a calm voice. It lacked its usual bite, but Blast Off still didn’t know how to respond. He just nodded again, optics dimming as he thought of the wreck of his former home.

"It's weird, isn't it? We lived there for so long. To be honest, I always hoped they'd bring HEX back into commision one day."

Blast Off raised an optical ridge at that. He didn't believe the mech. He'd always been scheming, always manipulated people, facts and data to get the most for himself, to get into higher and better-paid positions. It worked better when surrounded by more influential people, and those were in Altihex on-planet.

"I heard about the news too late," Star Reign added, "or I'd have helped with securing the pods, too."

At this, Blast Off turned. "What do you mean?"

"Your leg. I'm sorry you got hurt during the salvage."

Blast Off couldn't resist the disapproving huff. "Stop pretending as if you care. If you'd wanted to help, you would have come outside even if it was almost too late. You only care about your finish." He turned his gaze back to the stage, where Sigma Orionis was asking a professional star mapping programmer his opinion.

"You really think that?" Star Reign didn't sound surprised. "Why do you hate me so much?"

Blast Off clenched his hand to a fist. He wouldn't let himself be goaded into an argument whose only purpose was to make him make a fool of himself. He answered coldly. "I don't. You know I'm incapable of doing that. If you really think I’m capable of hating you, you're more full of yourself than I thought."

Star Reign was thankfully quiet after that. His shoulders appeared slumped, but that was likely just show. He was probably already planning how he could use HEX's disaster to benefit himself.

The discussion on stage was opened for the audience to ask questions, and finally the panel ended.

Blast Off remained at the table, and watched people talk, or leave to gather in groups around one of the speakers. Sigma Orionis was talking to a grounder, and Blast Off got another energon stick. This was going to take a while.

"It was nice to see you," Star Reign said as he stood up, "even if you don't believe me." He gave a nod, and walked to a group of people at whose center was an investor for Altihex's back-up star sheets.

Pretentious aft-head, Blast Off thought, and took out a datapad, waiting for Orionis to have time.

It didn't take as long as he expected. The hall slowly emptied; hotel personnel started cleaning the tables, but didn't comment on Blast Off remaining seated.

"What are you reading?" Sigma Orionis asked, making Blast Off look up in surprise.

They were the only people left in the big room; every door was closed, and the plate with snacks on Blast Off's table was the only one left.

"The news from the Altihex diplomacy department," Blast Off answered honestly. One of his batch mates had sent him an article on newly formed alliances a while ago.

Orionis nodded, and sat down. "Where's Vortex?"

Blast Off shook his head. "I don't know. He ran off earlier. Why do you want to know?"

"Just asking. It's good that I can talk to you alone for a moment."

Offlining the datapad, Blast Off leant back. "About?"

Dreadnaught class vents heaved air loudly, and the tiniest smile formed on Sigma's lip plates. She was exhausted, so much that even Blast Off couldn't help but notice it.

"Are you okay?" he asked, and meant it; she was one of the very few people he called friend.

"I could be better. It's just, there’s so much going on right now." She took a snack from the plate. "First HEX, then the quarantine, and on top of all that, the organisers of the convention refused to alter the schedule." She shrugged. "And now my best troops are getting cabin fever and picking fights with each other. I could do with a break."

Blast Off sighed, he could relate.

"Whatever. You've done enough and don't need to hear any of that." Sigma Orionis reached again for the snacks. "I wanted to thank you."

"What for?"

"You endangered your life on HEX. If you hadn't initiated the emergency break-up, Iacon would have been destroyed."

Blast Off shrugged, frowning. "Don't thank me for something like that."

"I knew you'd say that." Orionis leant her arms on her thighs, lowering herself. Her voice was quieter when she continued. "Have you seen the news? They’re celebrating me as their hero."

Blast Off allowed himself a grin. "Does it mean you'll get funding for the projects you've fought for all those vorns?"

"I hope so. I just want to know if you're okay with it. I didn't do much. Nothing other than sending you and Vortex to HEX and organising the cleanup."

Blast Off had almost to laugh at that. "Are you asking me if I want the publicity instead? Because I'm such a exciting, shining hero-figure." Even during his days with the Institute, he’d disliked official and public events for things he'd discovered. Some of Altihex’s museums displayed artifacts Blast Off had brought with him, and he still fought them to take down his name as a contributor.

Sigma Orionis most certainly knew that. She straightened herself, and laughed. "I thought you'd say that, I just wanted to be sure."

"Do you need a copy of my memory files?" Blast Off asked, but to his surprise, Sigma Orionis shook her head.

"I have Vortex's. I skimmed through them. We have pictures of the perpetrators, and the bomb mechanism."

Blast Off nodded, and let her continue.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to keep you out of this completely if you don't want the fame. I've made Vortex sign a confidentiality agreement."

"And you want me to sign one, too?"

She shook her head. "No. Like I said, I want to keep you out of this, with no evidence that you've been involved in any way."

Blast Off understood, and was thankful. "Thank you. Me and Altihex didn't part on the best of terms." Who knew what would happen if the wrong people found out the wrong things. He didn't expect them to strip him from his shuttle alt-mode, but one could never know. He didn't want to risk anything. That was when he remembered Star Reign's statement. "Star Reign thinks I helped with salvaging HEX’s remnants."

Orionis nodded. "Thank you for the information. But I don't think he'll say anything about it. It would put him in a bad light if a former employee of the Institute helped with that and he, in his position, did not." She huffed, amused.

"You have a point," Blast Off said. "Speaking of the remnants. How did it go? Did anything-"

"The laboratories are all safe, thanks to you."

"Thank Sigma", Blast Off muttered, causing Orionis to grin.

"I take it Vortex hasn't told you, then? The labs weren't compromised and they're in a stable orbit. Nothing got out. I'm hoping Alitex will find a solution to keep them off-planet."

"Good." Blast Off relaxed a little at the news. He knew what was stored in some of them, and he'd recharge better if they stayed in space. He took another stick from the plate - it was the last one - and nibbled absent-mindedly on it. Sigma Orionis sat opposite him, and both enjoyed the short moment of silence.

They looked up at a creak when one of the doors opened, and a familiar mech stepped in.

"Hah, found you," Vortex said with a grin.

Blast Off sighed. The silence never lasted long enough.

Chapter Text

“Don’t look so pleased to see me,” Vortex said cheerfully. He grabbed a chair, giving the empty snack tray a disappointed look as he sat. “I think I know what the quarantine’s about.”

“Really?” Sigma Orionis was instantly engaged. Blast Off less so; he raised an optical ridge and said nothing.

“Yeah.” Vortex leaned in. “I think it’s a virus.”

“What did you see?” Sigma asked.

“Guys fighting,” Vortex said. “Down at the barracks. Not like a regular fight like you get all the time with tanks, this was serious fighting, like these guys would not stay down. They had to put them in stasis. I’ve seen it before with logic inhibitor bugs.” He noted a tightening of the line of Sigma’s lips. “It’s not the first case?” he said.

She shook her head. “And you think it’s a logic inhibitor virus?”

“Either that or mark twelve circuit speeders,” Vortex said. “Some of them had this glitch where they enhance aggression. But they went obsolete last vorn.”

Blast Off glanced up at the ceiling as though the mosaic of stars and starships could relieve him from the embarrassment of his criminal connections. Sigma indicated politely that Vortex should continue, then abruptly motioned for silence. “Sigma receiving,” she said, a tiny hologram appearing in front of her optics, projected from a mount on her helm.

“Lieutenant Commander Airflow reporting,” a calm female voice stated. “This is a code four five two. I’m sorry to disturb you, Admiral, but we need you downstairs.”

“Understood.” Sigma rose like an Omega Guardian, the mosaic scattering light like stars over the dark expanse of her shoulders. “You’ll have to excuse me,” she said, nodding to them both in turn before taking her leave.

Vortex propped his feet on her chair, and whistled through his vents.

“If you’re going to make a lewd comment,” Blast Off growled.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Vortex said. “I think we need to keep informed about what’s going on down at the barracks though. Code four five two means friendly fire with casualties. If the virus or whatever spreads, we might need a contingency plan for getting to Swindle on time.”

“Ah yes, Swindle.”

“Ons has booked a repair team to meet us there. They can deal with your… uh, re-entry problem thing.” Vortex poked the empty snack dish, making it wobble. “All right,” he said, “you need a drink. More importantly, I need a drink. Lots of drinks. Get up, we’re going to the bar.”

* * *

Vortex leaned his back against the bar, half listening to Blast Off attempt to negotiate with the bartender.

“No,” he said, “I need quality nine point eight, pure white, not pure white with titanium sprinkles.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the bartender replied. “I only have what I need to mix the drinks. Why don’t you try downstairs at the-”

“I’ve already tried the mall,” Blast Off said so cooly that Vortex imagined frost glittering in the air. “A femme told me to try here. I need coolant with E85-SR2 compatibility.”

“You say you need coolant?” a new voice cut in. “Are you… are you feeling OK?”

Vortex glanced over, and took a long sip of his drink. Sadly Blast Off didn’t punch the interloper, but he didn’t reply either.

“I’m very sorry for the intrusion,” the newcomer said. He was sleek, small, a compact flight mode with a visor over his bright blue optics. No visible weapons, but he had empty mounts on his arms, civilian grade.

“I don’t know the compatibility,” the bartender said to Blast Off. “But this is all the pure white we have.”

“It will have to do.” Blast Off sighed. “Kindly decant it into a proper drinking receptacle, unless you wish me to be seen drinking from a keg in your bar?”

“Coming right up, sir!”

The small flyer edged closer. “I’m a doctor,” he said. “Designation Joist, from Altihex Deep space Medical Research Facility. I really don’t intend any disrespect, but are you having difficulty with cooling?”

Finally, Blast Off turned on him. “No,” he rumbled.

Vortex rounded the bulk of the shuttle, putting a barrier between Blast Off and the doctor. “He was in space before the quarantine,” he said. “You know how shuttles use up like a lake of coolant on re-entry and scrap. By the time he got up today we were under quarantine and the shops downstairs had sold out.” That much he’d grasped from Blast Off’s terse conversation with the bartender. That, and the involvement of some mystery femme who had apparently promised him a top-up in the bar.

The doctor visibly relaxed, his wings settling lower and a smile returning to his face. “Ah, I see. I just thought… Never mind, it’s all fine. What are you having?”

“Triple distilled Vosian with all the additives, thanks,” Vortex said, throwing back the rest of his current glass. “I’m Vortex, I’m in consulting.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Joist replied. “I will admit, we don’t see many heliformers at this kind of conference.”

“I wonder why,” Blast Off commented.

Vortex decided it was his turn to ignore the shuttle. “What’s the thing about coolant?” he asked.

Joist shook his head. “Oh it’s nothing, I’m sure.” He hailed a bartender and made his order. “What did you think of the final panel?”

“I kinda missed it,” Vortex said. “Didn’t sound like nothing. You look worried, doc.”

Giving a furtive glance at the mechs to either side, Joist leaned forward. “I think we might be suffering a medical emergency,” he said. “But don’t say anything! I don’t want to create a panic.”

“Like what?” Vortex said. “An overheating virus?”

“You shouldn’t make light of it,” Joist said. “Overheating can be fatal. Oh my, your rotor blade!”

“It’s nothing.” Vortex swapped his empty glass for his fresh drink. “Do you think it is an overheating virus?”

“No,” Joist said, craning to see the damage. “Overheating is just a symptom. What exactly happened to you?”

“He did.” Vortex jerked a thumb at Blast Off, smirking as the doctor sputtered.

Blast Off thunked his glass on the bar and drained his third full tumbler of coolant. He grabbed a fourth glass and what Vortex was pretty certain was a high grade chaser, and stalked off towards the empty tables on the far side of the room.

“Don’t worry,” Vortex said, “it was all good fun.” He had turned to offer the blade for examination when there was a shriek and a clatter from the next room over. Joist jumped, his wings springing up. On the other side of the bar, all three bartenders froze.

Vortex sipped his drink, enjoying the hush. A few of the people closer to the door edged over to investigate, but no-one actually left. After a long quiet moment, Vortex’s curiosity outgrew his desire to be as close as possible to the high grade.

“Back soon,” he told Joist, and took his drink with him.

The next room was a combination lounge and ante-chamber. Two doors opened directly on the conference suites, and a large double door led to the outer hallway. All were closed, and a small bot of indeterminate alt mode sat huddled on the closest chair, panting and hugging himself. A tetrajet knelt on the floor beside him, and a shuttle stood close by, arms folded and optics narrowed.

Vortex sighed; they could at least have been fighting.

“What’s happening?” Joist caught up, peering around him although there was plenty of space to get by. When he saw it was nothing exciting he straightened up and sauntered past Vortex, “Excuse me! I’m a doctor. Is there anything I can do to help?”

The bot on the chair choked a sob and began to shiver. Vortex decided to give the mess ten astroseconds to get interesting before heading back to the bar. Then the jet spoke.

“Someone grabbed him,” she said. “Just outside the door. I don’t know who it was. We’ve called for Security, and they said they’re on their way, but… Moonray had to chase them off.” She glanced at the shuttle, who nodded, while Vortex made a very big effort not to choke on his drink. The frag kind of a name was Moonray? But the little bot in the chair was uncurling, slowly, turning to show Joist the back of his neck.

His medical diagnostic port was bare, and a raw silver gouge gleamed just to one side.

Joist hissed in sympathy. “My my, that’s a nasty graze. Do you think we have a data thief in our midst?”

“Could be,” the jet said. “Whoever it was certainly tried to link up.”

“I went after them,” Moonray said quietly, “but the criminal escaped.”

Vortex swallowed a good slug of his triple distilled free drink and approached the gaudy double door. “What did they look like?” he said.

“I wouldn’t,” Moonray rumbled, raising his arm to stop Vortex from pushing the handle.

Vortex’s lip curled. “Seriously?”

“Security’s coming,” the jet said. “I think we should keep the doors closed until they arrive.”

“Seriously,” Moonray confirmed, meeting Vortex’s gaze and holding it.

“This really is a nasty cut,” Joist said. “Did they succeed in connecting?”

The mech in the chair shook his head. “But, um, maybe you could run a quick diagnostic scan,” he said. “Just in case. I have platinum medical cover, I wouldn’t expect you to do it gratis.”

Resisting rolling his optics, Vortex continued to stare. Pushing past wasn’t really an option; Moonray was big, almost as big as Blast Off. But there the comparison ended. After a mere twenty astroseconds of Vortex looking up at him, Moonray coughed and stepped aside.

“All right,” Vortex said. “What did they look like?”

“Bronze,” chair-mech replied, while Joist hummed and fussed around him. “Tall. That’s all I saw. Oh, and they had a mobile cable.”

“A what now?” Vortex said, but he was already pushing through the door. Adventure awaited! And along with it the chance to be offered free drinks for the rest of the evening by a grateful blue bot and his weird alpha friends. Maybe the jet was into rotaries. Maybe Blast Off was into femme jets. Now there was a thought.

“Don’t go too far!” the jet called, and Vortex shook his head. The corridor was empty. A sign directing visitors to the conference lay on its side on the busily patterned carpet while little dots of oil gleamed all around. It looked like the weirdest murder scene. Poor dead sign, may he rust in peace.

Someone coughed behind him: Moonray peering through the door. “Are you coming back in now?”

Vortex gave him a look, then glanced at his depleted glass. On the one hand, he hadn’t yet started to look for that special someone he could punch without repercussions, but on the other, his glass really was depleted.

“You need to come in now,” Moonray said quietly. “Right now. I’m not joking.”

“All right all right!” Vortex raised his drink to drain the last smooth pearls of glistening high grade, and a barbed silver something smashed through the glass. He stumbled back, and gaped as the projectile swung around and launched at his face. Only it wasn’t a projectile, it was a cable, all gleaming steel and drops of clear yellow oil. Vortex ducked and spun. There was a mech behind him, tall and bronze and furious. He lunged, but something grabbed his rotors and yanked him backwards off his feet.

"The frag?!" Vortex yelled.

“I’m sorry!” Moonray cried, as the doors slammed closed between him and his assailant, the jet pressing her weight to them. Moonray let Vortex go and clasped his hands in apparent anguish. “Are you all right? I mean, that didn’t hurt, did it?”

“Help me with this!” the jet snapped, but the doors were inching open, that mobile cable snaking into the room. Moonray scrambled to join her as chair-bot squealed, clinging to Joist, and the bronze mech began to pound at the doors. Vortex kept his optics on the cable.

“Security is on its way!” the jet said loudly, launching a kick at the barbed end. “Whatever you want, you won’t get it here! You need to leave, now.”

Like that was going to help. Flicking his rotors, Vortex pounced. It took two attempts to grab the cable, and when he did he realised with a sinking feeling that the laser knife he thought was in his hip compartment wasn’t. It was back in his and Blast Off’s room. With the rest of his weapons.

“Frag,” he snarled, and moved to plan two: trap it on the floor and punch it repeatedly very very hard.

“I can’t… can’t hold it!” the flyer groaned, and Vortex had the urge to punch her too, but the doors gave way and Moonray toppled, and Vortex found himself with a face full of shuttle leg, and he never got the chance.

By the time Moonray had rolled off him, the bronze mech had the flyer by the wings and was dragging her back into the hall.

“Hyperia!” Moonray cried, and lunged clumsily after her, but the room was filling, and he was cast adrift in a sea of wannabe heroes.

Vortex pushed himself off the floor, and shoved his way back through the throng to the bar.

“You’ve been fighting,” Blast Off commented.

“You’re doing that thing again,” Vortex said, and grinned as a he claimed a freshly vacated bar stool.

“What thing?”

“That quiet thing. The thing where I don’t hear you coming. Hey, Salve, gimme a double, green label, no toppings, and whatever he wants.”

“Triple distilled,” Blast Off stated. “Neat.”

The single remaining bartender sprung into action, but it was clear his attention was on the commotion in the other room.

The shuttle eyed Vortex’s scuffed paint. “As the fight appears to be continuing without you, I take it you weren’t the catalyst?”

“Nope.” Vortex shrugged. “It’s just some circuit speeder,” he said. “He’s tryin’a put his cable where it isn’t wanted.”

The bartender glanced his way. “Really? The security team here is second to none.”

“That means squat,” Vortex said. “The guy was probably in here all the time. Probably OK when he came in. Then he decides to have some fun, take a chip…”

In the other room the fight went on. Hyperia screamed in rage, and there was the sound of breaking glass. Metal screeched, a dozen people began to shout, and above them all Moonray could be heard swearing like a tank.

Vortex picked up his high grade; the colours swirled. The bartender swallowed, and ran a sparkling clean glass through the pressure washer.

Blast Off drained his drink in one, pursing his lips and staring at the ceiling. “I thought I said neat,” he commented. “I can taste copper.”

“Salve!” Vortex waved at the bartender. “Get him another one. Ah frag, got a call coming in.” He went to put his drink down and press a button on his arm at the same time, and ended up activating his comm with the base of the glass. “Yeah?” He squinted at the hologram, suspended in a sea of fizzy energon. “Sup?”

“Where are you?” The triple harmony of Sigma Orionis’ glorious voice shivered through Vortex’s circuits.

“Bar near the conference rooms,” Vortex said. Blast Off sighed, and tugged the drink out of his hand. “Wanna come join us?”

“Stay there,” Sigma said. “I don’t have time to explain. Something’s happening, and it isn’t a logic inhibitor virus. This is a code nine five five two. Are you reading me, Vortex? A code nine five five two.”

The shiver of charge vanished, and Vortex scrambled off the stool. “Reading you loud and clear,” he yelled, but the call was already over. He made a dash for the doors between the bar and the ante-chamber, slamming them shut to a chorus of confused upper caste declarations. “Does this thing lock?” he said. “Hey Salve, answer me! Does this thing lock?”

“It… That was… It is now. It’s locked,” Salve said, gesturing at a security panel on the wall behind the bar. His hand was shaking.

“What are you doing?” Joist spoke up from a nearby chair. His patient hunched shivering next to him. The doctor must have moved him into the bar when the fighting started up. “What’s going on?”

“Yeah,” someone else demanded. “What on Cybertron’s going on? You can’t just lock us in here!”

“Can and have,” Vortex said, trying to fix his scanners on the doors. They better be as strong as they looked.

“But there are people out there!” a blue airframe said. “What if they want to come in? They don’t want to be locked outside with a maniac!”

“Could be locked in here with one,” Blast Off muttered, and Vortex would have laughed if he hadn’t spotted a hairline crack in the door frame.

Joist stood and gave a little cough. “Ahem, my fellow Cybertronians,” he said, “I think the question we ought to be asking is: what is a code nine five five two?”

“That’s a good point!” A silver airframe pointed a finger at Vortex. “You’re military, aren’t you? What’s going on?”

Vortex shrugged, and started looking around for potential weapons. There were the chairs, the tables; Salve would make a good cudgel if he locked his joints.

“Answer me,” Silver demanded, and Vortex swapped from looking for weapons to working out a plan of escape.

A soft voice spoke up, Joist’s shivering patient uncurling from his chair. “I know what it means,” he said. “I saw it in a documentary once. It means we’re all going to die.”

“Oh for frag sake!” Vortex cried. “It means you gotta go into lockdown. It means there’s been an outbreak, cause unknown. It means you need to sit the frag down in your plush little chairs and stay there while I work out what we’re gonna do. You got that?”

“An outbreak?” Salve said. “What kind of outbreak?”

“Dunno,” Vortex said. “I’m guessing it’s whatever turned the guy out there into Sergeant Grabby.” In the absence of anything justifiable to hit and without the means to stab or shoot his fellow drinkers, Vortex retreated to his bar stool. “Where’s my energon?”

“You’re having this,” Blast Off said, nudging over a tumbler of something unappetising just as the silver femme spoke up, “But you told him it was a… a dirty addict out there!”

“So what?” Vortex said. “You’ve never been wrong?” He sniffed the coolant and sighed.

“What are you doing?” Blast Off said quietly.

“I’m calling Onslaught. I can’t do plans! I’m halfway to fendered. I can’t even do plans when I’m sober.” Vortex listened to the Do Not Disturb message twice before hanging up. “Frag. Hey, where are you goin-”

“Citizens,” Blast Off said, and Vortex sighed anew when he saw the shuttle’s limp turn into a full-blown inebriated sway. “Citizens! I am speaking, and when I speak, you will listen.” His engine rumbled, and the hubub died down. “This action has been ordered by Admiral Sigma Orionis. This means you’ll do as protocol dictates. I haven’t come this far to be deactivated because of crass stupidity.” The glare he gave the handful of his fellow alphas made it clear where he believed the wellspring of any such stupidity to be located.

“So what do we do?” the blue airframe asked. According to a little badge on her shoulder, her name was Trystos, and she was on the Science and Technology Funding Council. “We can’t just sit here!”

“Sure you can,” Vortex said, just before something large and heavy crashed against the locked bar door; the femme jumped. “OK, maybe not there exactly.”

This time he counted them. There were five airframes, the two shuttles, plus Joist and The Patient as Vortex had come to think of him, Blast Off, and Salve. Salve’s colleagues had, the barkeeper revealed, left to hail Security at the first sign of trouble, having failed to raise them by comm. They’d exited via the back door, which had locked when Salve locked the main door.

Vortex made them drag their chairs into the centre of the room, then some tables to join them. It wasn’t much of a barricade, it looked more like a furniture display, but it would do. With the bar to their right and the huge curtained plas-glass windows to their left, if anything came through the door it couldn’t get around them. Sure, it could go over the top, but with a barracks full of troops at her disposal, Sigma Orionis should be with them before that happened.

That didn’t stop him piling up tables in front of the door to the lounge. Every so often it shuddered, but the cries were muffled now and the screams replaced by gentler sounds. A few times he thought he heard carpet-dampened footfalls and fighting in the corridor.

“What now?” Trystos demanded.

Vortex took his unwelcome glass of sparkly coolant. “Now,” he said to a background of scratching and shuffling, “we wait."

Chapter Text

Blast Off sat slumped at the bar, staring at his half-empty drink. After this cube he wasn’t allowed any more, not given the circumstances. He vented heavily, and took a small sip.

Why couldn’t this outbreak have waited until he was sober? Or even until he was hungover, just not as drunk as now. The dizzy cloud of intoxication would numb the pain if anything or anyone broke in.

Not that he planned on dying; he’d rather not, even if it meant he’d have an awful headache later. And another headache when he had to explain to Onslaught why they couldn’t meet Swindle and the repair team.

He sighed again through his vents, ignoring the soft chatter of his fellow captives, and Vortex’s staring.

If it hadn’t been for Onslaught, Blast Off would never have been here in the first place. HEX would still be in orbit, he wouldn’t have met Star Reign, and he wouldn’t have been locked up because of some weird crazy-virus spreading around.

Well, perhaps HEX wouldn’t still be in orbit, but Blast Off wouldn’t have given the order for her to self destruct.

He thought about HEX again, and his bad luck with abandoned space stations. Lunar Pulse had started a list after the second one that had been destroyed straight after Blast Off had set foot on it. He should call Lunar Pulse soon, Blast Off thought, and tell him he could expand the list to seven.

That was depressing.

Stupid Onslaught for sending him to this horrible reunion.

“If I survive this,” Blast Off said, out of the blue, causing Vortex’s rotors to twitch, “I’m gonna quit.” His speech slurred slightly, and it was harder to keep his HEXian accent at bay. Though his drunk tongue felt more comfortable with the harsh sounds of the dialect from his old home.

“Quit what?” Vortex asked. He sipped from his coolant and pulled a face. Blast Off guessed it was deliberate.

He shrugged. “Everything. Kaon, Ons, the organisation.”

“Why?” Vortex’s visor flickered. “You get good money, and it’s fun.”

“Fun?” Blast Off frowned. “I don’t think this is fun. I imagined ending the day differently than sitting here in a lockdown.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not fun, but that’s not what I meant,” Vortex said, and gave a one shouldered shrug.

They drank in silence, listening to the noises outside.

It was much quieter now, and even the soft pained moans had finally stopped. There was a sound like a heavy cable being dragged over the floor, but aside from that, it was eerily still. Even the constant crashing against the door had stopped.

But no one trusted the peace. Blast Off could see it in the faces that reflected on the mirror behind the bar.

“How would you have liked the evening to end?” Vortex asked, catching Blast Off by surprise.

He needed a moment to let the meaning sink in, and gave another shrug. “I don’t know.” He raised his cube, but didn’t drink. There was so little left of his drink. “I liked how yesterday ended…”

Yesterday had been much better than the day before - no explosions and no headaches - only the pain of his home having been destroyed.

Blast Off turned his head when Vortex’s mirror image grinned at him. “What?”

“Hehe, you like me.”

Blast Off raised an optical ridge. “Hardly,” he said drily, and huffed. He’d said the wrong thing, implying too much. At least he was drunk and had an excuse. He couldn’t help but continue, unable to stop an entertained edge entering his voice, “I just liked how yesterday ended, with you finally being quiet.”

“Aft-head,” Vortex said as he shuffled closer. The ‘copter let his hand drop accidentally on purpose next to Blast Off’s. His fingers looked so tiny next to his own, and Blast Off didn’t stop them when they moved closer.

The little finger stroked lightly over a torn knuckle. It didn’t hurt any more, it just looked like he was a thug, Blast Off thought. Vortex seemed to like it, but Blast Off had got the impression there wasn’t anything Vortex didn’t like. Except maybe acid gas.

“You think you can break through that?” Vortex nodded towards the plasglass windows. His field flared, causing a tingling where it brushed against the Blast Off’s.

Vortex’s signature was all warm. There was excitement, but also confusion and something like worry? Maybe, Blast Off wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know if he was worried.

He was annoyed that he was in this situation again, certainly, but he’d decided that if some crazy mech wanted to connect to him, he’d just transform and crush them.

It sounded like a good plan. Better than trying to break this sort of plasglass.

Blast Off shook his head. “No. It’s more than three times as thick as the one at the prison.”

Disappointment was clear in Vortex’s field, and Blast Off decided to flare his own. They ground against another, not strongly enough to create the hum of electromagnetic friction, or to be visible, but it was teasing. It was evidence that they wouldn’t mind a repeat of what had happened the previous night - something that could happen right there and then if it weren’t for over ten sets of optics randomly looking at them.

Maybe Blast Off could drag Vortex behind the bar. The mirror didn’t reach to the floor, the others wouldn’t see it, and the ‘copter would love it, definitely.

He pondered on that idea for a moment, and then dismissed it. They would still be heard, and Blast Off wasn’t drunk enough to stop caring yet.

Vortex leant even closer without touching Blast Off’s plating. “Sigma Orionis better fraggin’ hurry up,” he muttered, and flicked his rotors. They quivered.

Blast Off huffed amused. “Why? The noises almost stopped.” Glancing at Vortex’s dented rotor blade, he allowed himself the tiniest grin.

Vortex’s engine revved once, his energy field pushed harder against Blast Off’s, want written in it. “Sometimes I really don’t like your sense of humour.”

Blast Off was about to reply that there were other things Vortex liked about him, but he never got the chance.

"Excuse me," Joist said, coming up behind them and clearing his vocaliser when his field came in contact with theirs.

Blast Off drew his close; Vortex wasn't that polite. "What?" the heliformer grumbled, and took another sip from the coolant.

"Uh, well," the medic began, uncertain, looking from Vortex to Blast Off, "You said the lockdown is an order from Sigma Orionis, am I right?"

"So?" Blast Off huffed, showing his annoyance in the short word.

"Did she say anything else to you? Anything else we're supposed to do? We're getting a little nervous. And the noises have stopped, do you think-"

"I don't care if you're nervous or not," Blast Off said flatly. "And do you think because the noises stopped it's safe now?" He shrugged. "Go ahead and take a look. I won't."

Joist tensed, and shifted his position. "So you haven’t heard anything else from the admiral?"

"No," Vortex said, "If there’s some outbreak going on, she'll have more problems than keeping us updated when she thinks we're safe for now."

Joist nodded. "I see," he muttered, and continued a bit louder for everyone to hear, "Well, she saved Iacon, so I'm sure she'll get this situation under control, too."

Vortex' shoulders twitched in a shrug. "Yep, she did that."

"For frag's sake," Blast Off interrupted, turning to Joist who stepped back. "Everyone's only talking about stupid Iacon," he growled, glaring at the medic. Their ignorance made Blast Off angry. "Iacon this, Iacon that, fraggin' pit. You and your planet-bound friends only think about Iacon. Did you waste a single thought for HEX?" Blast Off stood up, and swayed, equilibrium glitching from the sudden movement. "HEX was someone's home, too! It was my home, and theirs." He pointed at the two shuttles. One was an even older series than Blast Off's build.

"But this has nothing to do with-" Joist tried, but was cut off by the yellow-purple shuttle.

"He's right," she said, standing up as well. "You all talk about Iacon and how it avoided destruction. But I was built on HEX."

"Me too," the bright-blue and black shuttle added.

"And now we're under quarantine and didn't even have the time to mourn our home."

"So what if Sigma Orionis saved Iacon," the blue shuttle - Trystos - said, "She failed to save HEX. Who says she'll be able to get this situation under control when she couldn't save her own home?"

"Yeah," the yellow and purple shuttle spoke up again, and Blast Off remained quiet. He hadn't expected it to escalate like that. "I'm not going to get my hopes up,” the yellow shuttle continued. “HEX is gone, and no one could stop that. There's nothing left..."

A murmur went through the people at that, and they huddled closer together. Blast Off heard a femme say some consoling words to the two shuttles. Joist sighed, looking at Blast Off in a way he couldn't decipher. Then he nodded again, and went back to the injured mech.

"Frag it," Blast Off muttered. "I need more to drink."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Salve said, suddenly back behind the bar. "This is better for now." He put a cube of coolant in front of Blast Off, and gave a sad smile.

//The frag was that?// Vortex asked, Blast Off's comm opening without warning and making him tense.

//What do you mean?//

//That rant. I never took you for a mech like that.//

Blast Off couldn't tell if Vortex was amused, concerned or indifferent. His energy field didn't flare any more, and so he didn't know. //No idea what you mean with 'like that', but I'm drunk. Just let me be drunk.//

//Heh, whatever you want.// Vortex grinned for an astrosecond, before his face changed again. //Ah frag, forgot to tell you. Orionis said to tell you something about the labs being safe. So there's still something left from HEX, isn't there?//

Blast Off puffed air from his vents. //I'm just not sure if I'm happy that they still exist.// Realising he'd said something that Vortex could be curious about, he added the other realisation he'd just had. //But I still have the crystal, so there's that.// He hadn't connected to it, but maybe he should do it now. They'd have enough time to waste before the rescue squad came. He could go through the logs of the files most recently accessed. It could give them some clues about who had caused HEX's destruction.

Blast Off reached for his thigh compartment, and froze. "Frag," he said, optics widening.

"What is it now?" Vortex asked, but it sounded more tired than nosy.

Blast Off turned to Vortex looking down. "I left the data crystal in our room."

“So? My weapons are in there, too. I used to be very attached to them.” Vortex sighed and patted his empty weapon mount.

Stupid ‘copter, Blast Off thought. Those weapons were replaceable. The crystal was the only thing left from HEX’s main memory core. “You don’t understand,” he hissed, keeping his voice down so as not to attract too much attention. “The crystal is important.”

“Oh really?” Vortex grumbled back. “And my weapons aren’t? They’d be more useful now than your stupid crystal.”

It had to be expected that Vortex would be oblivious to Blast Off’s urgency, but it was still annoying. “I need to go back,” he whispered, staring at the coolant.

Vortex’s reflection in the mirror glared at Blast Off’s. His rotors twitched once, and the red visor brightened. “Right, you do that and break protocol. You of all people.”

“Yes, I’ll do it, so what?” Blast Off felt like he was arguing with a new-build about the dangers of space.

“Alone, and without weapons?” Vortex asked, surprised, and still angry. That was how Blast Off interpreted the tone. The ‘copter turned his head, and Blast Off glanced down at him.

“You could help me?” It was a question, but Blast Off regretted instantly that he hadn’t phrased it as an order. The heliformer liked orders…

“I could, but I’m not suicidal. We’re unarmed. What’s on the crystal anyway?”

Blast Off shifted. They were unarmed, yes, but they could improvise. If only he wasn’t so drunk, then his thoughts would come faster and he wouldn’t get distracted by his glitching equilibrium. Vortex was a military mech, why wasn’t he coming up with a plan?

Blast Off huffed as he recalled the ‘copter’s own statement on that.

He lowered his voice. “I downloaded the logs of the files that were accessed from HEX’s main core.” He didn’t mention the other things that were stored on there. It was none of Vortex’s concern. “Maybe we’ll get a hint as to who the people were on there, or what they wanted on HEX.”

Vortex’s visor brightened another notch. “And you waited until now to tell me this?” He was louder than before, causing the other people to turn their heads to them.

“Will you be quiet?” Blast Off growled. “Stop looking at me like that. I didn’t have a chance to tell you. And you didn’t ask.”

“The frag?” Vortex’s rotors stiffened. “We’re in on this together, and they destroyed HEX and stuff. All the gibberish about your home being gone and slag, and you forgot to tell me you had a chance to find out who did it?”

“For frag’s sake. So what I forgot? It’s not like we talked that much last night.”

“Yeah, you forbade me to talk, remember that?”

This imbecile of a heliformer, Blast Off cursed inwardly. He was completely missing the point. But Blast Off didn’t need him anyway.

He stood up, kept his hand on the counter until he gained his balance. “I’m leaving,” he announced for everyone to hear. If the ‘copter wouldn’t help, maybe they would instead. They were all spoilt alpha and beta class frames, but maybe they’d have some ideas about improvising weapons - and they were sober. Mostly. That was a huge advantage.

But no one cheered. Everyone just stared at Blast Off with expressions he could neither read, nor see because they were so blurry.

Wow, he must have been more inebriated than he’d have liked to admit.

“Why do you want to go out?” someone asked.

“Are you going to get help?” someone else wanted to know.

When everyone spoke up in hope or despair or questioning Blast Off’s sanity, only Vortex was quiet. Blast Off stood.

“Mute your vocalisers,” he growled, and rubbed his optics. He needed a plan, and not for how to get to their room - well, that, too, but one step at a time.

Step one in this case was arming up and somehow convincing those ignorant idiots to help him with that.

“We need weapons,” he said more to himself, but one of the planet bound alphas reacted anyway.

“I’m not going out there. I don’t care if you want to, I’m staying here.”

Blast Off revved his engine. “I said shut up, fraggin’ pit.” He glared at the yellow flyer, the doctor - that paint job seemed to attract annoying people - and then leant down. Somewhere at a booth on the other end of the room was a bag with a tool kit. With that it should be possible to loosen the barstools. They’d make good bats. Sure, they’d be big and unwieldy, but Blast Off was tall, too, and it was better than nothing.

If only leaning down didn’t make him dizzy.

“Okay.” Blast Off stood up again, optics roving over the group looking up at him expectantly. He needed the medic. “You,” he said and pointed at Joist, who winced. “I need you to get your tools and unscrew the stools.”

“I don’t- What tools?” His optics flickered a few times and Blast Off had to look away. It was sickening. “And why do you want me to do that?”

“The tools are there somewhere,” Blast Off waved in the direction where he’d sat earlier when Vortex had gone to see what all the fuss was about. “We can use them to keep the crazies away. And you have steady hands and know how to work with tools.”

“That... actually makes sense,” the medic answered and complied.

//What are you planning?// Vortex commed him, and Blast Off had to gather his thoughts for a moment before he realised he shouldn’t answer aloud.

//Getting weapons. Or something resembling them. You could help me make them do something, you’re good at that.//

//Why should I do that? I’m not going back to our room. I told you already,// Vortex replied, sounding every bit as drunk as Blast Off felt.

//We can get your weapons there? And then leave to meet Swindle. I’ve known Orionis longer than you,// Blast Off said, trying to keep his voice flat as he lied through his teeth. //She sounded troubled, and she’s fraggin’ never troubled unless it’s some serious stuff going on.// In truth Blast Off had no idea how Sigma Orionis sounded when she was stressed. Her triad voice made it even harder for him to hear a difference in emotional state, which he couldn’t very well decipher anyway.

“I found the tool kit!” Joist proclaimed as he held up the bag Blast Off had got earlier. With a nod he crossed the room and knelt down next to a stool

One of the other flyers butted in with a condescending huff. “I’m not going to swing some barstool like a weapon.”

“You fraggin’ will,” Blast Off growled back. “If those infected get in, you just wanna lean back and let them rape you? But on the other hand: I don’t give a slag if they do or not.”

The yellow and purple shuttle spoke up again in Blast Off’s support. “He’s right. We need to get ready.” She stood up and walked to the medic, asking him if she could help.

//Seems like you don’t need my help to manipulate them thanks to your shuttle friends.//

Blast Off chose to ignore the comm, but turned to Vortex anyway. He issued his next statement out loud for everyone to hear, and hopefully to goad Vortex into stopping acting like a sulking, drunk dumptruck. “Explosives would be helpful, too.”

Vortex’s visor brightened for an astrosecond. “They would, but why are you looking at me?”

“You’re military, you know how to build bombs and things.”

“No, I’m not. And I don’t,” Vortex replied in a tone as if Blast Off should already know. “That’s what Brawl’s for.”

Blast Off revved his engine. That was just great. The 'copter couldn't come up with a plan and didn't know how to build bombs. What had he done in the military all those vorns?

Blast Off didn't reply, and just turned around, looking for the femme who was part of the Science and Technology Council.

"You," Blast Off said and pointed at her, stepping forward. "You can build explosives, can't you?"

Trystos looked taken aback, and sounded offended when she answered in an impolite voice. "Why do you think that? I'm not participating in such cruel activities."

"You're part of the science council. You're supposed to know some chemistry, aren't you?" To be honest, Blast Off didn't know that much either, but he was a xenologist, and all the substances he knew about weren't available in a mere bar. He made a mental note to read up on more ways to improvise explosives once he was back on Cybertron.

"Excuse me?" Trystos interrupted Blast Off’s train of thought. She stood up, optics flaring as she crossed her arms. "I'm part of the Funding Council, I have no notion about science."

Blast Off's optics flickered, and he was honest as he said with a stunned shaking of his head, "How're you supposed to decide about grants if you have no idea about what you’re funding?"

Trystos didn't have time to respond to his question, as Salve spoke up. "I may be able to help," he said from behind the bar, making Blast Off spin around again.

That move hadn't been the best idea as he saw three blurry Salves for a few astroseconds until they merged into one.

"How so?" It was one of the other alphas that asked.

Salve shrugged. "I'm a trained barkeeper. I might not know that much science, but I know what I'm not supposed to mix. I can't make you explosives, but I can build a cocktail that sets your target on fire, if that’ll help?"

"You can do that?" Blast Off was intrigued. "How?"

He shrugged. "I have magnesium here and load of other different sorts of additives, and high grade. With the supplies here, I can make you maybe four or five cubes you can throw. When they break, the substances combine and cause a fire. I can dissolve some sweet gel treats in the high grade, that'd make it thicker and stick better on your target."

Trystos rolled her optics and Joist shook his head, but Vortex was grinning.

Blast Off's optics brightened in excitement. "That sounds like an excellent plan. Yes, do it." He could think about how to deal with crazed torches later; hopefully the fire would cause enough malfunctions they’d just die. Or stop moving. As long as they stopped attacking.

In the meantime, Joist was done with the barstools, five of them in pieces at his feet. His shuttle helper took three, two for herself and one for the other shuttle. She kept them tight in both hands.

Blast Off decided that he liked her.

"You're really leaving to get help?" Joist asked when Blast Off put his barstool-flails on the counter.

"Yeah, I'm not good at waiting," he said, speech still slurred.

//You're a good liar when you're drunk,// Vortex commented. Blast Off resisted a huff.

"But you're still intoxicated. Do you think that's such a good idea?" Joist seemed honestly worried, but even if he had known about it, he couldn't have understand what the crystal meant to Blast Off; he had nothing else from his former home.

"I'll decide if it is a good idea once I'm out there," Blast Off said blankly, and shrugged. How else should he answer?

The group grew quiet again. The shuttle femme still clung to her weapons, and the Science Council alpha had her back demonstratively turned on Blast Off.

The injured mech whimpered now and then, and Joist fussed around him.

Melodramatic glitch, Blast Off thought; he had no sympathy for so much self-pity. Not that he had much sympathy for anything else either, but that wasn't the point.

He stood next to Vortex, waiting for Salve to finish crafting the fire-cubes - Blast Off had decided to call them that - and sipped slowly from his coolant.

Vortex was quiet, and didn't look at anything but his own drink.

It took a few kliks more, and Blast Off was startled when Salve eventually announced, "Done." He sounded far too cheerful, but considered that he didn't have to go out, it was understandable. "Tell me when you want me to unlock the door. I need to do it from here. You could also leave through the back door," he said, and nodded to towards it.

Blast Off shook his head. "No, I’ll use the front." He didn't know the ways through the employee paths and would probably get lost in his current state.

"Okay. Here are your cubes." Salve put five of them on the counter. They looked funny with a smaller cube inside a bigger one, and different sorts of liquids inside them. They better work, Blast Off hoped, and knew he'd soon find out.

Carefully putting the cubes in the bag he'd taken for the tools, Blast Off readied himself and swung the barstools over his shoulder. Maybe he wouldn't need any of this.

"Fine, unlock the door," he muttered, half climbing half stalking over the barricade Vortex had made them set up.

"I'm going to lock it as soon as you're out. Stay safe," Salve said, the cheer gone from his voice.

Blast Off gave the briefest of nods, readying himself, and trying to shake off some of his drunkenness.

"Wait!"

The voice made him tense. Everyone was looking at the 'copter, who was stumble-crawling his way over the tables to Blast Off.

"I'm coming with you. Give me a barstool."

Blast Off rebooted his optics, and did so. He asked via comm, //Why the change of mind?//

Vortex's rotors twitched. //You're my ride back home.//

The door mechanism clicked as it unlocked.

"Good luck," were Salve's last words as they exited the bar.

Chapter Text

Behind them, the door to the bar slid shut, and the lock clicked anew. The door was scratched and dented, some of the dents hammered in with great force. Blast Off suppressed a shudder.

The floor was smeared with energon, and where there had been a crowd of alphas before, the anteroom was now vacated. On the far side lay a disembodied arm.

"Also, my weapons are in our room.” Vortex broke the silence, causing Blast Off to flinch. “And I wanna know what's on the crystal."

The shuttle's engine rumbled, and he shoved the bag with the fire-cubes into Vortex's hands. "Take that and keep quiet," he muttered.

"Says the one whose steps are audible through two storeys."

"Just shut up," Blast Off mumbled, unlocking the door to the corridor.

What they could see of the corridor was empty as well, and also a mess. A green mech lay on the floor; he wasn’t moving and had no heat signature, and some parts that were probably meant to be inside him were spread on the ground.

The corridor took a sharp turn to the left, but there weren't any noises, and so Blast Off walked on quickly.

Only when they rounded the corner, did they finally see someone. She was standing near the fire extinguisher, a blue flyer with scratches on her wings.

"Oh, hey," Vortex took the lead. "You're Hyperia, aren't you?"

"You know her?" Blast Off frowned.

She didn't react to her name, and Vortex stopped in his tracks."Uh... ?" he uttered, as the flyer turned her head. It moved weirdly, rolling, looking almost as if it was falling off her neck. Half of her face was missing, and her expression was contorted into a grimace. Her vocaliser uttered a screech as she pounced, a cable slithering around her like a silver tentacle. She was fast. Too fast for Vortex.

The heliformer tried to jump back, but the femme threw herself on him, the cable winding around Vortex's wrist.

Blast Off swung the barstool.

It hit her hard and flung her against the wall. And while any normal person would have sunk down in pain, she just jumped up again, hissing.

"For frag's sake," Blast Off swore when he realised he was now the target.

He swung the flail again, hitting her, but also losing his grip on the smooth surface of the barstool's leg. It slipped out of his hand, and the momentum sent it too crashing against the wall.

This time, the femme couldn’t stay upright. One of her legs had given in, hydraulic fluid spurting out. She stumbled, and Blast Off seized the opportunity. He raised his arm, and punched her right in the middle of her contorted face.

Blast Off could feel the back of her head hitting something solid, but he’d used too much force. His fist didn’t just break through the face plates, but the personality component and memory drives, before it hit the wall. Energon spread and covered Blast Off's arm and chest, and his knuckles tore open again. The half processed energon burned on them.

"Frag!" Blast Off jumped a step back, staring at the limp body falling to the floor. "Frag, frag, frag."

“You just killed Moonray’s girlfriend,” Vortex said, and Blast Off turned to him. He was finally back on his feet.

He hadn’t meant to kill her.

“The frag kind of a name is Moonray?” he said.

Vortex snickered, and then looked up at him with a big grin.

“What?” Blast Off spat, and huffed. “It was an accident.” It really was. Sure, he hadn't wanted her tentacle to slither its way into any of his ports, but he also hadn't wanted to crush her entire head.

“Uh-huh.”

“It was!” Blast Off insisted. “I’m drunk, my depth-perception is off.”

"Of course." Vortex's tone made clear that he didn't believe it. He came closer and stared at the body for a moment.

Blast Off shook off his hand. The wall was dented where he'd hit it. For his next punch, he'd use his other hand.

"Let's go," Vortex muttered eventually. "We better get hold of some real weapons soon."

Blast Off sighed, and leant down to get his barstool-flail. Behind the next door was another corridor, hopefully he wouldn't need to use it again.

"I just wanna go home as soon as possible," Blast Off muttered, and followed Vortex through the door.

It fell shut behind him just in time for them to miss a green supposedly-dead mech rounding the corner, a cable waving in the air.

* * *

“Vortex?” Onslaught said. “Vortex, do you read?”

Vortex swung the arm housing his flashing comm equipment in a wide arc, fist powering into the face of the shuttle formerly known as Moonray. Poor Moonray. What courage he’d lacked in the lounge he more than made up for in the lobby outside the elevators, his lips peeled back in a snarl, his interface cover clanging obscenely against his hip while his cable whipped through the air aiming for Vortex’s neck.

“A little busy here!” Vortex snapped, leaping on the end of the cable and slamming it to the floor. The air was thick in his vents, the smoke coming from a nearby frame that was still on fire. Too bad Vortex couldn’t use the fire-bomb cubes at closer range. They really were rather effective. “Slaggin’...”

“Then why did you answer?” Onslaught huffed. He added something else, but Vortex couldn’t hear it for the tortured squeal as Blast Off parted Moonray’s head from his shoulders.

Vortex held the cable down, waiting until it had finished writhing before he let go. “I didn’t answer,” he snapped. “I hit my arm on a thing and it answered itself.”

“Well, do you have time to talk?” Onslaught said. “I have three missed calls from you and I’ve just discovered there’s a media embargo on anything relating to Luna Two. What’s happening?”

“The Senate sure do love their media embargoes,” Vortex said. Blast Off rolled his optics, and grabbed Vortex by the arm, hauling him to his feet. He hit the button for the elevator, just as the sound of something large, angry and uncoordinated could be heard stomping through the hall towards them. To Vortex’s surprise, the door opened promptly with a polite ping, and the elevator cab was not only empty but clean.

They shuffled in, and Blast Off pressed the button for the sixth floor. Vortex readied one of Salve’s exploding cocktail things in case whoever was coming should get there before the door closed.

They didn’t.

“Vortex?” Onslaught said. “Is that music I can hear?”

“We’re in an elevator,” Blast Off said. He grabbed for the bag swinging on his arm, and caught it on the second attempt, glancing inside. “I appear to have lost my stool.”

“Well it wasn’t in the bag,” Vortex said. He rolled his tongue around the inside of his mouth, and glanced at Blast Off. “You didn’t happen to drop any bar snacks in that there bag, did you?”

“Are you two drunk?” Onslaught accused.

“No,” Vortex lied as Blast Off said, “Yes, what of it?”

Onslaught took an audible deep vent. “You’re drunk, and you’ve been fighting?”

“They attacked us,” Blast Off stated.

“Who did?”

Vortex dropped into a crouch as the elevator stopped with the gentlest of jolts. “Everyone?” he said. “Anyone? Hang on a sec.”

The doors rolled open onto an empty lobby. Vortex stuck his arm in front of the entry sensors, showing the elevator not to close its doors, and put his other arm out to stop Blast Off walking forwards. He made a scan, listening for the tell-tale pounding of uneven footsteps. Slowly, he exited the lift, his makeshift incendiary at the ready, and made a slightly unsteady visual sweep of the corridors to either side.

“Clear,” he announced, and they were off. Until they reached the corner, and Vortex realised that Blast Off was not behind him.

“It’s this way,” Blast Off said, standing in the lobby and tapping his foot.

“Really?” Vortex rolled his optics, and ran to follow Blast Off as he headed off in the other direction.

“You’re lost?” Onslaught said.

“We’re not lost!” Vortex protested. “It’s the hotel, it’s too posh, everything looks the same.”

“Too posh?” Onslaught said. “I’ll remember that at your next expenses review.”

Vortex decided not to dignify that with a response. They approached a T junction in the corridors, and he reached instinctively for a weapon he didn’t have.

“What’s wrong?” Blast Off said, in what was probably meant to be a whisper.

Vortex pointed at the splash of energon on the far wall. He crept forward, taking in the room numbers. The centre of the energon bloom was room six-five-two, trails of pink dripping to the floor; their room was close. He beckoned Blast Off to follow, and snuck around the corner, quiet on the thick and unnervingly sticky carpet.

Room six-five-eight was at the midpoint between their position and a sharp turn in the corridor. The corner was dark, a slightly paler shape hunched on the floor.

Vortex fished around in the compartment on his thigh, hunting for his key card. He kept his optics on the shape, fingers clunky, catching the edge of the card and then dropping it again. He swore, and glanced down for a fraction of an astrosecond to dig the damn key card out of his pocket, and when he looked up again the shape on the floor had got to its feet.

A line of blue light blazed, and the thing took a shaky step forward. Vortex finally got a grip on the card and promptly dropped it on the floor. He swore again, and bashed his head against Blast Off’s shoulder as they both bent to pick it up.

“What’s going on?” Onslaught said, and Blast Off hushed him with a shhh like a jet taking off.

Vortex finally got the key card into his hand and slammed it into the lock. The thing didn’t take. “For the love of Cybertron!”

“Here, let me do it.” Blast Off snatched the card. “You deal with that.”

“Oh thanks.” Vortex looked at his hand; where the frag was his stool? He cast around on the floor until the slimy pink shank that was all that was left of his barstool hit the side of his foot and he realised it had been there all along. He snickered, and picked it up. The thing hadn’t got much further. It wasn’t like the others; it was slow, sparks flying from its head and the maw of its open interface panel. Its cables dangled from its hip to drag on the floor.

Vortex pulled a face and approached.

“What are you doing?” Blast Off snapped. “Why won’t this fragging stupid key work!”

“You gotta push it in slow,” Vortex said. “It was designed by sadists.”

Vortex,” Onslaught growled. “What. Is. Going. On.

“Viral outbreak,” Vortex said. “Some kinda undead plague stim thing.” He held the stool leg out, waiting for the thing to pounce, but all it managed was a weak swat. He grinned, waving the stick about and watching the blue light follow it.

“Undead?” Onslaught sighed. “So that’s why you’re under quarantine?”

“Looks that way,” Vortex replied. “Hey Blast Off, this one’s all slow and scrap. You think it’s still alive? Hey there.” He rapped it on the head with the stool. “Hey? Anyone in there?”

It snarled at him, an oily ichor dripping from its teeth, and lunged with its arms. Its legs didn’t catch up in time, and the whole thing came crashing to the ground.

“Okay.” Vortex poked the back of its neck. Its medical port was torn, the metal gleaming. It was just like the others in that respect, but unlike them this one had no get up and go. It glared at Vortex as though daring him to try something. Vortex stood on the back of its neck and brought his foot down hard.

“I’ve got the door open!” Blast Off announced with drunken glee, and Vortex slumped towards him, wiping his feet on the cleaner parts of the carpet.

“All right,” he said, as he fell into the room and onto the first available chair. Behind him, Blast Off locked the door. “So Ons, we got a problem.”

“So it would appear,” Onslaught said. “Is it anything you can’t handle?”

Blast Off lumbered to the bed and sat with a drawn-out sigh. “Possibly,” he said.

“I need a plan,” Vortex stated. He grabbed the half empty tray of expensive energon gels and popped one in his mouth. “That’s why I called you. Earlier. Not now, I mean, earlier earlier. Just now, you called me. You’re the plans guy, Ons, so gimme a plan.”

“Where’s Sigma Orionis?” Onslaught asked.

“I dunno, at the base? She commed a while back, told us it was a code nine five five two. I set up a lockdown in the bar.”

“Which is why you appear to be running through the hotel?” Onslaught asked.

“We’ve stopped running now!” Vortex upended the tray over his mouth and began chewing. “Blast Off left something in our room,” he said around the gels.

“So did you,” Blast Off said.

“Huh, yeah.” Vortex hastily swallowed, and pushed himself out of the chair. “Yeah, I wanted my weapons.”

“Exactly how much have you both had to drink?” Onslaught asked.

“Some?” Vortex ventured, dragging a case out of the fancy closet where Blast Off had inexplicably put it. He dumped it on the floor, and started rooting around.

“Lots,” Blast Off said. He sighed again, shifting on the bed. “Vortex,” he said quietly.

“Yeah yeah, weapons,” Vortex said. “So Ons, we’re in our hotel room, this floor’s probably infested, numbers unknown, method of transmission seems to be uplink, the entire hotel’s under quarantine. What do we do?”

“You’re clearly fuelled,” Onslaught said. “Is the room secure?”

“Yup,” Vortex answered, pulling a small case out of the clutter. “Blast Off does not travel light.”

“That is a small bag, and those are essential maintenance… things,” Blast Off said. “What do you expect me to do, use a brush someone else has used before me?”

“Apparently not,” Onslaught commented. “Vortex, you’re in lockdown. Blast Off, that means you don’t leave. Try to get a hold of Sigma. If this blows over tonight, you can still make it to the rendezvous.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Blast Off said quietly.

“I’ll arrange a contingency,” Onslaught said. “But I would vastly prefer that you both attended. Is that understood?”

“Loud and clear,” Vortex said, holding a knife to the light. It gleamed.

“Good. I have another call coming in, send me a text update every two breems. Onslaught out.”

Blast Off fell back with the soft flumpy sound of extremely expensive bedding. “He wasn’t surprised,” he said.

“What about?” Vortex unclipped his chest and locked the box away.

“The infection? How we appear to be surrounded by zombies?”

“Seen it all before,” Vortex said. “OK, not exactly like this, and that waving cable thing’s new, but that’s new tech right? Prehensile cables, the latest thing in unnecessary alpha interfacing mods.”

Blast Off sniffed. “Undead.”

“They’re probably not even actually undead,” Vortex said. “Probably just a super-enhanced stim or something.” He refastened his chest, one of the blades clipped to each wrist for easy access, and stumbled to his feet.

“Two of them were completely grey,” Blast Off pointed out. “One of them only had half a head.”

Vortex climbed the steps to the palatial bed and sat on the edge. “OK, yeah, so those ones were probably undead.”

Blast Off’s vents cycled loudly, venting warmth against Vortex’s back. “And you’ve encountered this before.”

“Not exactly like this, but yeah, a few times.” Vortex yawned. “Ugh, stupid stim zombies. You got any of that super shuttle drink stuff left?”

“No,” Blast Off responded. “And even if I had I wouldn’t give it to you.” He rocked a few times, hands forward, until he managed to swing himself into a sitting position. “You ate all of the crys-gels.”

“I was hungry!”

“You were not hungry.” Blast Off rubbed his damaged knuckles.

“You’re kinda filthy,” Vortex said, drawing a line in the dirt on his arm. “Want me to scrub that off for you?”

“No,” Blast Off snapped, head tilted. “Yes. Why do you always have to touch?”

“What do you mean?” Vortex asked, drawing a second line, this one curving around to form a glyph.

“You’re doing it now, you’re writing on me. Why are you always touching?” Blast Off lumbered to his feet, swaying dangerously on the steps.

“I dunno.” Vortex watched him, but the shuttle managed to get to floor level without falling over. “You’re touchable.”

Blast Off rolled his optics, and stomped into the shower room. The spray began to sound, and a moment passed before he yelled, “Are you coming or what?”

Vortex rolled off the bunk, grinning. And stopped grinning as his comm began to flash. “I got a call,” he said. “I’ll be like, two astrosecs.”

Blast Off grunted in response, and the sound of the spray increased.

Vortex picked up to a crackle of static. The tiny hologram above his arm flickered and failed. “Sigma?”

Sigma Orionis answered in a burst of feedback. “Vortex, I need you to listen very carefully.”

Chapter Text

Blast Off was alone; the water ran down his frame, the smell of cleanser heavy in the moist air of the shower. Two astroseconds passed, and there was still no sign of the ‘copter.

He grunted in annoyance. Fine, he thought, then he’d clean the filth off his plating by himself. It wasn’t like he needed the help.

Rummaging through the cleaning equipment provided by the hotel, Blast Off hunted for a cloth that looked the least used, ignoring the fact that all provided cleaning cloths and bottles were still sealed. The hotel probably just cleaned and resealed them. He didn’t think Vortex would have enough presence of mind to bring one from his luggage, and he was damned if he was going all the way back into the other room to fetch it himself, and so he took the one that looked the smoothest.

With a huff, Blast Off stepped under the spray of liquid and only then, as he started to rub all the energon and filth off him, he realised what the ‘copter had written on his arm.

Vortex the glyph said, with an unfinished curve for the possessive case.

Blast Off shook his head. “Idiot,” he grumbled, and wiped it off.

For about a klik, he relaxed under the shower, getting rid of most of the dirt before a comm-request reached him.

He accepted it internally, so he didn’t need to activate anything on any of his limbs. It was the frequency of that flyer from the store.

//I don’t need coolant any more,// he said bluntly, turning the shower’s temperature a bit colder as though to make a point. It felt good on his warm plating, and cleared his head from the fuzz of inebriation.

//Uh, hey,// the femme said, //good to hear that you’re still alive. And also good about the coolant, but that’s not why I’m calling.//

Blast Off exhaled air loudly and made it audible over comm. Why did he guess that?

//Then what do you want? I’m not going on a rescue mission for anyone,// he said. He wasn’t in the mood for that, now that he had his crystal. Not to mention that Onslaught had ordered him and the ‘copter to stay where they were until this was over.

//About that… I didn’t peg you for that sort of person.// The femme sounded amused, but also distracted. //But I have some information you might be interested in, and I think we can make a deal.//

//Deal about what?// Blast Off offlined his optics and let the water run over his helm.

//Survival.//

//I have orders to stay-//

//The council is going to bomb the hotel – with everyone inside, no matter what caste or status.//

Blast Off optics snapped back online.

The flyer continued before he could reply. //I know a way out. I’ve worked here long enough to know paths that aren’t guarded, and there’s a route that isn’t infested by those monsters.//

//And what do you need me for?// He couldn’t help but frown.

//Well, I know a way out, but I can’t fly fast enough to outrun the explosion. You catch my drift?//

Frag. Blast Off rubbed his face, glancing at his torn knuckles. Frag everything. He sighed, liquid flying from his vents as warm air left them. //Sounds like we have a deal.//

//Good. I’m on my way to you. See you soon. Bombing is scheduled for 4.5 breems, so you better be ready to leave as soon as I get there,// and those were her last words before she cut the comm.

As if one explosion hadn’t been enough for an orn, Blast Off thought.

He sighed deeply one final time, and stepped out from the shower. His plating was still dripping, but he didn’t have the time to care – it didn’t mean he had to like it though.

Vortex looked up at him. His expression sober compared to a few kliks ago.

“We have a problem,” Vortex said.

“The bombing?” Blast Off shrugged, “I heard about that.”

The red visor flickered, rotors twitched and his mouth opened but nothing came out. Maybe the ‘copter wasn’t as sober as he seemed.

“Yeah,” he muttered after a moment, then continued more loudly, “Well, Ons is busy on the other line and I can’t reach him. Sigma said all the exits are guarded and blocked. There’s no way out. They even have a satellite locked on the hotel, and air support… in the air, in case someone tries to escape from the roof. So, what’s the plan?”

It did sound bad, and it had to mean something if they even took care no one escaped from the roof.

Why couldn’t this quarantine have been about space leeches?

“We wait,” Blast Off replied. The flyer should show up any moment. Though how did she know where they were?

“Wait? For what?” Vortex’s visor brightened and he swung his arms in an over-dramatic gesture. “I’m not gonna get bombed. For frag’s sake, Sigma’s connection went dead, and Ons is busy chatting about money, and we’re just gonna wait?

“You’re always so loud and wordy,” Blast Off mumbled. How could he explain his deal with Haze when the other wouldn’t let him talk?

Vortex’s engine revved, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not-“ he spat, and stopped at a scratching sound from the door.

They froze, both staring, neither actually doing anything.

“Great. So, we’re still just waiting?” Vortex snapped.

“They’re not able to open doors, are they?” Blast Off said in what was supposed to be a whisper.

“I dunno.” Vortex looked at him doubtfully, then glanced around. “Where’s my stool again.”

“Outside,” Blast Off answered keeping his focus on the door. The scratching hadn’t stopped. “But you have your weapons now?”

“Oh, right.” With a laugh partly gleeful, partly something undecipherable, the ‘copter unclipped his blades from his wrists and adopted a battle stance.

Blast Off should have found a weapon, too. Only he didn’t have any knives and wouldn’t have known how to use them anyway. He grabbed the back of the chair Vortex had slumped down on and heaved it up. It was heavier than the bar stools, it would make a good flail.

Vortex shoot him a frown. “You do like hitting things with furniture, don’t you?”

Blast Off was about to reply with something sarcastic, but the door chose that moment to produce a suspicious hiss, and the red light of the lock changed to green.

“Here goes,” Vortex commented with more excitement than Blast Off would have liked to hear.

The scratching stopped.

Blast Off took a step forward, ready to hit anything that came through and invaded their supposedly safe space. Vortex came up next to him. He seemed more interested in slashing whatever came through, and Blast Off wouldn’t worry about that if the ‘copter’s energy field wasn’t still flashing with drunkenness.

He really wasn’t in the mood to keep Vortex from killing himself on top of everything else.

The astroseconds ticked by, and the door still was shut. The tension crept into every one of Blast Off’s joints, and from Vortex’s shifting stance and flexing talons he guessed it was the same for him.

A whoosh sliced through the silence, still unexpected despite their anticipation.

Blast Off was the first to realise who was behind the opening door, and that he needed to stop Vortex from pouncing. He grabbed Vortex by the shoulder just in time.

“The frag did you do to your door lock?” Haze glared at them, and shook her head. Despite having been out there for longer than a klik, unlike Blast Off and Vortex - well, since the shower, just unlike Vortex - her plating wasn’t covered in energon.

“Who are you?” Vortex asked, still ready to jump and only held in place by Blast Off’s tight grip on his shoulder.

The femme raised an optical ridge, giving Blast Off a disapproving look – and was yanked violently back by a blurry figure.

Blast Off’s optics flickered. Growls came from outside, and he had to hand it to her for not screaming.

“She’s our ticket out,” Blast Off replied, as he ran from the room. They should help her, he thought, and was surprised when Vortex swiftly passed him. Though Vortex was still thoroughly hammered, he understood well enough what her well-being meant to them.

That, or he was just looking for a fight with proper weapons, Blast Off thought as he watched the ‘copter jump on the back of the zombie. Vortex giggled maniacally, and it almost drowned out the flyer hissing when the attacker slammed onto her and drove her wings to the floor.

No sooner than it had started, it was over.

Vortex still snickered, and when he stepped closer Blast Off saw him pulling his blade out from the zombie’s head.

“That is disgusting,” the flyer beneath the two mechs muttered. She had a knife in one hand, and the dangerous end of the zombie’s interface cable in the other.

“I just saved your sorry aft,” Vortex announced proudly, stepping off the limp frame so she could push it away.

“Who’s he?” Haze said to Blast Off once she was on her feet again, nodding to Vortex with narrowed optics. “Don’t tell me he’s coming with us.”

Blast Off sighed. “He is.” He rubbed his forehead. “Can we focus on getting out of here now?”

She glared at Blast Off, then at Vortex and back to Blast Off, her mouth a thin line. She clearly didn't like the idea, but resigned to it without further comment. “Fine,” she shrugged, her four wings shifting with the movement. “I’m Haze.”

“Vortex,” the ‘copter replied, staring shamelessly at her. “Nice wings.”

She frowned. “Is he always like that?”

Blast Off sighed. “He’s drunk.”

“For frag’s sake…” Haze muttered and turned her head in annoyance. “Let’s just move.”

* * *

It took them another klik before they could start sneaking through the corridors, because Blast Off had to go back for his data crystal, and Vortex wanted to bring some snacks.

Even Blast Off with his limited knowledge of the language of gestures could see that Haze was beginning to regret their deal. With any luck she didn’t know another shuttle to use as a ride.

“How did you find us anyway?” Vortex asked with his mouth full, chewing on an energon stick.

Haze walked in front of them, her steps inaudible on the sticky floor while Blast Off and Vortex produced a squishing sound each time they moved their feet.

“It’s easy to track a comm-frequency,” Haze mumbled softly. She stopped at a corner and glanced around.

Vortex didn’t appear as worried as he’d been earlier; the shuttle guessed it had to do with his blades.

“Uh-huh.” Vortex came up close to her, his weapons ready. To Blast Off it rather looked like he was just taking advantage of the situation. “Haven’t met a hotel employee who could do that before.”

Haze vented air, sounding almost as annoyed as Blast Off felt. “My job here isn’t my primary function,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper. She didn’t say anything more and moved swiftly around the corner.

Vortex followed, then Blast Off, who immediately lost his bearings. Each corridor looked the same, only the door numbers differing - and who could keep track of those? The dizziness clouding his processor didn’t help at all, and he just wanted to get out and get some fresh air. All this sneaking and moving at different paces annoyed him.

“What is your primary function?” Vortex pressed as they walked past a grey frame whose head and arms had been disassembled.

Haze stopped in the middle of the hallway. “I’m a professional ‘goods relocator’,” she answered, while she knocked on a panel on the wall.

Vortex’s rotors twitched.

“She’s a robber,” Blast Off leant down to mutter close to the ‘copter’s audial.

“Thanks for the explanation, I couldn’t have worked that out by myself.”

Haze’s head snapped up. “I’m not a robber. I do not ‘rob’ people. I’m a thief. I don’t harm anyone.”

Vortex giggled, and Blast Off decided not to comment.

Haze did something to the wall that Blast Off couldn’t see, and a panel slid aside, revealing a narrow dark corridor. The flyer vanished inside, and Vortex followed, then Blast Off stepped in. Behind him, the panel slid back into the wall, closing the exit.

There better not be any zombies in there. It would be the pit to fight in such a narrow space.

“Where does it lead?” Vortex asked as they followed Haze deeper inside. Pale lights shone at the ceiling, but they didn’t do much to keep the darkness away.

“Everywhere,” Haze said. “These are the personnel work paths. They’re not marked on any map. The military won’t know they exist.”

“Why do they exist in the first place?” Blast Off wondered aloud. He had to duck his head, being too tall.

Haze huffed. “Can’t give those alphas the impression people work for their comfort, right? You wouldn’t guess what goes on behind the scenes of a place like this.”

“I don’t want to know,” Blast Off said.

Haze uttered something that could be a bitter snort. “No, you don’t.”

They reached a junction, and Haze turned right. They kept trotting behind her.

“I didn’t know you knew people like her,” Vortex said over his shoulder.

Blast Off shrugged. “Neither did I.”

“What does that mean?”

“We met at the shops yesterday.”

“And she’s got your comm-freq? You didn’t tell me she hit on you.” Vortex was amused.

Blast Off wasn’t. “She didn’t hit on me.”

“Did you hit on her?”

“Vector Sigma, no. We exchanged frequencies for business reasons.” Curse the ‘copter and his one-track mind. Blast Off was tempted to hit him on his stupid head.

“…right.” Vortex sounded everything but convinced.

“I’m not like you and hit on everything that has an interfacing cable,” Blast Off growled, knowing he shouldn’t bother. It wouldn’t change anything.

“Hey! I’m not that bad. Have you seen me hitting on those stim-bies? They have their cables out and I was never tempted… Well, only tempted to hit them – with a bar stool.”

“What did I do to deserve this?” Blast Off sighed, and rubbed his temple again.

“Hey, guys. You know I can hear you, right?” Haze said. “I’d appreciate it if you stop your lovers’ quarrel and focus. We only have three point four three breems before they start with the bombs.” She turned left at the next junction.

“It’s not a lovers’ quarrel!” Blast Off spat.

“Well, what is it then?”

“A quarrel. We are not having a relationship. Well, nothing more than a working relationship,” the shuttle insisted. So what if they’d swapped cables a few times. That didn’t mean there was anything between them.

Thankfully, Vortex kept quiet.

“Right…” Haze laughed softly. “From what I can see and hear, your relationship isn’t working so well-”

That wasn’t what I meant!”

Haze turned her head enough for Blast Off to see her grin. Vortex snickered.

Blast Off revved his engine. He should leave them both at the hotel and let them be bombed with it.

* * *

The narrow passageways stretched on, corridor after corridor, dim-lit and worn and impeccably clean. Vortex stuck close to Haze, knives ready. A giddy lightness buoyed him, laughter bubbling, and a smirk on his lips. Bombing in T minus two breems and counting. There was no way he was getting caught in that.

Haze held up her hand, and they stopped as one.

“What is it?” Blast Off demanded, and Vortex couldn’t help but giggle. He glanced back, tapping his audial: time to listen. But the shuttle was such a civilian. “I said what it is?”

“Shhh!” Haze waved at him to be quiet, and took a slow step forward. Vortex stayed back, dropping into a crouch. He could hear them now, footsteps, quick, urgent, muted on the odd foamy floor of the staff passages. From the rhythm they were running down stairs.

Vortex crept up close to Haze, but she raised her hand again. For a moment the footsteps got louder, then they began to recede, still echoing with that quick down-stair rhythm.

“This way,” Haze said, and began to run.

They rounded a corner, and there was a stairwell, as dimly lit as the passages, as softly cushioned. Vortex peered over the safety rail, but the stairs cut his view of whoever was making the noise.

“Vortex,” Blast Off said, already halfway up the next flight.

Vortex sped after them, taking the stairs two at a time. Haze was quick, light; she had no weapons but an interesting array of decorative spines on her shoulders. He guessed they weren’t actually decorative, some kind of receivers maybe.

“How far to the roof?” Vortex asked.

“We’re not going to the roof,” Haze called back. “There’s a staff entrance near here, for airframes. It’s at the back of the hotel, so you lot can’t see us coming and going.”

“It won’t be guarded?” Blast Off said. “Surely they can tell it’s a door from the outside?”

Haze flicked her wingtips. “Maybe?”

Vortex grinned. “Does it matter?”

Haze stopped, looked around, then ran up the next flight. “It’s this one,” she said. “Through here.”

It was a passage like any other, but the air was changing. Vortex fanned his blades, catching the breeze.

“I can’t transform in here,” Blast Off said, tapping the walls.

“There’s some space at the end,” Haze said. “There’s a set of glass doors and a landing bay.”

“Better be a big one,” Blast Off muttered. He set off again, stumbling and catching himself. “Stupid floor.”

Vortex suppressed a snicker, and rolled his shoulders. If there were guards, they were in for a very nasty surprise.

There were no guards. Although a spatter of energon on the very edge of the landing bay showed that maybe there had been. The glass double door stood open, a staff pass jammed in the lock. Haze glanced around, then went to the edge and looked down. “Frag.”

Vortex joined her. “One breem, five hundred and fifty six astroseconds and counting,” he said.

“There’s fighting down there,” she pointed out.

“Doesn’t matter,” Blast Off said. “Get ready, I’m going to transform.”

“Coordinates five point two degrees by three,” Vortex said.

Blast Off paused, minute gaps between his tiles. “What?”

“That’s where we’re headed,” Vortex said, grinning. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask since you got out of the shower. Sigma’s got a safe zone set up, we’re going there.”

Haze stared at him. “Sigma? As in Sigma Orionis?”

Vortex winked at her. “Friends in high places,” he said. “Blast Off, you ready?”

Blast Off rolled his optics. “Stand back,” he snapped, and transformed.

“Give me some time, frag!” Vortex stumbled over to join Haze. She was staring at Blast Off with the glazed expression of someone who’d never seen a shuttle transform up close before. “I can’t believe he didn’t ask me,” he said with a snicker.

“And I can’t believe you’re so drunk,” Haze said. “You seriously kept on drinking even after you knew all this was going down?”

Vortex flicked his rotors at her. “You seriously expect me to answer that?”

“Get on board,” Blast Off rumbled. “Now.”

Vortex leapt through the open door and into the co-pilot’s seat before the owner could banish him to the cargo hold. Haze settled gingerly beside him, arranging her wings.

“Three hundred and fifty-two astroseconds,” Vortex said. He clipped the knives flush to his wrists, and crossed his arms.

Take-off was slow, a careful disengagement from the landing platform, a slightly faster turn to avoid crashing into the hotel’s service block. Then Blast Off accelerated, and Vortex whooped as he and Haze were slammed into their seats.

“Incoming,” Blast Off warned, and the universe flipped as he rolled.

Haze gripped her seat, a high whine coming from her engine.

A second missile was closer, and Vortex’s laughter died. “Fraggit, frag! I got a code thing. Sigma gave it to me. Frag, lemme…” He fumbled in his short term memory for the file Sigma had given him. “OK, I got it. Sending now. You gotta broadcast this, they won’t fire.”

“You couldn’t think of that earlier?” Haze cried.

“You see?” Blast Off yelled. “This is why I’m quitting!”

“You’re not quitting,” Vortex said. “Haze, you might wanna stop grabbing him like that, he doesn’t like it.”

“Huh?” The g-force eased, and Haze looked down at her hands. She winced. “Sorry!”

Blast Off made an exasperated noise through his speakers. “Don’t do it again,” he said.

“Or he’ll vent you into space!” Vortex said. “Seriously, he will. He did it to me.”

“If I hadn’t, you’d be dead,” Blast Off snapped. “ETA one breem.”

“Your comm’s flashing,” Haze said to Vortex.

“Oh yeah. Hey, Ons! We got out!”

“Congratulations,” Onslaught said dryly. “Is there a reason you broke lockdown, or did you both just fancy going for a stroll?”

Blast Off rumbled something that was clearly intended to convey disgruntlement. Vortex sniffed. “They’re bombing the hotel in about fifty three astroseconds,” he said. “The zombie plague thing kinda got outta hand. But hey, we made a friend.” He pointed the little hologram at Haze. “Say hi to Onslaught, Haze!”

“Um, hello?” Haze said, and Blast Off made another noise, this one mildly disgusted.

“Who is ‘they’?” Onslaught demanded.

“Department for Public Health?” Vortex said. “I dunno. Someone high-up and stupid called it. I think they were gunning for Sigma.”

“Where is she?”

“At the safe zone.” The comm crackled, and Vortex shook his arm until it stopped. “You still there? I’ll patch you the coordinates. It’s where we’re headed.”

Onslaught sighed. “How long will you be there? Your rendez-vous is in three joors.”

“I dunno, not long?”

“Switch to sub-voc,” Onslaught ordered.

Haze gave Vortex a curious look, then quickly turned to face front. Blast Off remained silent.

//OK, done,// Vortex said, as Haze continued pretending to look as though she wasn’t tracking Onslaught’s signal.

//I had the Engineering Department take a look at the image captures from Undercarriage,// Onslaught said. //Their report makes for very interesting reading.//

//Summarise it for me?// Vortex said, watching the stars through Blast Off’s cockpit glass. There were more than he remembered, tiny fragments of HEX glittering in orbit.

//The pages Undercarriage saw contained coding for nanites,// Onslaught said. //Flame has been developing a virus, it takes control of the nanites and forces frame augmentation. We believe it also contains a behavioural modifier that affects the host. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.//

//“The stim-zombie thing,// Vortex said. //Explains why he was on Luna Two.//

//He could still be.//

Vortex laughed aloud, and Haze jumped. //You want me to fetch him?// he said to Onslaught.

//Swindle first,// Onslaught said. //But yes, I think it’s time he and I had a little chat.//

//Sure thing.// Vortex gave what he thought was a gentle flare of his energy field, a subtle indication to Blast Off that things were happening.

“Stop that,” Blast Off snapped, and Haze gave him a confused look.

Vortex held up his hand to show he was still on sub-voc. //So you want him in one piece?//

Onslaught replied, but his words were lost in static.

//What?//

//I said, obviously.//

//OK cause the comm’s glitching something bad, and I’m losing you.// Vortex tapped his tail rotors. //Hey Ons, you think Flame had a leak at the lab or was this deliberate?//

Onslaught gave a brief and bitter laugh. //My money is on option two. Report when you’ve landed and have an ETA for takeo-// The line died, drowned in a lake of static.

“I lost him,” Vortex said aloud. He prodded his arm where the hologram had so recently hovered, but the line wouldn’t re-connect. “Frag.” He slumped. “Are we nearly there yet?”

“How far do you think we’re going?” Blast Off retorted. “Of course we’re almost there, this satellite is tiny. And now I’m getting hailed. Did Sigma give you any other codes?”

Vortex shrugged. “No? Just tell ‘em we’re-” but he was cut off as Blast Off’s speakers crackled and a familiar voice spoke.

“I repeat, this is Lieutenant Commander Airflow. You are in restricted airspace, please confirm your access code or I will open fire.”

“Airflow!” Vortex yelled, and Haze winced, covering her audials. “Hey Blast Off, can she hear me?”

“Receiving,” Airflow said. “State your designation and access code.”

“It’s me, Vortex, we met at the base. Sigma gave me the code to get out, and the location. Are we meant to have something else?”

“Vortex? So this must be Blast Off. I’m detecting a third energy signature, who else is with you?”

“Uh, Haze, ma’am,” Haze said. “I work at the hotel. I’m in retail.”

“What’s your ID, Haze?” Airflow said.

“Kappa two two nine five,” Haze replied. There was a pause, and Vortex watched the stars. They were slowing now, the bulk of Cybertron coming into view.

“OK, you’re cleared for landing,” Airflow said. “Aim for landing strip five. You’ll be met by Sergeant Heliotrope, she’ll take you through decontamination.”

Blast Off groaned, but Vortex grinned. Airflow signed off, and Haze shook her head. “I can’t believe they didn’t shoot us.”

“Today has been full of surprises,” Blast Off said. “Now stop fidgeting, I’m coming in to land.”

Chapter Text

Once Blast Off had landed and transformed, they were rushed to decontamination by a group of three flyers. Two were heavily armed, showing their weapons openly, but Blast Off didn’t care.

Decontamination started with a very cold shower, although shower wasn’t exactly the right word. It was just a large room with a small crowd of people being hosed down by four or five military types.

It was degrading.

If Blast Off hadn’t been so tired and his drunkenness hadn’t began to morph into a hangover, he’d have said something, snapped at them and demanded to know to whom he could complain.

As it was, he just let it happen.

The liquid smelled of medical cleanser, an antiseptic solution full of ions that brought on an unpleasant tingling as it evened out charge.

Haze was somewhere in the crowd; Blast Off didn’t care if he lost her, but Vortex was always close. The shuttle wasn’t sure if he wanted him to get lost as well. He could really do with some time without someone staring or flaring his energy field at him. The ‘copter couldn’t even refrain from it when he sat on Blast Off’s flight deck. And Onslaught asked him why he banished people to the cargo hold.

Beside him Vortex muttered a curse, complaining about the cold liquid spraying over them. Blast Off didn’t bother to reply.

The whole procedure was eventually over. Like a flock of organic insentient animals they were sent into the next area.

Everyone was still dripping. No one gave them cloths to dry their plating, and there were no air dryers.

Blast Off was sure he’d be covered in chalk and cleanser residue later. And because of his dark plating, they’d shine like filth on him.

“Listen, everyone!” someone yelled over the tired and annoyed mutters and the dripping. “We’re going to divide you into groups, and assign you to a medic. You’ll go with your responsible medic to be examined further. I’m going to announce your names, please listen!”

Thankfully, the people did. One name after another was blurted and people left the crowd. Blast Off’s sense of time was off; a breem passed that felt so much longer, and he got the distinct feeling he would need to fly especially fast once they got out. They were supposed to meet with Swindle on Cybertron’s other moon very shortly. Blast Off was looking forward to getting his wing repaired.

Eventually, everyone was gone except for himself, Vortex and Haze, and another heliformer that just looked like Vortex but with slightly different colours. She sighed in exhaustion; Blast Off could relate.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you on the landing strip,” she said as she stepped up to Vortex. “It’s just a mess right now.”

“Heh,” Vortex uttered, “I can imagine. The hotel’s a mess, too.”

“It’s a messy ruin now,” the heliformer sighed, rubbing her visor. “I’m sorry. I’ve been on my feet too long, where are my manners.” She looked at Blast Off and Haze. “I’m Heliotrope. I’ll need to take a look at you three before you can leave decontamination. C’mon, follow me.”

She led them into a bleak hallway.

“Sergeant, huh?” Vortex said after a klik of silence. “You didn’t tell me.”

Heliotrope laughed softly. “Well, you didn’t ask. And I’m not gonna ask how you got your other rotors crumbled like that, because if the answer is ‘more fun’, I probably don’t wanna know.”

Vortex giggled.

“Yep,” Heliotrope continued much too amused, “I don’t wanna know.”

Blast Off ignored them; he didn’t feel like pondering who else Vortex might have told about them, which he obviously had.

Haze didn’t comment either. She was quiet, looking around. If she was even paying attention to the conversation, Blast Off couldn’t tell.

“How’s Stormy?” Vortex asked, “Did he get out in time?”

“Oh, he’s fine,” Heliotrope looked over her shoulder at them, visor bright. “If he can fight, he’s always fine. As soon as the order came to take up arms, he was gone.”

“With all guns blazing?”

Blast Off resisted a sigh. He wanted them to be quiet, but Vortex seemed to know everyone everywhere and to want to talk to them.

“Not exactly,” Heliotrope said. “He’s called Blade Storm for a reason.”

“Frag.” Vortex’s rotors twitched. “I always wanted a rotor sword.”

Heliotrope laughed, and led them into another corridor, this one lined with doors. Each one had an armed guard, and the guards looked serious and tired.

“So, and Inci-“ Vortex started and was interrupted.

“Please sit down here.” Heliotrope pointed at a bench in front of a door. “I’ll be back in a sec.” She vanished into the room opposite the bench.

With a deep sigh, Blast Off sat down; Vortex slumped down next to him, way too close. At least Haze was keeping her distance.

Another breem passed before the medic came back with datapads; her comm was flashing.

“Please fill these in,” she said, handing one to each of them. All her cheerfulness was gone. “There’s been an emergency, I’ll be back shortly.”

Blast Off watched her walk away, then he looked at the question on the pad.

At this point, he just wanted to sleep.

* * *

They waited.

They’d completed the forms, but the only people that came and went were torqued-looking guards.

Blast Off shifted on the hard bench. He couldn’t rest like this.

Vortex didn’t even try. He stood up every so often, pacing and earning himself watchful looks from the guards. He didn’t seem to care, and tried to reach Onslaught, poking his comm every so often.

“It won’t work,” Haze broke the silence, making Blast Off wince.

She’d been quiet most of the time, and the last two breems she’d kept her optics offline. Blast Off had thought she was in recharge.

“And why is that?” Vortex asked, antagonising. Thank frag it wasn’t Blast Off on the receiving end.

“Think about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were blocking long range comms. And since I assume your boss is anywhere but here, you won’t be able to reach him.”

Vortex glared at her, but didn’t reply. His engine gave a suppressed rev before he began to poke his comm again.

Next to Blast Off, Haze sighed and shook her head.

Blast Off didn’t bother reacting.

He understood why Vortex did it. They were supposed to contact their boss, and in less than a joor they were expected to meet Swindle. By now Blast Off doubted they’d be able to make that appointment.

And yet he couldn’t bring himself to bother worrying.

He was tired, sore, had been shot at - again - and he was dizzy. The last few cycles had been eventful enough for the next ten vorns, and he just wanted to go home. His own berth in his own apartment with no one but him around, that was by far the best prospect. That and maybe a shower before some recharge to get rid of the white spots that had begun to appear on his plating.

Time ticked by, a counter that Blast Off brought up in his HUD and watched. Nothing happened except for numbers changing before Heliotrope finally came back.

“I’m sorry,” she said before she even reached them. “It was more serious than we thought.” She continued quickly, not giving Vortex time to push for information. “You first.” She addressed Blast Off, and stepped into the room opposite their bench.

Blast Off shrugged. Better get this over with.

“Close the door, and give me the datapad.”

Without a word, he did as he was told.

“Sit down there.”

Blast Off nodded, and did that as well, not commenting on her tone even though it grated on him. He tried to be understanding, thinking that they’d all had a long day. He didn’t feel pity, but the realisation helped him to cope with his anger.

Skimming over Blast Off’s information, Heliotrope leant against a table. The form contained basic questions about his origin, default system measurements and readings, and some questions about recent events.

He waited until the medic read it all. Patience was a challenge.

“Okay.” Heliotrope sighed, a deep vent from her intakes that Blast Of had never heard Vortex make. She rubbed her visor again, and it dimmed for an astrosecond before returning to its normal brightness.

“Apologies for my tone.” She sounded sincere. “I’ve been awake for over three cycles trying to sort out this mess.”

Blast Off nodded.

“We don’t know what we’re dealing with, so I’ll have to scan you and take a few measurements to look for known symptoms. Please hold still.” There was a standard scanner in her hands. Blast Off felt it working, but it wasn’t unpleasant.

“Your basic readings are okay.” Heliotrope put the device away and took something else - a small thin stylus.

“I need to have a look at your ports.”

“Why? None of those zombies connected with me.” Blast Off managed to keep his voice blank.

“It’s all part of the procedure, so please, don’t make me call for the guards.” The medic did sound tired, even Blast Off could hear it. If he hadn’t been so busy with self pity and annoyance, he might even have felt sorry for her.

“Fine.”

He let her look at the data transfer ports on his wrist and near his audial, and also opened his medical port without protest. Once she was done inspecting them, she looked at him expectantly.

“Your interface panel?” Heliotrope said, with the slightest hint of amusement.

Blast Off huffed. “If you must.”

“Don’t be like that. It’s just another dataport if you think of its actual purpose.” She leaned low to flash a light at at his hardware and examine the port. She only looked and didn’t touch, but Blast Off was still tense.

“There’s a burnt contact, no, two, three burnt contacts…” Heliotrope straightened up again. “It can’t happen from interfacing, well, unless you interfaced with a Metrotitan, so what happened?”

“Does it matter?”

“It does,” she insisted. “You said none of the infected connected to you, so I need to know if you’re telling the truth.”

Blast Off sighed loudly. “It was a data transfer. A lot of information within a very short time. I overdid it, I know that.”

Heliotrope looked at him for a few astroseconds, but didn’t react. Her teal visor and battle mask hid her expression.

“Are your hard drives okay?” The heliformer looked at him, head tilted. “There was nothing on the scan, but how are you feeling after that transfer?”

“Tired, a bit dizzy. The information is gone now. I uploaded it to a crystal.” There was no point in hiding it. The medic knew what she did. “But I drank a lot last night, so now I’m hungover, and I have a headache.”

Heliotrope gave a brief nod. “Looks like you’re honest. Just don’t overdo it again with the data load anytime soon. Your hard drive will need another few recharge cycles to recover and bring everything in order.”

Blast Off grunted in agreement.

“Oh, and one last thing,” Heliotrope said, causing him to flinch. “How did you batter your wing?”

She really didn’t miss anything, Blast Off thought, but he answered, letting his exhaustion and annoyance enter his voice. “I outran the explosion of HEX.”

Heliotrope laughed. “Right.” Her visor gleamed. “I don’t know what you and Vortex do together, but here’s a tip: try not to damage each other again until all this is over.”

Blast Off stared. He didn’t know what she was referring to, and it was better that way. She hadn’t believed him.

“You’re free to go. Get up and send in the next one.”

Blast Off suppressed another sigh at being told what he was supposed to do, but commenting would be useless. Heliotrope returned to the table, rummaging through medical equipment and datapads.

As soon as he stepped out of the examination room, and before he’d even finished his sentence, Haze had gotten up and quickly walked past him.

With a frown, Blast Off settled back on the bench. “What did you do to her?”

“Why do you think I did something?” Vortex sounded scandalised, as if he’d never done anything wrong in his life. It was impressive.

“A good guess.”

“Honestly, I didn’t do anything. I was just trying to be friendly.”

“So you groped her,” Blast Off said. It wasn’t a question.

“Heh, why?” Vortex poked Blast Off side, and he regretted instantly having engaged in a conversation. “Jealous?”

Blast Off huffed. “Why do I even bother.”

“Awww,” Vortex grinned, and edged closer. Their energy fields met, and Blast Off really didn’t want it. He was certain the sentiment was clear in his signature, but the ‘copter didn’t react to it, didn’t move away.

Instead Vortex leaned on him. He let his head drop on the Blast Off’s shoulder and pressed against his side.

“What are you doing?” It was hard to keep his voice calm, but Blast Off managed it, if only just.

“You’re warm. And I’m cold. Stupid decontamination shower.” Vortex’s energy field fluctuated. “I’ve been cold since they started cleaning us.”

“Stop that,” Blast Off snapped and shook his frame.

Vortex didn’t move away.

Blast Off’s shoulder joints tensed and his legs went stiff. He clamped his plating tight and couldn’t shake the discomfort. The urge to hit the ‘copter over his head increased, and it wasn’t just that. He wanted to rip the other’s arm off, and even better his legs, so he wouldn’t be able to move at all. And the grey plating, his fingers squeezing through transformation seams to wrench the metal from the frame.

Blast Off’s engine revved, his energy field flared.

Vortex flinched away, the red visor glowing bright as he stared at him.

And Blast Off tensed even more. His engine worked on a higher setting than usual, and he was aware that his field flare hadn’t conveyed just his annoyance. It had been downright hostile.

Blast Off clenched his jaw. Offlining his optics, he vented deeply a few times. He wouldn’t apologise to Vortex. He’d told the ‘copter he didn’t like it.

If Vortex wanted to say something, he missed his chance as someone called his name.

“Vortex.” It was a stern voice, and when Blast Off onlined his optics again, he saw a flyer looking sombre and tired.

Everyone seemed to be tired around here, just like him.

“Airflow,” Vortex said and got up.

She nodded. “A word, please.”

Once the ‘copter had moved away, Blast Off could relax. Not completely, but he wasn’t as tense as before. There was still the annoying dizziness, and the headache that seemed to increase, unlike his last hangover. With nothing else to focus on, the pain of his damage grew worse.

His knuckles throbbed, then his battered wing.

Heaving air in slow, deep vents, Blast Off tried to ignore the aches in his frame. He didn’t succeed. He was nauseous, a sickness in his tanks, as though the wires and lines were jittering, fluttering and making his whole frame shiver.

But he wasn’t cold. He was rather warm. He reset his ventilation.

He needed to stop focusing on his frame, he needed distraction. He wanted Vortex to come back. Even being annoyed was better than this undisturbed attention to the discomfort of his body.

Blast Off glanced at the ‘copter talking to the flyer. They both looked serious as they discussed whatever was so important.

And Haze was still with Heliotrope.

Why was the flyer taking so long?

It was less than a breem until he and Vortex were due to meet Swindle. A breem to get to the other moon.

They’d never make it.

Finally, the door opened.

“Vortex, for frag’s sake, where are you?” Heliotrope didn’t sound pleased. She crossed her arms and glared at Blast Off, then looked around until she saw where Vortex was.

Blast Off watched the jet nod, and Vortex strolled over.

“What is it?” he asked cheerfully. A complete contrast to how he’d looked just a second ago.

“I’ve been waiting for you, fraggin’ pit.”

“Uh, well,” Vortex shrugged, “why didn’t you call me?”

“Haze did.”

“Uh, no, she didn’t.”

Blast Off raised an optical ridge, but kept quiet. He looked from Heliotrope to Vortex and back.

“Wonderful,” the medic huffed. “She said she would when she left. I told her-“

“She didn’t come out.” Blast Off interrupted her. He’d been staring at the door the whole time, and it hadn’t opened.

Heliotrope’s visor flickered. “But… she left.”

“I didn’t seen her leave,” Vortex agreed with Blast Off.

“You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?” Heliotrope frowned. “Let me tell you something: this is not funny. I’m busy enough as it is, I don’t need your-“

“We’re not kidding.” This time Vortex cut her off, raising his hands, his rotors dropped in deference. “I’m serious. I haven’t seen her.”

“She also didn’t come out when Vortex was talking with that flyer,” Blast Off stated. “Maybe she used the back door?”

“This room doesn’t have a back door,” Heliotrope spat. Her visor brightened and it was as though she realised what she’d just said. “It… only has this door.” The medic looked back into the room, then at them, shrugging.

It wasn’t that Blast Off liked Haze or felt responsible for her, but her having gone without a trace made him worry.

“I hope Haze wasn’t infected then,” the shuttle muttered.

“Oh, she was fine,” Heliotrope said, seeming quite confused. “I just…” She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter, I guess? Vortex, your turn now, get your tail rotors in here.”

Vortex followed Heliotrope.

//We’re going to miss our appointment,// Blast Off commed him.

//I know. And there’s no way of contacting Ons. The whole moon’s jammed.//

Blast Off sighed. Haze had been right, and she was gone. He wished he knew what it all meant.

If he just could shake off this dizziness.

* * *

Heliotrope sighed as she sat, cradling her head in her hands, her elbows planted on the table. She shook out her rotors and heaved herself upright. “OK, ports open, covers off, you know the drill.”

Vortex did as he was told. “How bad is it out there?”

“Bad,” Heliotrope answered. “Hotel’s gone, the base is a smoking crater.”

“Figures.” Vortex lowered his head; her hands were warm on the back of his neck. “What about the virus?”

“I wish I knew,” Heliotrope responded. She prodded his port, then moved on to his rotors. “You really need these replacing.”

“Don’t I know it. Did the quarantine hold?”

Her energy field buzzed a moment, but Vortex couldn’t read it. “Unspool your cables,” she said. “You know that’s classified information.”

“I’ll take that as a no,” Vortex said. “Is Incision around?”

Heliotrope’s hands stilled. “She’s… She’s not doing so well. If this gets onto Cybertron-” She winced and there was a click as her vocaliser reset. “OK, you can put those away now. You’ve got a few scrapes around your ports.”

“We were drunk,” Vortex said, by way of explanation. “The big guy’s not so coordinated when he’s fendered. None of the infected got anywhere near me.”

Heliotrope inspected the port at Vortex’s left wrist. Her visor brightened. “I bet they didn’t,” she said, prodding the handle of the semi-concealed laser knife. “They let you through decontamination with these?”

Vortex shrugged. “They didn’t exactly get up close and personal.” He grinned. “You’re not gonna tell, are you?”

“If it was up to me,” Heliotrope said, “we’d be tooling you up along with anyone else around here who knows how to handle a weapon and putting you on perimeter defence.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Worse.” She finished prodding Vortex’s wrists, and sat back down, reaching for her datapad. She stared at it blankly before letting it drop. “Why are you here?”

Vortex shrugged. “Poor life choices?”

“I’m serious.” Heliotrope looked him dead in the eye. “We haven’t seen Airflow since this whole mess kicked off. And yet there she is, come all the way down here to talk to you. You’ve been out of Intel for vorns, but you turn up and suddenly HEX explodes and there’s this virus, and don’t tell me you weren’t on HEX. You and your shuttle boyfriend. His interface panel’s fried. If I wanted to guess, I’d say he was connected to it. The satellite. And I saw your damage, remember? That wasn’t just acid gas, you’ve been somewhere cold, really cold. Like vented-into-space cold.” She stared, daring him to spin her a lie.

“The virus didn’t come from HEX,” Vortex said.

“Is that all you’ve got?” Heliotrope dipped her head and flipped up her visor to rub under her optics. “We can’t afford intrigue,” she said. “People are dying. Incision is dying.” She looked up, eyes narrowed. “She’s got the virus. She’s Gamma Class, same frametype as us. She’s my batchmate for frag sake, if you know anything, anything at all, you need to tell me.”

“What happened to her?” Vortex asked.

Heliotrope wound her fingers around her tail rotors. “She got too close. She must have. She has the symptoms, but they’re slow burn, and everyone who was out with her said she neutralised the threat before the hostile could uplink with her.” She shook her head.

Vortex vented onto her tail rotors to get her attention. “Slow burn?” he said. “What do you mean?”

“I mean she’s caught it,” Heliotrope said. “She’s got the virus, but it’s not quick like the others. She’s still lucid, mostly. We’ve got her in isolation, we’ve replaced all her fluids. We’ve given her a coding scrub, and it helped for like two breems then it all came back, and it’s getting worse.”

Vortex vented deep, shoving the tiredness aside and trying to clear the last vestiges of overcharge. “I need clearance to leave,” he said. “I’ve got a rendezvous on a nearby satellite right now, Blast Off’s my transport.”

“I can’t do that,” Heliotrope responded. “As in functionally, I can’t do that. I don’t care if you’ve got the cure in your pocket, I don’t have that authorisation.”

“Just get the guards off my tail,” Vortex said, “I’ll do the rest.”

“Frag, whatever, OK, so what can you tell me?”

Vortex beckoned her closer. “It’s the nanites,” he whispered. “I don’t know how, I’m not an engineer. But it’s in the nanites, that’s what spurs on the frame changes, and it’s what keeps them going after you think you’ve killed them.”

Heliopause stared. “How do you know?”

“I don’t,” Vortex said, “And neither do you. But you’re gonna work it out. Find the signs, have an epiphany. Save Incision.”

“You better be right.”

“I am.”

“I can clear you to enter the safe zone,” Heliotrope said. “But my influence ends when you walk out of this building. After that, you’re on your own.”

Vortex nodded. “I can work with that,” he said. “Here’s my comm freq. You find out how to beat this thing, you tell me, right?”

Heliotrope stood slowly and trudged to the door. “We’ll see.”

* * *

When Vortex vanished into the examination room, Blast Off hoped he might stay vanished.

He was done with everything. He was tired, everything ached, and he wanted to be alone, and most of all he wanted to be anywhere but here.

It was as though the lines were too tight for his energon and coolant - for all his fluids. He checked his mass shifting circuits. Fluids were usually the first thing that converted back to normal size if the mass shifting was malfunctioning, but it wasn’t.

Blast Off vented air deeply, glancing at the door. His elbows were on his thighs, and with every passing astrosecond, he slumped further. He had stopped checking his chronometer, and his arms were crossed over his knees, his forehead resting on them.

It wasn’t a comfortable position. It strained his back joints and the metal plates of his heat shield, but it made the dizziness go away. Not completely, but it was more bearable that way.

Blast Off ran a reluctant scan. He’d been declared safe and clean, but he didn’t feel like it. He hoped it was merely a bad hangover, but-

The door opened, interrupting his train of thought.

He straightened up quickly, keeping his expression blank.

“We’ll see,” Heliotrope said to Vortex. It was like a buzz in Blast Off’s processor.

He shook his head minutely, watching Vortex nodding.

“Hey,” Heliotrope called to one of the guards. The buzz was still there.

Vortex grinned. “We’re free to leave decontamination,” he said cheerfully, and Blast Off wondered how he was so good at pretending.

He’d never managed that, not even after vorns of counselling. Struggling to get to his feet, he followed Vortex and the guard through more corridors.

The light was loud, too bright for his optics, but even changing their settings didn’t help.

Vortex said something to the guard that Blast Off didn’t bother trying to catch.

A door opened, and it was like they’d been vented into space all over again.

Everything was dark, and it took his optics a moment to adjust. They were in some kind of open public square, with spotlights shining down on a bleak area divided by fences into smaller areas. It was a maze.

A crowded maze.

So many people. Too many people.

Blast Off kept following Vortex, and the ‘copter kept talking to him, but he wasn’t listening. The buzz in his audials was grating, it mingled with so many people talking, complaining, whining, and sometimes cheering when they found someone they’d apparently been looking for.

Blast Off’s dizziness increased, and he was suddenly cold.

“I think I need to sit down,” someone said, and only when Vortex stared at him Blast Off realised it had been his own voice.

“You don’t look good.”

Blast Off revved his engine. “I’m hungover, and damaged, and stuck in a safe zone that looks like a prison. That is not an equation for my best mood.”

“Okay.” Vortex still grinned, but it looked different, as though he was searching for something. “Let’s go find somewhere to sit. I need to talk to you in private anyway.”

“In private,” Blast Off muttered. “Good luck finding privacy here.”

Dodging people was almost impossible. The energy fields of strangers met and touched, and rasped against one another with a range of emotions outside of Blast Off’s capacity to understand.

Vortex was smaller than him; he had it easier finding a way through the crowd, and at one point Blast Off thought he’d lost him.

Someone touched Blast Off’s lower arm, and it was difficult not to flinch and snap. Vortex looked up at him, frowning.

“You really don’t look good,” the ‘copter repeated.

Blast Off huffed. “I have cleanser residue on my plating, of course I don’t look good.” He was changing the topic, but what use was it to complain to someone who didn’t care? Blast Off shook his arm to get rid of the touch, it was annoying.

Thankfully Vortex let go.

//We need to find a place without too many people,// Vortex commed him in private, making Blast Off almost jump in surprise from the voice in his head. Even that was clouded by the annoying buzz.

//Right, look around you,// he spat. //You won’t find a place without people.//

//I’m smaller than you, I can only see the back of people’s heads. Can you see where we could go to take off?//

//Take off?// Blast Off looked at Vortex.

//You can sit down for a moment and then we need to head off,// he said, and it was neither cheerful nor teasing. //We still have a rendezvous to make. You think you can transform?//

Blast Off just looked at the other a little longer. Next to them people walked, talked and squeezed past.

//I guess I can…// he replied. His mass shifting wasn’t malfunctioning. He just wasn’t feeling well, but the dizziness shouldn’t be a problem with all his alt-mode sensors.

//Well,// Vortex said, //then stop looking at me and look for an empty spot.//

Blast Off vented air. He didn’t like the heliformer’s tone, but then, he didn’t like any of this. He didn’t spare a thought for how exactly they would escape with air defence towers close by, and guards standing at every corner, but who knew, Vortex might have a plan.

And guards were what Blast Off saw the most. Armed guards and civilians, a wavering mass of heads.

Heads that looked at him, optics sticking out of their helms, piercing like lasers. Faces melted and dripped while voices morphed into an entity of painful, threatening humming. Frames turned grey, and the stench of stale energon filled the air.

Blast Off stumbled.

“Frag.” He needed to get away from them. “Frag!”

“Blast Off,” someone called his name, but he knew it was a trick.

His back met a fence; a shudder went through his frame and his knees gave in. He slid down.

“Blast Off, for frag’s sake,” that something spoke again, crouching in front of him. A distorted face with a red mouth where the eyes should have been, glowing bright as though to swallow him.

Blast Off’s engine gave a rev as he tried to edge away. But the fence was behind him, and he couldn’t evade the thing coming closer. His fingers dug into the gaps of the fence, but he was too weak to get up.

“Frag,” he muttered again and offlined his optics. He needed to calm down. He knew it wasn’t real, and that thought caused an emotion he hadn’t had in a very long time.

Once he onlined his optics again, everything was back to normal with Vortex looking at him.

“The frag was that?” the ‘copter spat, volume low. “The guards are looking at you.”

Blast Off’s engine gave another whine. “Vortex,” he said, and he didn’t care that his voice had an edge of panic. “Did you see anything on HEX?” Sigma had said the labs hadn’t been compromised, but what if it hadn’t been confined to the labs. Blast Off knew what was stored in some of them, he-

“What exactly should I have seen? You mean the people who shot at us? The acid gas?”

“No, like,” Blast Off rubbed his face. He’d been there before, had imagined things before. He looked around frantically, searching, and felt stupid for doing so at the same time. “Something dark. Like a cloud. Or like tar, it grows.” Even to him his words sounded like they were coming from a madman, but he knew they could be true.

“Okay,” Vortex shifted. “You’re not making any sense.” Of course it didn’t make sense to Vortex. Everyone who had encountered it had been forbidden to speak about it.

“Seriously, Vortex,” Blast Off hissed, trying to keep his voice low so as not to attract the attention of passers by. “I mean it.” He reached for Vortex’s upper arm, forcing the other to stay in place as he stared. The metal bulged in his grip, but he hardly noticed. “Did you see anything like that. On HEX, in the hotel, maybe even in here?”

It would explain a lot. People going nuts, attacking each other, and himself seeing Vortex’s face shifting into an ugly grimace. If that substance had gotten out… Blast Off would know a way to deal with it.

“No, I didn’t see anything like that. Why do you ask? And you’re denting my plating.”

Blast Off didn’t let go. “Because if it is what I think it is, I know what to do to stop this mess.”

Vortex switched to private comm again. //This mess is Flame’s work. It’s nanities, and Onslaught wants me to get him. And we just missed our rendezvous with Swindle, which means we need a plan.//

Blast Off kept staring. Why hadn’t they told him?

//My plan is to go to Flame’s last known location and see if he’s still there,// Vortex said. //Can you transform?//

Blast Off nodded, but then he remembered something in the report from his most recent scan. He let go of Vortex’s arm, staring at his torn knuckles.

//Good, then we need to find a place where you can take off without being shot. Then we get Flame.// Vortex got up and looked down at Blast Off. //And we need some samples of his nanite stuff. So we should search his base for that, too.//

Blast Off’s helm dropped back against the fence. He sighed, panic and hope leaving his frame. Only numbness remained.

“I don’t think looking for samples is necessary,” he said as his cooling system switched on.

Chapter Text

“We’re fragged.” Vortex leant against the wall. “OK, what would Onslaught do?”

“”How in the Pit should I know?” Blast Off rubbed his temple, great gusts of hot air wafting from his vents. His torn knuckles were silvered, his paint dull. He slouched, keeping his weight off his injured leg. Vortex crept closer.

“Incision’s got it too,” he whispered, glancing around to try to gauge which was riskier, a private comm that might be intercepted, or quiet words that could only be picked up at close range. “She’s a rotary, batch-mate of that doctor we saw. She’s got it same as you, no uplink, no cables. Slow burn.”

“You’re too close,” Blast Off said. “Keep your distance.”

Vortex turned his rotors in the warm breeze. “No. The guards already looked at you, we can’t give them a reason to look again.” His engine revved and he fingered the stubs of the offline laser knives at his wrists. “Nanites travel in energon, right?”

Blast Off nodded, and covered his optics with his hand.

Vortex vented slowly, and decided he wasn’t going to try to look at his rotors. Split metal was split metal. “How fast can you get us out of here?”

“Fast,” Blast Off replied. “Do you have a plan?”

“Nope. Hey, I got a data-net signal!” Vortex called up a map of Luna Two’s sprawling conurbation. “OK, so we’re in the finance district,” he said, looking around. They were corralled in a domed space, some kind of public square or auditorium. “Found it! Landings Plaza, that’s where we are. All right, Flame is… five mechanomiles away, back in the direction of the hotel.”

“If he’s still there,” Blast Off said.

Vortex flicked his rotors, and sidled closer to the heat of Blast Off’s vents. “He’ll be there,” he said, beginning to grin. “He thinks he’s safe.”

Blast Off slumped further, and went to put a hand on Vortex’s shoulder, but clearly thought better of it. “What do you mean?”

Vortex leaned close to whisper in his audial. “You know that flyer I was talking to earlier? Back in medical?”

Peering out between his fingers, Blast Off blinked in response.

“That was Sigma’s adjutant, Airflow.” The grin was gaining momentum, and Vortex wondered if this was what it felt like to be Onslaught. “She had a message for me. For Ons. Flame’s got a protector in Iacon, maybe even in the Senate. She couldn’t pull too much data, but she got a name for me. It’s a familiar name. Valence.”

“Valence?” Blast Off wrinkled his nose. “And I thought Moonray was bad.”

“You don’t get it,” Vortex said. “Valence has worked for the Senate since before I filed for citizenship, he’s on more committees than you’ve had oil changes and he’s got senators eating out of his hand. Flame thinks he’s safe. Valence is behind the bombings, he’s got to be.” He paused, waiting for the minute nod to indicate that Blast Off was still listening. “He’s got Public Health all riled up, but he’s never gonna let them bomb Flame. So if Flame didn’t leave when things started getting hot, he didn’t leave at all.”

Blast Off pulled himself upright, squinting as his hand dropped from his eyes. “Let’s go.”

“Easy there,” Vortex whispered, grabbing his arm. “If we’re gonna get out of here we gotta be stealthy.”

“Get a room,” a bright green minibot sneered, shoving past them to collapse in the corner.

“Go jump in a smelter,” Vortex snapped. He exerted a little pressure, keeping his hands well away from Blast Off’s knuckles. “Come on, I think the air’s clearer over there.”

The minibot swore at them, and Blast Off lurched as Vortex tugged. For a horrible second he thought the shuttle would fall, but Blast Off managed to get his feet under him, and they were soon lost in the crowd.

“We’re aiming for Plaza View,” Vortex said. “It’s a side street, should be a bigaft statue of Nova Prime just near it.”

Blast Off slowed, and looked around. Vortex steered him, looping an arm around his waist and mouthing He’s drunk at anyone who glanced their way too long.

“There,” Blast Off said. “It’s blocked.”

“Course it’s blocked.” Vortex bit his lip. “OK, I want you to stay here. Can you do that for me?”

“I’m not an imbecile,” Blast Off said. A few heads turned, and Vortex sighed.

“No, you just had five too many.” He glared at a racer type whose winglets were spread almost the entire length of the bench at the base of Nova Prime’s statue. “How about making some space?”

The racer’s optics narrowed, but he shuffled along, and Vortex helped Blast Off to ease himself down.

//What are you doing?// Blast Off asked by comm.

//You’ll see,// Vortex replied by the same method, then said aloud, “I’ll be back soon.”

Huffing, Blast Off leaned against the plinth. “You’d better.”

Vortex slid into the crowd, slipping a little unease into his energy field, a little frustration. He knocked against people, shoved his way through knots of nervous airframes, and gave panicky grounders a worried look, letting his optics meet theirs for a fraction too long for comfort before shaking his head and moving on.

The people were scared. They were also bored and hungry, irritable and tired. Landings Plaza was vast, but they were packed in like bullets in a clip.

Vortex found his way to the fountain in the centre of the plaza. Liquid mercury gleamed in the pool, but nothing flowed from the spouts of the abstract sculpture at its centre. He pulled himself up onto the plinth of an adjoining statue, finally putting himself above the level of most people’s heads.

Sigma’s staff had put barricades over all the major exits, and knots of guards stood at the minor roads, standing warily both sides of portable roadblocks. It was clear they were there to keep people in as much as to keep anything out.

Vortex tried Onslaught, then Airframe, but neither call connected. He pinged Blast Off for Haze’s frequency and tried her as well, but she was also out of range. Shame, he could have done with knowing exactly how she vanished.

He gave himself half a breem, a careful sweep of the Plaza, watching the dynamics of the crowd. When he came down from the plinth, he was smirking.

* * *

Blast Off was both warm and cold.

It reminded him of space, where the temperature of the vacuum was stingingly cold while the radiation from nearby stars heated his insides.

Out there, he’d never felt like he was boiling, not like he did now, as if his shields had given in and let everything through that could destroy him.

Blast Off groaned and opened his optics. Every light was piercing, painful, and his processor felt like he had a hangover only worse. It didn’t help that everyone’s face was distorted, an ugly grimace of metal staring and grinning, and Blast Off knew he was hallucinating.

He forced himself to keep his optics online as he ran another scan. This time he knew what to look out for. The malfunctioning nanities hadn’t make sense before, but they did now. If it wasn’t anything from HEX’s labs, he couldn’t do much about it.

Sure, he could tinker with his core programming if he needed to, but that wouldn’t do anything to the programming of his nanities.

Someone screamed.

Blast Off flinched, pressing his back harder against the cold surface behind him. The racer next to him seemed startled, too, showing that Blast Off hadn’t imagined it.

Voices rose: another scream in panic, someone yelling in anger, the sound of something hitting liquid, and it all mingled with the buzz in Blast Off’s head.

The increased audial input made his vision flicker and blur.

The racer stood up, one of his winglets scraping Blast Off’s plating, and he could barely stop himself from lashing out.

“Thrusters,” a voice said close to him. It was only the nickname that made Blast Off realise it was Vortex. He wouldn’t have guessed from the garbled figure in front of him. “We need to leave.”

Blast Off reset his optical input twice, before everyone looked more Cybertronian again. “Yeah,” he muttered, and was glad that the ‘copter helped him to stand. This dizziness was really irritating.

Vortex wrapped an arm around him, and the physical contact was grating. But Blast Off endured until the other put his fingers in a transformation seam on Blast Off’s hip.

His engine revved; the sensations stung, this spot had always been sensitive, but somehow now it was worse.

Blast Off flared his field in anger, but Vortex didn’t seem to care.

Slowly they moved to the alley. Or Blast Off thought they did. Over the noises of panicking people and guards yelling and rushing everywhere, he couldn’t make out much.

“This is the second commotion you’ve caused since we left Kaon,” Blast Off said as he somehow managed to set one foot in front of the other. “Is that your special talent?”

Vortex laughed, but sobered quickly when someone rushed past them. “I have many talents,” he replied, his oddly sombre expression failing to match his mischievous tone.

Maybe Blast Off was hallucinating again.

They reached the alley. It was deserted now. Blast Off didn’t dare look over his shoulder at the people rioting in case he saw something else, something that wasn’t real. The barricades were still up, huge concrete and metal blocks.

“I can’t destroy those,” Blast Off muttered, thinking of the plasglass of the prison and the similar situation.

“We need to climb over them, can you do that?” Vortex let go of him, and for a moment Blast Off wasn’t sure he wouldn’t fall. He stumbled and caught himself. “I don’t want them to notice we’re gone,” Vortex said, “and our thrusters will get their attention.”

Blast Off might have been dizzy and turning into a zombie, but he wasn’t stupid. There was no point in responding though.

He huffed as he stepped closer to a block. It was more piled up rubble, maybe from a building that had been bombed?

Blast Off didn’t care. Vortex was already moving, and he felt clumsy and slow in comparison. It wasn’t even that high; Blast Off could almost look over it, but it was uneven and spinning and vibrating beneath him.

What was real, Blast Off couldn’t tell, but it made climbing difficult either way.

“Let me help you,” Vortex said. He didn’t sound so pleased and amused any more; his energy field conveyed the need to hurry. The ‘copter touched Blast Off’s arms and side, and got him moving. It was all a blur until they reached the other side and Blast Off had a moment to collect himself.

He heaved air deeply, his cooling fans whirring; he still was warm.

Nothing made sense: where he was, why he was there and who was with him. His audials buzzed and his optical input flickered. It was darker in the alley, the few lights stinging his processor like needles, and then that huge red mouth came into his field of vision. It spoke without moving, coming closer with outward-facing teeth that flashed, ready to bite and kill him.

Blast Off pressed closer to the rubble behind him; his ventilation worked faster, and the thing wouldn’t leave.

But he had survived worse things, Blast Off knew, the only clear thought his processor was able to form.

He grabbed the monster by what he thought was the throat was and turned, forcing it against the concrete. He raised his other hand, the damaged one with the throbbing knuckles.

Blast Off!

His punch landed in the wall next to Vortex’s head.

The red mouth morphed back into what it really was.

The ‘copter stared at him, his vents working, but it was nothing compared to the noise Blast Off’s made. He was trembling, and he couldn’t bring himself to move, to let Vortex go.

“Blast Off, are you still in there?” Vortex asked, an edge to the voice Blast Off couldn’t read, but the ‘copter’s energy field spoke volumes. It was erratic, with a hint of panic and worry.

It took another few astroseconds for the question to make sense, then Blast Off nodded.

“Okay… can you let me go?”

Only then did he see the glowing energon blade in Vortex’s hand. It was close to a transformation seam on his side, ready to slice through important lines.

With a stutter of his vents, Blast Off stepped back. He switched his optics off and on again, air cycling quickly through his vents.

“Are you okay?” Vortex asked, but he kept his distance and the energon blade out.

“Do I look okay to you?” Blast Off spat.

Vortex didn’t reply.

Blast Off wasn’t sure if he should apologise. It wasn’t like it had been his fault. “I think I know why the infected attack the healthy ones,” he said instead, trying make it sound like a joke and failing.

“Yeah?”

Struggling to regain some clarity of thought, Blast Off shook his head. He uttered a huff, bitter and frustrated. “You look like zombies to us…”

Vortex’s rotors twitched, and he kept quiet for another moment, giving Blast Off time to calm down.

He was grateful for that, but he never would have said it aloud.

“We need to hurry. Can you still transform?” Vortex asked after a short pause, and Blast Off wanted to slap him.

“Stop asking me if I can do things,” he growled.

Again, Vortex didn’t respond.

They moved further down the alley, Blast Off keeping his hands on the wall for purchase, Vortex keeping his distance. He didn’t mention that with fewer people around and the air being colder, he felt slightly better than before.

When they reached a junction that provided enough space for Blast Off to transform, and he did so, opening his rear door almost mid-transformation. The dizziness was nearly gone in alt-mode.

“Stay in the cargo hold,” he said, as Vortex stepped in. “I have cables on my flight deck.”

Blast Off couldn’t tell if Vortex freezing was only in his imagination. He didn’t bother to dwell on it. As soon as Vortex was aboard, he took off.

* * *

Vortex huddled in the netting at the rear of the cargo hold. Cables on the flight deck; he’d known that, right? He flicked the laser knife on and off, watching the door to the cockpit. Blast Off didn’t have the prehensile cable mod, but who knew what changes the nanites could force?

Then Blast Off rolled, and Vortex tumbled, tangled in the netting. “What’s going on?” he yelled.

“Don’t shout,” Blast Off growled. He rolled again, and juddered as something hit him.

“What is it? What’s going on?”

“Incoming!”

Vortex tore himself free of the netting and braced against the rear wall. Another missile made contact, the impact snapping through Blast Off’s energy field. The shuttle dived, and Vortex clung to the cargo straps.

“Tell me we’re not crashing!” Vortex demanded, but the walls fragmented, flying up and around him, and he was disgorged midair while Blast Off fell through his transformation.

Vortex transformed by instinct, but his rotors were dead and he dropped like a stone. Flipping back to root mode he slammed on his thrusters and smashed into the side of a building. He grasped for the masonry as gravity took hold, but the impact spun him and the ground was far too close.

He tried to roll, but his thrusters were glitched and his arm was numb, and the floor just wouldn’t stay still. He rolled through the final impact, grateful that gravity was a weaker force on the moon than on Cybertron itself, then swore, pushing himself up off the ground and trying to divert power to weapons that he’d left back home.

A groan reached his audials, and he staggered to his feet. He shook his numb arm, and grunted as it began to prickle. OK, time to take stock. All limbs present, rotors useless, sensor-net up and running. He shook his arm again, and vented with relief as the prickling spread and sensation returned. No-one was shooting at him yet, that was another win. But smoke and dust filled the air, and his infra-red vision wasn’t working. No telling who was out there, or how many.

He fetched a fresh set of knives from inside his chest - frag knew where his first two had gone - and set out in the direction of the groan.

Blast Off wasn’t hard to find, not after Vortex stumbled into a building with a great chunk torn out of the side.

He lay in root mode, a hole in his side the size of Vortex’s fist. His entire frame was scorch marks, and Vortex held back, watching for the twitch of his interface cables. But Blast Off groaned again, his optics flickering, and Vortex took a step closer.

“Windcut?” Blast Off whispered, and Vortex crouched to peer at his injuries. He wasn’t leaking, but the hole was facing up, and fluids generally flowed downhill. Vortex studied his own hands, looking for scrapes and tears. He drew a deep vent.

Blast Off coughed, and his optics flared. He rolled onto his back, and Vortex caught him and heaved him onto his side again. “Stay still,” he said. “I gotta patch you up.” He stood, backing away and looking around.

“Where are you going?”

“Stay there! I mean it. Stay right there and don’t fraggin’ move, OK?” Vortex bolted for the building Blast Off had crashed into. The fancy glass of the shop front was cracked, an alarm box flashing inside. He kicked the window until it shattered, and darted in. The counter wasn’t hard to find, and he dived behind it, pulling everything off every shelf he could find until his hands wrapped around the smooth chunky shell of the emergency aid box.

Vortex sprinted back to Blast Off. He wanted to punch his past self for not packing his usual kit. But this was meant to be an easy mission. It was meant to be cushy and relaxing and fun, and maybe a bit boring.

“Why are you swearing so much?” Blast Off demanded, but Vortex didn’t answer. He upended the kit onto the floor and began to separate out what he needed. Gloves, clamps, mesh, adhesive.

“Freeze!” The order came from behind him. “Put your hands where we can see them!”

Vortex raised his hands, and slowly turned his head. A pair of soldiers crept towards him: a stocky red grounder and a dun-coloured mech with a compact frame that didn’t give away his alt mode. No, not soldiers, civilian peacekeepers, their insignias gleaming on their chests. Their rifles pointed at Vortex’s head, pistols and shock sticks holstered just below their hips.

“Stay right where you are!” the red one yelled. Her orange visor gleamed brightly, and her finger wavered over the trigger.

“You have to help me,” Vortex said, setting a quaver in his voice and drooping his rotors. “Please, my friend crashed, he’s bleeding.”

“This is a restricted area,” Red barked. “There’s a quarantine on, you shouldn’t be here.”

“He crashed!” Vortex repeated. “Please, I need you help. I need to stop the bleeding. You can arrest us after, I don’t care, just help us!”

Red glanced at her companion, who shrugged. “Fraggit.” She stepped up to Vortex, muzzle lowering, and leaned over to take a look at Blast Off’s wound. Her companion came too, flanking him. Blast Off groaned; Red grimaced. Vortex sprang up between them, clocking the dun grounder in the face and wrenching his rifle from his hands. He brought the butt up at Red’s face, cracking her visor and shoving her back, and finally got his finger on the trigger. He shot the dun grounder in the chest and turned on Red.

“Put your weapons on the ground,” he demanded. At his feet Blast Off groaned again, and this time it carried an edge of exasperation.

Red swallowed. “You didn’t have to do that,” she said, and Vortex took a step towards her. “OK OK! I’m lowering my weapon.” She crouched slowly, setting the rifle on the floor. Vortex shot her in the head.

“What are you doing?” Blast Off moaned.

“Looking after you,” Vortex said, moving over to the dun-coloured grounder. His chest was a smoking crater, his laser core exposed and glowing. Vortex shot him twice, once in the laser core and once in the head, before returning to Red to check her vitals were no longer vital. “Hey look,” he said, clipping her pistol to his hip and throwing her rifle over his shoulder, “we’re armed. You’re welcome. Now stop fraggin’ rolling over, you’re bleeding on the inside and I’ve only got like five clips to shut it off.”

“Ugh.” Blast Off lay still, and Vortex settled beside him. He pulled on the gloves, suppressing a shudder, and put a hand through the hole in Blast Off’s side.

“It’s a mess in here,” he said. “What do your diagnostics say?”

“That I’ll live,” Blast Off replied. “Just patch it up, we’ll deal with it later.”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Vortex grimaced, clamping a section of hose. He peered into the hole, watching fluids dribble, and clamped off three more hoses. He tied the damaged lines together, grouping them with frayed wires and a floppy section of frag-knew-what just in case it was important. He fastened them to a nearby fuel line strong enough to take their weight, and leaned back. “How does it feel?”

“Disgusting,” Blast Off said.

“I mean do you have any more leaks?”

Blast Off went to get up, shaking his head, and Vortex pushed him down. “No. Roll on your front and crack open your medical access hatch.”

“This is so undignified,” Blast Off moaned, but he rolled onto his knees, pushing up with his arms, and opened the access hatch on his chest. Vortex leapt back as a tide of fluids splashed on the broken pavement. Then he crept forward again, glancing at his gloves and swallowing. He grabbed the mesh and the glue, and plastered the hole in Blast Off’s abdomen until the entire gaping wreck was covered.

He stood back. “Are we ready to move?”

Blast Off sniffed, and heaved himself to his feet. He swayed. “You killed them.”

Vortex vented slow, peeling off one glove, then using the inside out glove to peel off the other. He threw them into the shallow crater caused by Blast Off’s landing. “You wanted to get arrested?” he said. “You want them following us?” He looked over his hands, then adjusted the strap of the rifle on his shoulder. He secured it over a rotor, and went over to the dun grounder’s corpse. “Here, take this.” He held out the pistol.

“And the spare rifle, I presume,” Blast Off said, taking the gun.

“I’ll carry it for you,” Vortex said. He patted down the body, taking an emergency med kit and a small box of field rations. “That’s weird,” he said.

“Huh?” Blast Off was swaying again. He tugged a cloth from one of his compartments, and wiped down his front. “What’s weird.”

“The kit’s all military issue, but these are peacekeepers. Civilian cops.”

“And?” Blast Off gave the cloth a disgusted look and dropped it.

“I dunno, it’s just weird.” Vortex stood, and brought up the map he’d downloaded from the data net. He looked around. “That’s Twelfth Street,” he said. “So we’re on… OK, I got it, I know where we are. Let’s move.”

Chapter Text

The route to Flame’s base was longer than Blast Off had anticipated. Which could have been because they kept being interrupted by peacekeepers. Peacekeepers who didn’t deserve the title seeing as they were trying to kill them.

Maybe they just wanted to know where Blast Off and Vortex were going and why. But with pistols aimed at them, it wasn’t like either of them felt like answering.

Blast Off had stopped counting how many they’d fought. Hopefully there wouldn’t be many more.

After the loss of a good portion of his fluids, he seemed to have stabilised. He was still dizzy, and aiming was difficult, but his hallucinations hadn’t become worse. He’d even got used to Vortex being ugly and distorted, and no longer felt the need to hit him.

“Okay,” Vortex whispered, and why he wasn’t using comms, Blast Off didn’t know. The ‘copter pressed his back against a wall and peeked around the corner. “It’s very close now.”

Blast Off didn’t bother to comment. It was the fourth time Vortex had said that.

“Flame’s base is behind this building, but the only access point is the main street, and they’ll see us coming. We need a plan.” The ‘copter looked at him, the red visor glowing bright and expectant.

Blast Off rubbed his optics. “Don’t look at me like I know what to do,” he growled. He was annoyed. It was bad enough he had to deal with all this in the first place. “We can go through the building if you want to avoid the street,” Blast Off muttered to himself, but Vortex’s grin told him the ‘copter had heard.

“I like that idea. Let’s go find a door.”

Blast Off huffed, but followed Vortex to the back of a nearby building. It had a thick concrete wall with small high windows, the rear of a block of shops and offices. The front probably looked far more welcoming.

“Ha!” Vortex sprinted ahead.

There was a ramp with a gate, a receiving area for deliveries. It was locked.

“Watch out for more peacekeepers, I’ll unlock the gate.” Vortex rummaged through a compartment on his thigh and took out something Blast Off couldn’t identify.

He didn’t bother trying. He wondered if Vortex had ever tried to make money in a legal way after he dropped out of the military, but then, he didn’t really care.

He was busy trying to keep his optics online, and not to reach into the large sealed hole on his side. It was another part of his body that throbbed, aching just like his knuckles and all the clipped lines and wires on his inside.

Once he was back on Cybertron, he’d make a list of how many times he’d been shot or hit and-

“Hey, you there, what are you doing?” someone yelled. The mech stepped out of another small alley, his weapon ready.

Blast Off groaned.

“Thrusters,” Vortex urged, not looking up.

“Yeah, yeah…” he muttered.

The peacekeeper came closer, but he didn’t shoot right away. He was a dark blue-grey flyer, his visor pointing at Blast Off’s damaged side.

“You’re hurt. Why are you here? This is a quarantine zone, you’re- are you looters?” The mech’s gaze fell on Vortex working the lock. He came even closer, and Blast Off welcomed it. It spared him the effort.

“You are looters, you-“ Blast Off hit the mech hard. It felt good; the metal under his fist squealed and dented, and a rush of satisfaction surged through him.

The peacekeeper stumbled, almost fell. He gaped.

Blast Off growled and lunged again, his damaged fist raised. He punched the other’s face, then his abdomen, and sent him to the floor. His own pain was almost gone, reduced to simple knowledge in the background of his head. He kicked out, making the blue mech gargle. He’d lost his rifle, and now it seemed he couldn’t even get up.

Blast Off helped him, grabbing him by the arm, and heaved him up against the wall. The mech gasped at the impact.

The strong shuttle engine revved loudly. Blast Off could see the peacekeeper’s closed medical port, just below the shoulder, covered by metal. Squeezing his fingers into a transformation seam on the blue chest, Blast Off ripped the metal off, revealing the port and vital systems.

Blast Off was turning into a mindless zombie, and no one cared. No one was helping him, so why not give someone else a taste of that? Of the hallucinations and buzzing in his head, of the throbbing and the building heat he couldn’t fight.

His engine revved again; the mech in his grip whimpered.

Purple optics flickered as he came to his senses, only just stopping himself from reaching for his interface panel.

Blast Off’s vents hitched. Letting go of the other, he stepped back and stared. The mech slid down, optics bright as he gripped his torn chest.

“What… what is wrong with you?” he asked, but Blast Off didn’t hear him.

He unclipped his gun from his thigh.

“What are, no, don’t shoo-“

He fired twice, head and laser core to be safe. Blast Off didn’t want to admit that he’d learnt that from Vortex.

“Frag,” he mumbled. He leant next to the body, heaving air, and trying to calm his thoughts. His optics were offline, but colourful lights danced inside his head in pace with the buzzing in his audials.

Even with some of the nanities gone, he was still losing the battle. It was only a matter of time until his frame started to change. The rest, Blast Off didn’t want to think about.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Vortex said, his voice a distraction. “There’s no time for remorse. Get over here.”

Blast Off pushed off the wall and went to the gate. It was open. Had Vortex called him earlier? Was his hearing glitching now as well, aside from the constant humming?

“No remorse,” he said when he followed Vortex through the gate, closing it behind him.

“What then?”

They walked through a storage hall with crates and boxes. There was no hint as to what could be in them.

“Nothing,” Blast Off spat, but it lacked bite.

“Right… What is it? Feeling worse?”

They entered an area with larger hallways, and Blast Off kept following the ‘copter. It seemed he knew where to go, and Blast Off couldn’t bring himself to pay attention.

“No, not necessarily worse,” Blast Off replied. He didn’t know how to form his thoughts. A few astroseconds passed before he continued. “Do you think the zombies we killed were still sentient?”

Vortex looked over his shoulder and slowed until they were next to each other. “What do you mean? You saw them. They were all leaking, and some were dribbling and howling and stuff.”

“Well, yes.” Blast Off rubbed his face. “But what if they didn’t have a choice? What if they were still aware and couldn’t do…” He stopped. He didn’t want to be trapped in his body driven by insanity, aware of what he was.

A shudder ran through his frame, and Vortex edged away.

“Whatever they were,” Vortex said, “you won’t become like them. We’re almost there, and either Flame or Heliotrope will have a cure, so don’t think about stuff like that, and focus.”

If Blast Off heard right, Vortex didn’t believe his own words, but he didn’t want to point it out.

They walked faster now, in silence, and finally reached the backs of the shops with the staff entrances. Vortex glanced in several, shooting the locks instead of picking them.

“Okay, keep going,” he said again, and Blast Off just tagged along, a hand on the wall for support. He’d have to sit down soon.

In one shop, Vortex lingered. There was no sound and no hint of an attack, so Blast Off slid down the wall and settled on the floor. The corridors were barely lit, but it still was too bright.

A door creaked and Vortex snuck back into the hallway. He crouched in front of Blast Off, holding out a cooling pad. “Take that.” With a nod, Blast Off did. He put it on his helm, for once not caring how stupid he must look.

“And now listen.” With his laser knife, Vortex drew on the floor. A rectangle and several dots. “That’s the building Flame’s in. There are guards here, here and here.” Vortex pointed at the dots; they were all on one side of the rectangle, with lines to other sides. “But they’re moving this way in pairs and threes. Hey, are you watching?”

“I am.” Blast Off forced his optics back online.

“I can’t shoot them from here. If we start shooting, they’ll kill us. The shop front is all glass with no cover.”

“Can you snipe them?” Blast Off asked.

Vortex shook his head. “Those aren’t sniper rifles, and I’m not the best sniper. I’m better up close.”

“What do we do?” Blast Off asked. He didn’t want to hear all the things that wouldn’t work. So many unnecessary words.

“I need a distraction. You need to get the guards to move to the front of the building, then I can take them all out at the same time.”

Blast Off stared. Why did he have to be the bait? Aside from the fact that he was a civilian with a gun he didn’t want. He sighed. “And how do I do that?”

Vortex grinned. “Just go there and tell them something. It really shouldn’t matter. The way you look, they’ll come.”

Blast Off glared. “Thank you.”

“One day you’ll be able to look back on all this and laugh,” Vortex commented. “Well, as much as you ever laugh, like this ‘tiny flicker of amusement in your energy field’-laugh.” The grin on the other’s face grew.

“Just shut up,” Blast Off grumbled, and struggled to get back to his feet. Blast Off was able to laugh, just not now, or at the stupid things stupid other people laughed at. “Where can I leave the building?” he asked.

“The back exit, the way we came in.”

Blast Off optics flickered. “What?” He didn’t want to walk all the way back and then around. “Why?”

“If you come through one of the closed shops, they’ll know something is off. Now, give me your gun.”

Blast Off sighed and surrendered. He lacked the energy for an argument. He really hoped he would find the way without getting lost.

* * *

He made it The corpse of the peacekeeper sat opposite the gate, a reminder he didn’t want and tried not to look at.

He continued to round the building, through the alley towards the main street with the shops and Flame’s base. The cooling pad was still on his helm, but it had stopped working, so he let it slide down, and put his hand on the wall instead.

Why the scientist had chosen such a densely inhabited area for his operations, Blast Off could only guess. Maybe he had let the virus spread from there. He didn’t know Flame, and had no idea about his motives, but Blast Off hoped he’d get it himself and die miserably. Him and that Valence person or whoever was in charge.

His ventilation was still loud, but there was a distant hum that was new, and not in his head. Had the peacekeepers got more weapons and equipment for Sigma’s safe zone?

It wasn’t worth looking back. The high buildings blocked the view. He kept walking.

Reaching the main street, he could make out the guards. They hadn’t noticed him yet. Maybe they didn’t expect anyone.

“Stinger said she saw one,” Blast Off heard someone say over the buzz in his audials.

“Did they bite her?”

“Oh, they don’t bite,” the first voice replied.

“But I thought they were after your energon?”

“Yeah, me too. Stinger said it had its cables out, but she shot it before it came closer.”

“Scary…”

“By the way, have you still heard nothin’ from her and Sandcart?”

“They’re one point two six breems overdue, but I only get static when- Hey, you! Stop there!”

Blast Off continued to creep closer, his hands on the wall of the building Vortex was in. The dizziness was back, and was getting worse.

“Don’t shoot!” he said, and was surprised how urgent he sounded.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” It was the mech who’d first spoken, a bulky jet with large thrusters and stumpy wings. He came closer, his gun ready.

“I crashed,” Blast Off said, trying to keep things close to the truth. He had the notion that he wouldn’t be able to make up something believable in his current state of mind.

“This is a quarantine zone. You’re not allowed here.”

Blast Off let go of the wall and stepped towards the guards. Vortex wanted them in front of the base. They were peacekeepers, too. It made Blast Off frown.

“I noticed,” he said, and staggered, catching himself before he could fall. “I got shot, and then crashed.”

The flyer eyed him up. It was clear he was speaking over comms. “Why did you fly over this area in the first place?” he said aloud. “It’s in lockdown.”

Blast Off resisted a huff. When this was over, he’d deserve an award for… well, everything he’d been forced to go through.

“I didn’t know,” Blast Off said, and he made his plating shiver on purpose, hoping it didn’t look fake. “I was in space the last five quartex, I just came back and had a landing order for Luna Two. I couldn’t reach anyone, so I proceeded and they shot me. What’s going on here?”

Blast Off saw another pair of guards coming around a corner, walking right into Vortex’s killing zone.

“Your wound has been tended to,” the bulky flyer observed, and Blast Off didn’t know how long he could keep this up without losing patience. Thankfully the guards’ appearance didn’t change too much.

“I met a red femme and her partner. They helped me…”

“Stinger and Sandcart!” the second voice said. It belonged to a groundframe his visor brightening. “Where are they?”

Another guard came around another corner.

“I…” he began, and had a hard time thinking of something. It didn’t seem like they’d believe him. “I don’t know. There was a noise and they ran off. They said I should go here to get properly treated.“

“Liar!”

Blast Off raised his hands in surrender. “I’m not, I-“

“Stinger would never have sent you here. She’d have sent you to the safe zone and decontamination.”

Blast Off’s vision spun, and he couldn’t parse the words. His optics flickered. Now would be a good time for Vortex to shoot.

Weapon barrels glimmered in the starry night, pointed at Blast Off. He backed away.

“Who are you?” a third guard demanded, his face distorted and blurry.

//Vortex?// Blast Off commed.

The guards gathered, a flock of armed, hostile enemies with shrill optics, and Blast Off sensed the panic coming back. Well, at least he wouldn’t turn into a zombie if he died now.

A shot pierced the silence and the head of one of the guards. He dropped.

The others looked around, but they didn’t have time to figure out what had happened. Frames trembled in rifle fire and crashed to the ground, and it was as though Blast Off was hallucinating again.

He stumbled, his back hitting the glass window of a shop.

Had energon always been this bright or was it just his imagination? It spurted like paint, colouring the street. Drops floated to the ground like the leaves of trees Blast Off had seen on organic worlds, only to disperse into a splat. And in between all this, bodies shook in a crazed dance, groaning and gasping in the cacophony of the gunfire until they fell into a river of their own blood.

Finally, after the last clang of a body collapsing, silence fell over the street. But there was still one guard standing.

A grey blur darted through the darkness; a blade glowed and vanished in the back of the guard’s helm.

Blast Off offlined his optics and counted to ten. His ventilation couldn’t keep up with the growing heat, and his head felt like it was melting.

He didn’t want to die like this.

“Heh,” Vortex’s voice cut through the haze. “That was fun.”

Blast Off switched his optical input back on and saw Vortex closer to him. “Great fun, sure. You weren’t the one who almost got shot.”

“Hey, don’t complain. It worked, didn’t it? I’m surprised, too, but they all came to look at you.”

Blast Off rebooted his audials and stared. “You are surprised it worked?”

“I’m not so good with that tacticical scrap. I thought you knew that by now.” Vortex shrugged. “We better move. Who knows how many guards are inside, and they must have heard the shots.”

Blast Off left the safe support of the glass behind him and vented air deeply. So, Vortex didn’t have a plan for whatever greeted them inside. Wonderful.

“Just so you know,” the shuttle grumbled, “my urge to strangle you has nothing to do with the virus.” His face contorted into a grimace, his visor flaring in a glare.

Vortex laughed. It sounded forced. The step he took backwards could have been the ‘copter backing away from him, or just a movement towards the building which supposedly had Flame inside.

As they walked towards the entry, Vortex gave him a brief glance every few astroseconds, his weapon held constantly ready. Blast Off’s jaw clenched when he realised the rotary’s readiness for action was all about him, and not because of whatever waited for them in the building.

Blast Off tensed when the door opened. There wasn’t much to see aside from a dark hallway.

“You with me?” Vortex asked.

He needed to keep his composure just a bit longer. In there was Flame. In there had to be the antidote that would stop him from turning into a mindless, angry monster.

Blast Off nodded, and Vortex vanished from his view as he slipped into the dark.

Chapter Text

The ground floor was deserted. Vortex went first, sweeping each new room as they entered, getting a feel for the layout. A set of small shops fronted the street, luxury outlets whose stock rooms were lined with safes and whose employee break rooms were tiny and spartan.

“Where is everyone?” Blast Off said in one of his booming whispers. He sneered at an empty cooler, and let the door swing shut.

“It’s all wrong,” Vortex said. He swapped to internal comms, and beckoned Blast Off to follow him.

//What do you mean?//

//The peacekeepers, the quarantine, everything.// Vortex peered both ways down the corridor, and headed left. //These aren’t Flame’s people.//

//Well no, of course they’re not.//

//But they should be,// Vortex said. //Flame should have all kinds of protection and I can’t see it. There’s just the peacekeepers. And why aren’t they all guarding the safe zone? Why patrol here?//

Blast Off vented slow, hot air spilling onto Vortex’s back. //Thinking is not the easiest of processes right now,// he growled.

//What’s the Department for Public Health doing?// Vortex continued, gesturing for Blast Off to pause. He nudged a sliding door open and stepped swiftly through. //Clear,// he said after a second. //It’s a public body, they don’t do private contract work.//

//Of course they don’t, that would be highly illegal.//

//So why were they guarding this place? And why’s their kit all military issue? They’re civilian, that’s the point of them.// Vortex waited for Blast Off to catch up, before heading up the stairs. The shuttle huffed, and Vortex caught him glancing at the elevator. //Nope,// he said. //There’s no way I’m getting in a tiny box with you like this.//

Blast Off sighed, then began to trudge up the stairs after him. //You rode inside me just now.//

//Inside you isn’t beside you,// Vortex said. //Who’s on the Senate Sub-Committee for Public Health?//

//How in the blazing pit should I know?// Blast Off snapped. //Ask the data-net.//

//Signal’s gone,// Vortex said. //I lost it after you crashed.// He reached a landing and pressed his audial to the door. //I bet it’s Valence. I bet he’s on the Committee and he sent the peacekeepers. He ordered the air strikes, or he got someone else to, he knew exactly what Flame was doing.//

Blast Off clutched his head. //And what does that mean?//

//I dunno,// Vortex said. //There’s a lot going on here, and it doesn’t all add up.// He lowered his gun a moment to tug out his wrist cable and plug it into the keypad beside the door. He grinned; so few people had proper security nowadays. He fed the lock a series of codes, and flicked his damaged rotors as the door slid open.

The floor was quiet, the rooms unoccupied. Vortex crept through each carpeted office, but there was no trace of Flame. No trace of anyone except the messy evidence of office workers who had clearly left in a hurry. He sniffed the dregs of someone’s morning coolant, and jumped back as Blast Off snatched it out of his hand.

//Disgusting,// the shuttle muttered, but drank it anyway.

Vortex circled a desk, putting himself between Blast Off and the door. //I’m sure we can find a dispenser,// he said. //They’ve gotta have one here somewhere.// He sprang back as Blast Off stormed past.

//Where is it?// he snapped, vanishing around the corner, but Vortex did not respond. He froze, head tilted, listening. For a moment there was silence, then a faint thud and the distant rumble of shouting.

Vortex crept out of the office and along the corridor to the stairwell. The door was still open. Behind him Blast Off swore; Vortex hissed at him to be quiet.

//What is it?// Blast Off demanded, and Vortex cringed at the groan and crack of dying furniture.

//Shhh, I’m trying to listen.//

//What to?// Blast Off filled the doorway beside him, and Vortex jumped. //What?// the shuttle demanded.

Vortex slowly lowered his gun. //Don’t sneak up on me, seriously. Did you get some coolant? Don’t answer that, of course you got coolant, you’re covered in it.// He stepped into the hallway, out of Blast Off’s reach. //Are you ready?//

Blast Off blinked at him, lip curled.

//Thrusters?// Vortex backed away, sidling slowly up the next flight of stairs. //Are you with me?//

//I’m with you,// Blast Off growled, looking away.

The next floor up was empty, and the next. Blast Off followed slowly, the coolant steaming from his armour. Vortex kept ahead, listening carefully at each new floor, the yells and thumping getting incrementally louder.

Until they stopped.

Vortex stopped too, gesturing Blast Off to the wall. The shuttle’s optics flickered, and he tripped, crashing to his knees with a bang like a gunshot. Vortex froze, staring at him, but the shuttle mumbled that he was fine and clambered back to his feet.

The echo took a long while to die. Vortex counted the astroseconds, readying his gun, then he began again to advance.

He hadn’t gone three steps before the door at the next landing opened. A huge shape filled the gap, bulky and wide and ridged with caterpillar treads.

“I’m goin’, I’m goin’!” the tank called, yelling over her shoulder. “Don’t blow a gasket!” She raised her plasma rifle, teeth bared and yellow optics glowing as she turned it on Vortex. “Stop right where y-”

Vortex shot her, and kept shooting as he bolted up the stairs. She screamed, first in rage as the laserbolts made her stagger - her own shots missing by a wide arc - then in pain as the shots kept coming. Vortex fired until the immense grounder was swaying, her gun smoking at her feet. Then he kicked her cratered legs from under her and shot her in the face.

She twitched, groaning and shivering. Vortex adjusted his aim, and reeled as Blast Off shoved him out of the way. With a snarl, he picked the juggernaut up by her foot and heaved her over the safety railing into the wide, deep stairwell.

//The frag was that for?// Vortex snarled over comms.

Blast Off glared at him, optics flickering. “Doesn’t matter,” he replied aloud, rubbing under his eyes. “That wasn’t a peacekeeper.”

“No,” Vortex said softly, glancing over the rail. The giant tank lay where she’d fallen, still twitching. “I’ve seen her around,” he said. “Her name’s Trove. She works for Solarstorm. Let’s move.”

Beyond the doorway was a corridor like all the others, softly carpeted in oil-resistant plush, the walls painted an inoffensive shade of not-quite-white. It was also empty. Vortex checked the power level on his rifle and lay it carefully on the floor. He tugged the other gun off his shoulder, flinching at a sudden pressure on one of his rotors. But the pressure was smooth, businesslike, just the shuttle unhooking the strap from his rotor blade. Vortex vented slowly, and checked the gun.

Then he froze anew as someone shrieked. He shook his rotors, and advanced. The shrieking turned to swearing, accompanied by a muffled clang. He made his way towards the source of the noise, checking each door as he passed, but all the offices were empty.

“No biting!” The words were clear this time, the clang sharper. “Do I have to muzzle you?” The voice was raised. “Trove! Trove, get in here!”

Vortex paused, gesturing Blast Off to do the same, but none of the three remaining doors opened.

“Trove! For frag sake, you already shot them, now get back in here! Ambience, stop that!”

Vortex bit his lip. The owner of the voice clearly couldn’t tell the sound of his guard’s plasma blaster from a standard issue laser rifle. He gave up stealth, and briefly checked the remaining two rooms.

“Trove! I can hear you, now get the frag in here or so help me you will not have a job at the end of this!”

Vortex strode up to the final door, Blast Off looming behind him. He smirked, striding into the room. “Trove’s not coming.”

Flame did a double take. And if it wasn’t Flame, it was the most convincing impersonator Vortex had ever seen. The mech was sleek and bright and gaudy, with optics as blue as any Prime’s, and bodywork in red and yellow and orange practically spelling out his name. Less pleasing was his companion, slavering and snarling, and strapped to a portable examination table. Her interface cables writhed, clipped to her side. The ends had been capped.

Flame threw up his hands, a sneer on his finely crafted lips. “Who the frag are you?”

“We’re your new best friends,” Vortex said. He stepped into the room, weapon aimed at Flame’s elaborately decorated chest. Behind him, Blast Off blocked the doorway. Vortex stilled his vents, his finger hovering just off the trigger, and resisted looking back. “Give us the cure.”

Flame blinked. “The cure? Are you serious?” His pretty lips twisted, and he sniffed.

“The cure, now,” Vortex said. He stepped closer, keeping a good distance between himself and Flame’s patient. “Do it slowly, no sudden moves.”

“I don’t have a cure!” Flame raised his arm, fingers poised over his comm equipment. “Who the hell are you? What do you think you’re doing barging in here? Get out!”

Vortex lunged and managed to seize him by the throat. He shoved the muzzle of his gun under the mech’s chin. Flame choked, hands balling.

“You won’t be calling anyone,” Vortex said calmly. “Now tell me where the cure is. I know you started this, you designed it. Tell me how to stop it.”

“What the frag are you even-” Flame stopped himself, nose wrinkling, and started again. “I don’t have a cure. There isn’t one! Let me go!”

Vortex tightened his grip and lifted. Flame’s feet kicked, his optics flared. He gagged, his spinal struts creaking.

“Stop it! Please! There isn’t a cure! But I’ve got money, I can pay you!”

“This is taking too long,” Blast Off growled, his voice so close that Vortex nearly lost his grip on Flame. “I’m infected,” he snapped, looming over Vortex’s shoulder. There was a click and a hiss, and Flame began to struggle. “Do you want to join me?” Blast Off rumbled, an edge of static in his voice.

“You can’t be serious!” Flame wailed, kicking in the direction of the table. “Stop it! Let me go! Ambience! Ambience, kill them!”

The thing on the table writhed, snapping her jaws and straining her bonds, and Vortex had a vision of dropping Flame and running. But he could never get back to Cybertron alone. He rammed the muzzle of the gun further into the mesh of delicate lines under Flame’s chin.

“The cure,” Blast Off growled, his primary interface cable in his hand. He brought the connector closer. “What is it?”

“I don’t know! I don’t have one! Let me go, you’re making a terrible mistake!”

Vortex lowered him, letting the rifle dangle from his arm to grip Flame in both his hands, forcing him down.

“No, no please!”

“You have five astroseconds,” Blast Off said, gripping the back of Flame’s head, bringing his connector ever closer to his medical port. “Five…”

“It’s in the nanites!” Flame screamed.

“We know,” Blast Off said. “Four…”

“You need a full code scrub and nanite replacement, all of them, full fluid replacement, new interface circuitry!” Flame wailed. “It isn’t a cure, it’s a reversal, early stages only! Please don’t hurt me! I’m a scientist!”

“And that will work?” Blast Off demanded. He scraped his thumb over the cap to Flame’s medical port, and popped it off. Vortex swallowed.

“It’ll work! It works! Please!”

Blast Off’s vents were incandescent, his purple optics fever bright. “How often does it work?” he snarled.

“Ninety percent!” Flame wailed. “Please, please let me go! There’s a ninety percent success rate in verbal cases, fifty percent in mid phase and, uh, two percent in non-verbal. Um… That’s without complications, but you need a fluid cycler and spare nanites and a stasis stabiliser, and all things I don’t have here, so I wasn’t lying, I don’t have a cure!”

“Complications?” Blast Off did not sound pleased. Vortex increased his grip, pleased to feel his fingertips scrape through Flame’s expensive finish.

“Memory loss, processor degradation!” Flame shuddered. “It’s only partial, uh-unless you don’t catch it early enough. But, but you better get going, you need to do this right now! lease don’t link with me, I’m too important to get infected!”

Blast Off glanced at Vortex. “Is he telling the truth?”

“Could be,” Vortex said. “Only one way to tell. Let’s go.”

Flame slumped in their grip, then yelped as Vortex spun him around, one arm behind his back and the stolen pistol pressing on his helm. Blast Off’s optics dimmed and he shuddered, and Vortex watched him until he’d put his interface cable away.

“Can you take off from the roof?” he asked, hauling Flame around and giving his leg a gentle kick to get him moving. “We’ll head for Kaon, HQ, straight to Medical, Tach should be on duty.”

“I can,” Blast Off said.

“You… you can let me go now,” Flame said. “I’ll sit here nice and quiet, I promise. I won’t tell anyone.”

“Nope,” Vortex said, picking up the pace as they entered the hallway. “You’re coming with us.”

“No!” Flame shook his head, flinching as it clanged against the pistol. “I can’t leave. I… I have work, I haven’t finished. I can’t leave her here!”

“Why?” Vortex said, not stopping. “What is she to you?”

“She’s my only success! She listens to me! She can take orders!”

“Is that why she’s all strapped up?” Blast Off said. “Disgraceful.”

Ambience!” Flame yelled, struggling as the thing in the office howled in return. “We can’t leave her there, I need her! Please!”

“What for?” Vortex snapped, shoving Flame into the stairwell.

“I told you, she’s my only success! You don’t understand, they’re not meant to be mindless! They’re meant to be strong!

Blast Off grunted, and turned on his heel. Vortex looked back to see him stomp limping down the corridor. He entered the office, and for a moment there was quiet. Then came a squeal of tortured metal, and Blast Off stormed back towards them, his damaged winglet flapping and the dressing beginning to peel from his side. “It’s done,” he growled, sneering at Flame. He locked optics with Vortex. “If I come close to that, I expect you to do the same for me.”

Flame stuttered, clawing at Vortex’s arm. “Ambience!… She was worth millions! Do you understand that? Millions!

“So?” Vortex said, tearing his eyes from Blast Off. “Lift your feet, we’re going up.”

There were three flights left to climb before the stairs gave out. Flame flopped, and Vortex let his feet drag, clanging against each new step. Blast Off followed close, too close, the unnatural heat of him tripping Vortex’s fans.

They were one flight from the roof when Blast Off growled and grabbed Vortex’s rotor hub. “Get down!” he yelled, but it was already too late. A pulse of plasma tore through Vortex’s shoulder, absorbing him for a moment in white-hot agony. He staggered, and Flame fell, and Blast Off pushed him flat to the steps as a volley of fire speared up through the stairwell.

“Frag!” Vortex lunged for Flame, but Blast Off was heavy and his shoulder was melting, and the slim mech was tumbling down the stairs far out of reach.

“Flame to Tonic! This is Flame to Tonic, pick up!” The scientist scrambled to his feet, and Vortex still couldn’t move to chase him. “Trove! Where the frag have you been?”

Move!” Blast Off snarled, and the weight fell away. Yes, move, back to Kaon, to Medical. They could get Flame another time.

Vortex darted up the final few steps, good shoulder forwards, and barrelled through the door. He tripped onto the roof, skidding to a halt face-first. Blast Off strode past him and began to transform. Vortex pushed himself from the door, left arm dangling, and strained to see down the stairs. Flame was a distant gleam, tumbling down the steps to the next landing, to the battered, dripping carcass of the tank.

Trove stared straight up at Vortex, snarling as she aimed her plasma rifle. She must have clawed her way up there, the end point of a trail of oil and energon. Vortex kicked the broken door shut, and squinted as the blast seared a hole through the metal.

“I’ll kill you, you cog-faced bastard!” Trove screamed.

“Get in!” Blast Off ordered, and Vortex scrambled towards him. He threw himself into the cargo hold and somehow managed to reach the rear wall. As Blast Off’s engines rumbled, Vortex gingerly prodded the half-melted mess where his left shoulder should have been. His arm was hanging by a thread, a thin warped strut the only thing tying it to his body.

“We can make it back?” he said, as Blast Off launched, and the force slammed him into the wall. He winced as the strut finally gave way, watching his arm roll off without him.

Blast Off’s energy field flared, an unreadable tangle. “We’ll see,” he said.

Chapter Text

Vortex lay panting on the cargo hold floor, pressed to the wall by the force of Blast Off’s acceleration. For a long while he braced himself, trying to prepare for the impact, the inevitable slam of a ground-to-air missile.

None came.

His severed arm twitched sadly at the other end of the hold. It was seeping. So was his shoulder. Fluid loss was slow; the heat of the plasma had sealed almost everything it had sliced through.

“Blast Off?”

“What?” the shuttle snapped, his voice over-loud and staticky.

“Just… nothing.” Vortex sighed. “My arm fell off. Is there anyone chasing us?”

“No,” Blast Off replied. “Be quiet, I need to concentrate.”

Vortex got to his feet. His circuits were buzzing, his head light. He wanted a frag, a drink, a hectic tumbling flight through Kaon’s backstreets. He tried to remind himself this was just a lull, it wasn’t over yet, but seeing his arm in the corner made it all seem so remote, and he began to giggle.

“I said be quiet!” Blast Off snapped. “What’s so funny?” There was a moment’s pause and his tone shifted. “What’s that?”

“What’s what? The portholes are really high back here, I can’t see squat.”

That.” Blast Off said, the door to his flight deck opening. Vortex leapt back, the laughter dying on his lips, and a laser knife falling into his one remaining palm. Blast Off shuddered, something Vortex was certain he wasn’t meant to do in alt mode.

“Don’t come in,” Blast Off said, his voice strained. “Just look.”

Vortex crept to the doorway. Would the nanites have modded his cables already, turning them into predatory tentacles? Would Vortex have to fight his way out of the shuttle in the frozen wastes between atmospheres? He leaned his damaged side against the door jamb and glared through.

“To the right,” Blast Off said. “They’re leaving.”

Vortex stared. The curve of Luna Two was too large to fathom, a speckled darkness against the bulk of Cybertron. A fleet of gleaming ships spilled from the same point on the satellite’s surface towards the planet.

“That’s the safe zone,” Vortex said. “They’re coming from the safe zone. Frag.” Then a thought hit him, and he bashed his comm equipment against the back of one of Blast Off’s seats until it activated. “This is Vortex to Heliotrope,” he said. “Heliotrope, pick up.” He waited a moment. “Heliotrope, seriously, pick up!”

Blast Off grumbled, but made no other comment. He seemed suspended in space, with nothing to measure their progress against but the dark surface of the moon below and the glittering vastness of Cybertron ahead of them.

“Heliotrope?” Vortex shook his arm, but the beep of connection had simply been the answering service activating.

“This is Sergeant Heliotrope, I’m busy right now, but please leave a message and I’ll get back to you ASAP.”

“Get rid of the nanites,” Vortex said, his optics flicking between the exodus of spacecraft and Blast Off’s bank of monitors. “Flush them out, do a code purge, replace everything - fluids, interface hardware, everything... Come find me in Kaon when you’re planet-side, I’ll buy you a drink.” He diverted the call to internal just so he could hang up. It was better than trying to mash the buttons with his chin.

“I’m going to close the door now,” Blast Off said quietly. Vortex nodded, retreating again to the cargo netting at the rear of the hold.

“How, uh… How are you feeling?” Vortex said.

“I’ve been better. I’ll warn you now, this is going to be rough.”

“I figured.” Vortex tugged his severed arm towards him, and pulled it into his lap.

Blast Off’s speakers crackled and he snarled. When he spoke again, the strain wasn’t nearly as disconcerting as how distracted he sounded. “I’m going to come in slow,” he said. “I have… I have to shield the damage. It’s all on the same side, I’ll come in at an angle. It’s going to get warm. It… Approaching atmosphere in two point three breems.”

Vortex huddled in the netting, eyes on the flight deck door. When his comms lit up he startled, hitting his head on the wall.

“Vortex, do you read?”

“Onslaught? Onslaught!” Vortex yelled. “Thrusters, long range comms are back! OK, Ons, we got a code five-five-six. I repeat, a five-five-six. I need you to listen, we don’t have much time.”

There was the briefest of pauses before Onslaught replied. “Report.”

“Blast Off’s hurt. He’s hurt bad, we’re coming back to Kaon. I need you to clear us for re-entry, send someone out as an escort. Starscape, send Starscape!” Vortex vented deep. “The target got away, but we have a… a remedy. I’ll explain later. We need Tachyon and a med-team and… and I dunno, fluid cycling machines and a code scrub thing and new hardware, and my arm fell off, and I think they’re evacuating the whole of the second moon.”

“Head for loading bay five,” Onslaught said. “Ping me when you reach atmosphere.”

“Received,” Vortex said, and winced as Blast Off gave another deep shudder.

* * *

Blast Off hadn’t seen anything like this for a very long time.

The last time this many shuttles had been in space, nearing Cybertron ready for re-entry, it had been when HEX had shut down. But HEX was no more, and the thought had a bitter taste.

It was as though they were evacuating Luna Two, but it didn’t seem coordinated.

Blast Off felt the buzz of communications through the bleak nothingness between them, though he didn’t dare pick up any signals. Not in his current state, not when he didn’t even know if he would survive re-entry.

He hadn’t told the ‘copter. There was no point.

If he was going to burn up, it would be quick. It would be a worthy death, one he had always expected. Better than being shot or turning into a mindless monster.

In root mode, he would have sighed, instead he puffed some air from his alt-mode vents, slowing his flight. The pull of Cybertron’s gravity increased along with the first edge of resistance from the atmosphere.

The absence of any heat source, even any source of radiation, helped to cool his plating. Blast Off’s mind was clearer now, still distracted by the piercing cold on his damaged wing and winglet, but that would be nothing compared with what was about to follow.

He angled himself as carefully as he was able, not coming in straight, but with his intact side tilted towards the planet.

Deactivating all his on-board cameras, he also shut down artificial gravity. It cleared up some of his CPU, and he diverted it to the essential functions of re-entry.

In the distance, he saw the first of the shuttles entering atmosphere. That was his cue.

Sending his ID code to the planetary defence grid, Blast Off adjusted his angle slightly, and dived down.

Friction increased, the air as hard as any solid matter, and his ceramics glowed. Plasma burnt, and the wing tilted towards Cybertron shuddered under the stress. The heat spread into his wires, and the coolant wasn’t enough to stop his internal temperature from rising.

Plasma burned raw on his wounds. Wires in Blast Off’s winglet melted and the tip burnt off. His systems pulled the fuel out of his damaged wing, and prepared to dislodge it. He overrode the command just in time. He couldn’t allow that, not if he could avoid it, otherwise he’d crash to the ground like a rock.

The wing twisted under the strain as parts of it melted. It would be useless, but at least it would keep him airborne long enough – he hoped.

Inside his cargo hold, Vortex flared his energy field. Blast Off could neither hear nor see him, but the other’s reactions was something he couldn’t shut off. Displeasure was written in his signature, discomfort even, with a troubled note of worry.

The EM flare was distracting enough that Blast Off missed a notification from his systems of the release of painkillers. The effect was instant. Most of his plating went numb, his mind hazy, and focusing became difficult – even more difficult than before.

Getting high was the last thing he needed. His speakers spat static, and keened as he attempted to regain his concentration. Usually, he’d be through re-entry by now, but his angle had been more gradual, his speed lower.

The timer in his processor counted down. A little less than a klik, then it would all be over.

Blast Off counted the astroseconds. He didn’t look at the ground.

Finally the heat began to ebb. His frame continued to rattle, and his temperature was still way above optimum, but during the last few joors, he’d become used to that.

He ran a check, waiting for Altihex’s spaceport command to contact him.

The nanities had slowed significantly, and he wasn’t hallucinating any more. Maybe it was the heat of re-entry, or the cold of space, or something else he couldn’t detect but that would come back to bite him later when they would start working again and change him for real.

Blast Off didn’t want to think about that. He pushed the thought back, and focused on an even flight path.

Time ticked by, so slow, and Altihex command remained quiet.

In the wide horizon, shuttles fell like rain from space, glowing drops in the eternal night of Cybertron; command would be overwhelmed. In a rare moment of clarity, Blast Off realised it was his chance to avoid dealing with customs and spaceport officials. He could fly straight to Kaon.

He uttered a staticky huff through his speakers, and turned – or tried to.

He rolled in mid-air; his field flared in surprise. He caught himself, barely able to stabilise his flight again. There was something wrong with the ailerons of his damaged wing - were they welded together or burnt off completely? - and he couldn’t turn. Thankfully those on his other wing were still intact, he’d have to work with that.

Inside him, Vortex’s field flared again. With the cameras and microphones still offline, Blast Off lacked the energy to find out what was going on in the cargo hold.

The way to Kaon seemed to take longer than usual, but Blast Off still came in too fast when he approached the landing dock. He had to pull up again, and fly another turn.

When it finally came, the landing was bumpy, and that was all Blast Off could tell from the input of his sensors. His sensor net was still mostly numbed from the painkillers, and his mind was a dizzy haze. He felt his one side sliding over the ground, but the tiles ripping off was only a warning from his systems, and one he couldn’t care less about. Once he had stopped moving, he deactivated his anti-grav mechanism, and all of his bulk hit the floor. It was draining, and everything was strained and sore. But was it only his processor thinking that or was it really the case? He didn’t know.

He opened his rear door, feeling hurried steps on his cargo hold floor accompanied by Vortex’s energy field fluctuating. His cameras were still offline, but he wouldn’t need them now.

The docking bay was full of medical staff and security. Onslaught was there; he stepped closer and said something, but Blast Off didn’t hear him. With his alt mode systems idling, his symptoms came rushing back. The dizziness increased, and his cooling system couldn’t keep up.

At least the high of the painkillers still worked; he felt nothing but indifference, not even panic.

His alt mode shuddered when the medical personnel stepped into his cargo hold, and he watched Vortex talking to Onslaught. The ‘copter’s rotors twitched, his loose arm was clamped tight to his body by a tense hand, and his frame was stiff and shaking at the same time.

“Blast Off,” Onslaught said, speaking loudly in a way he couldn’t ignore. “Transform. I want to talk to you.”

Blast Off exhaled air in alt mode, sending dust flying and making several of the staff step away from him.

He didn’t have to respond. Tachyon replied for him, with their calm, stern voice. “He’s a shuttle,” they said, “he must be repaired in alt-mode. And look at him! He’s not going to transform or be debriefed until I release him. And you-” They pointed at Vortex. “Tell me everything about this condition and how to cure it, and then go with Wrench.”

Onslaught looked as though he was about to speak, but Tachyon raised their hand. “Later, please. As you can see, your employee has lost an arm and he’s in shock, everything you want from him will have to wait.”

To Blast Off’s surprise, Onslaught just nodded, and then his focus was gone. His outer cockpit door had melted shut, so the medics had entered through the cargo hold, where they gathered, talking.

Thankfully, Tachyon didn’t speak to him. They only pinged him for a status report, which Blast Off willingly sent.

The medics startled when Blast Off cleared his speakers of static. He announced, “I’m going to shut down.”

Tachyon nodded. “I appreciate that.”

And then Blast Off gave up.

Chapter Text

“He’s shut down? Why has he shut down?” Vortex stared at the hole in Blast Off’s side. It was big, so much bigger than it had looked back on Luna Two. Scorched and leaking, it was beginning to spread a sizable pool of energon. He took a step back. “Thrusters?”

“He’s stable,” Tachyon said, flicking their winglets to get Vortex’s attention. “That’s it, eyes on me. Now tell me about Flame’s virus.”

Vortex reset his optics, and peered over Tachyon’s shoulder. OnsCorp’s rescue team were gloved to the elbow, their feet bagged in plastic, and each one of them had air filters clipped to their vents. Behind them someone from Security was busy setting up an exclusion zone with cones and brightly coloured tape. Tachyon clicked, and Vortex shook himself. He extended the data cable from his wrist, bracing his dead arm on his chest. Tachyon nodded, and snapped their fingers at one of the dozen assistants standing at the edge of the room.

A datapad was quick to arrive. Tachyon donned a pair of disposable gloves, and plugged Vortex in. “I need it all,” they said. “Every detail. Onslaught sir, I expect you’ve remained to observe and not to ask questions.”

Onslaught nodded, watching Vortex closely, just out of arm’s reach. He was wearing his full dress cannons, his medals sitting in neat shiny rows across his chest.

“Going somewhere?” Vortex asked, starting the data transfer.

“Just a Board of Trade event,” Onslaught said, as Wrench moved to Vortex’s bad side and pulled on her plastic gloves.

Tachyon tapped Vortex on the back of his hand. “Focus. Is that everything?”

“Yeah, yeah it’s everything. Now go fix him.” Vortex pulled his cable out of the data pad and let it dangle. “I need to talk with Onslaught,” he said, holding his rotors as still as he could.

“Later,” Tachyon stated. “Wrench, you know what to do. Onslaught, as I said before, whatever you have to say will need to wait.”

“I don’t think so,” Vortex said. “Ons-”

Later,” Onslaught said. “You heard Tachyon, go with Wrench. I’ll call in on you when you’re done.”

Vortex rolled his optics and swayed out of the reach of Wrench’s gloved hand. “OK, I’m going.

“Not that way,” Wrench said softly. “We’ve prepped med-lab four. Are you sure you don’t want me to carry that for you?”

“It’s my arm, I’ll carry it,” Vortex growled, stomping toward the elevator. “What are you even doing here anyway, I thought you were on leave to study nanosurgery in Iacon or something.”

“I start next quartex,” Wrench said. She tapped her comm. “Flick, Torsion, we’re on our way.” She waited for their reply before hustling Vortex into the lift cab. “And it’s Advanced Neuroscience,” she added, typing her code into the elevator’s key pad then pressing the floor number. “I’m not going to be a frame mechanic my whole life.”

“Whatever, just screw my arm back on and let me go, OK?”

Wrench gave him a look. “Have you seen yourself? You’re lucky you’re still upright.”

He sighed through his vents, watching the light crawl up the display. “I’ve had worse,” he muttered.

“Yeah, I know.”

The elevator came to a halt, and Wrench led Vortex out. Floor fifty, the home of OnsCorp’s in-house medical team. The air was dry and sterile, the walls scrubbed so well they shone. Flick met them at the entrance to med-lab four, and bit his lip as he made his first scan.

“Get on the platform,” Wrench said to Vortex. “You know how this goes. Flick, put us in lockdown until we know for certain we’re not dealing with a contaminant. Torsion, prep the patient.”

Vortex sat on the high padded bunk. “Contaminant?” he said. “I’m not infected.”

“It’s OK,” Torsion said. “I’m going to need to hook you up to the monitoring station. Can you pop your cover for me? That’s good. Now I’m going to need to take that arm.” She waited, her gaze steady through her secondary visor. “Vortex, give me the arm.”

“I’m not infected,” he said.

“I sure as scrap hope not!” Wrench called from the far corner. “But you were on board Blast Off for a long time, and his nanites are not friendly right now. Plus, he was injured.”

“Not on the inside, he wasn’t leaking on the inside!”

“The arm, Vortex. Please? You’ll get a new one.”

“All right, fraggit, just take it.”

Wrench nodded, and passed the arm to Flick, who put it in a quarantine pod.

“That’s reassuring,” Vortex commented. He grimaced as the monitoring station fed him a slice of code. “I don’t want a sedative!” he snapped. “Just fix me already.”

“It’s just a little something to take the edge off,” Torsion said, her shoulder-mounted scope re-angling to point directly at him. “This is going to take a while. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just go into recharge and wake up with new parts?”

“No,” Vortex growled, his rotors shivering. “And don’t ask again.”

“Okay.” Torsion typed something into the monitoring station’s console. “Wrench, I’ve got the results for you.”

Wrench abandoned her line of carefully arranged data sheets and came over. She scrolled through the readout, her spoiler gleaming in the harsh white light.

“Flick, call Supplies for me, I’m going to need a boatload of new parts.” She scrolled back to the beginning and read it again, her lips pursed and her optics narrowed.

“What is it?” Vortex craned to look, clinging to the bunk with his remaining hand. “What’s wrong?”

Wrench looked at him. “What the frag have you been doing? Tachyon told me you’d need a new arm, new rotors, maybe a few other things depending on the nanite analysis. But you need new vents, a new output shaft, new throat lining even. I might as well build you a whole new body!”

“I got gassed,” Vortex said. “Corrosive, military grade, up in… this place we went to.”

Gassed?

Flick poked his head around the corner of the monitor. “Wrench, I’ve got Aiglet from Supplies on comm for you. Do you want to take it sub-voc?”

Wrench nodded and stalked away. Vortex swung his feet.

“How did you get gassed?” Flick asked quietly. “I thought you were on Luna Two; that kind of thing’s not allowed in Cybertronian space.” He was about to add something else, but Torsion clearly sent him some kind of message because he swallowed, his antennae bobbing, and became instantly absorbed by the readout on the screen.

“You gonna lay down for me?” Torsion asked Vortex. “On your front please, I’ll need to remove the damaged parts first.”

Vortex flopped on the repair platform, his cables swinging. He let his remaining arm dangle, and looked up as Torsion lifted it onto the platform above his head and pressed a little box into his hand.

“It’s the control to the analgesic,” she said. “Press the button if you’re getting uncomfortable, OK?”

“Sure,” Vortex huffed, and waited for them to begin.

* * *

It was a long night. Vortex watched Wrench in the reflection on the chrome of the monitoring station. She moved with speed and certainty, and a confidence born of practice. With Torsion’s help she stripped him down. Rotors and rotor assembly, outer armour, ventilation system, even his t-cog. Flick hooked his head up to an external temperature control system, venting cool air over his circuits. He tried to look down at himself, a weird assemblage of semi-connected parts, his tubes spread over a seemingly vast area. Torsion covered his hand with her own, and encouraged him to press the button on the remote.

The painkillers were a cloud, a dense and soothing mass filtering through him. Like the gas, but the opposite of corroding. He thought of Blast Off in the loading bay, Tachyon’s team crawling over him like super-enhanced nanites. Good nanites, he thought, and wondered where his own nanites were going.

Wrench had deactivated them. His self-repair was offline, his sensor net a vague blanket of impressions spreading wider than the confines of his disassembled frame. Wrench had drained all his fluids and was cleansing the lines. Anything she couldn’t clean she replaced. Flick loaded the old parts into quarantine pods, and kept going to the door to collect crate after crate of shiny new things.

Torsion spoke to him, and he looked up at her. She’d raised her visor, her yellow optics narrowed in on him. He smiled, feeling Wrench’s hands move inside him, and tried to wave the tail rotors he’d lost back on Luna Two.

“And ready,” Flick said. “And… done!”

Air flowed again, and Vortex realised he was on his back, staring up at the ceiling and the circuit designs on the sound-damping tiles. White on white, very subtle, but the patterns were there. And Flick was there, cradling his head, unscrewing the sides, while his new vents cycled crisp pure air through filters so new they tickled at the first spec of dust.

He laughed, and Wrench looked up from his new shoulder, a welding torch in her hand. Torsion smiled down at him, her hands on his face. Then his optics died and his face was gone, and Flick was talking to him in a soft soothing voice while Torsion removed his jaw and opened up his throat.

When his new optics booted, Onslaught was standing over him. He opened his mouth to speak, but his vision flickered and Onslaught was gone, and Torsion was running a cloth over his chin and lips.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, and he tried to shrug, but Wrench was wrist deep in his belly and they’d strapped him down to stop him from moving.

“Weird,” he said in a staticky croak. “New voicebox? Cool.” He pressed the button that increased the feel-good cloudy vapour, and giggled. “I thought you weren’t gonna knock me out, doc?”

“You went into recharge,” Wrench said. “Twice. You always go into recharge when I strip you down, and you always forget about it afterwards. You are the opposite of a normal person.”

“You say the sweetest things,” Vortex whispered.

“He’s definitely feeling better,” Torsion commented. “Flick, the nanite supplement please.”

Vortex hadn’t realised how dry he felt until Flick attached the hose to his auxiliary fuel intake and began to pump him full of energon.

“I could’a drank that,” he slurred, and Torsion rolled her optics, a grin on her face.

After the energon came the coolant, and a top-up on his hydraulic fluid and joint lubricants. He sighed as his sensor net sparked and his laser core pulsed, and Wrench withdrew her hands to dunk them in a solvent bath before drying them.

“Turn him over,” she said, and Vortex snickered as the world flipped. Then his face was full of Flick, enormous bright blue optics and an energy field abuzz with tiredness and relief.

Torsion bent over a crate and came back with a shining new rotor array. “Bet you can’t wait to try these out,” she said, stepping away from his field of vision. The monitoring station had moved, the reflections no longer so diverting. Vortex watched Flick’s hopeful face, enjoying the warmth from the medic’s vents.

This time he knew he was falling into recharge, and he did nothing to stop himself.

* * *

It was afternoon before he woke up. They’d wheeled him to recovery, a cosy room with a window overlooking the heart of Kaon. Torsion sat slumped in a chair nearby, her head resting on a cushion that she’d balanced on her scope. As he stirred something beeped, and she yawned, blinking.

“You sure sleep well,” she said, tossing the cushion onto the chair as she stood. “No, don’t get up. Wrench says you need to stay there another joor for integration.”

“How’s the shuttle?” Vortex asked. He stretched his legs, and huffed air through his shiny new vents. “Can I see him?”

“He’s still in surgery,” Torsion replied. “Lean forward a sec, I need to take a few readings.”

Vortex lowered his head, his rotors flicking against the soft padded bunk as she plugged in.

“You didn’t have the virus,” she said. “All the results came back clean. Looks like your new parts are taking well, and your nanites are bedding in. Lower your firewalls. Good, now raise them again. That’s great.”

“Told you I wasn’t infected,” Vortex said.

“You didn’t know that,” Torsion said. She looked up as someone opened the door.

“Bad time?” the newcomer asked, poking his head around the jamb. “Hey Tex, you’re OK!”

“Brawl!”

Torsion sighed. “You can come in,” she said. “Vortex, bring your weapons online for me. Now off. Now transform your fingers.”

Brawl stomped over, grinning as Vortex’s claws reverted back to blunt fingertips. “I wanna mod like that,” he said. “I brought you some carbon chips. Woah, you got like a whole new frame!”

“Almost,” Torsion said. “And he’s still integrating, so he has to stay here for at least another joor, OK?”

“Sure,” Brawl said brightly. “Wish I could’a been there,” he said. “Ons sent me out with Swindle and it was so boring. All they did was talk.”

“Who else went?” Vortex asked, as Torsion unplugged herself and replaced the cap on his medical port.

“OK,” she said, just as Brawl was about to reply. He clamped his mouth shut, waiting. “You’re good,” she said to Vortex. “Everything’s progressing as it should, and I’m going the frag home. Bolt’s team is on duty in Repairs, comm them if you need anything.” She stretched her arms, and cricked her neck as she headed to the door. She turned back once. “Remember, one joor,” and was gone.

“One joor?” Brawl shrugged. “Whatever. OK, so Spinblast took us to that satellite off of Luna One for Swin’s meeting, and that new guy came too, the triple changer rotary car?”

“Signal?” Vortex said. “Did they do OK?”

“Yeah.” Brawl ripped open the pack of carbon chips and threw one in his mouth. “Like I said, it was boring. Dullest mission this side of last night. Stupid Board of Trade thing.”

“Did Ons make you wear your medals?”

“I like wearing my medals,” Brawl said. “But he made me talk to people. Dumbaft stupid racers and trucks and scrap who think they’re better than they are.”

“Have you been to see Thrusters?” Vortex asked.

Brawl took another carbon chip, turning it over before nibbling on the edge. “Nah, they won’t let me in.” He flicked the chip into his mouth. “Ons came to see you, but you were out cold.”

“Where is he?”

“Meetings. They got that tax thing they’re lobbying for. Fragged if I understand. You wanna do something?”

Vortex leaned forward, feeling his new gyros shift, his new joints turning smooth and clean. He swung himself off the bunk and ran his fingers through his tail rotors. He could take his joor of rest later. “Yeah,” he said, “and I know exactly where we’re going.”

* * *

Brawl let Vortex do the talking. Misfire stood with his back to the door, his gun held loosely in his hands, and his Security ID dangling from a chain around his neck.

“No offence,” he said, “seriously, but I can’t let you in.”

“I’ll clear it with Onslaught,” Vortex told him. “It’s fine, just take a little step to the side and let me put my code in the lock.”

Misfire grimaced. “I can’t. Tachyon’s in charge here, Onslaught said. The whole loading bay’s in quarantine. Why don’t you come back later, eh?”

“Is there a problem here?” A heavyset grounder rounded the corner: Gigabyte from Personnel. She frowned when she spotted Vortex. “Sir, I thought you were meant to be resting.”

“This is restful,” Vortex said. “Giga, I need to see Blast Off.”

“Is that so?” Gigabyte responded. “Hi, Brawl.”

Brawl nodded, his treads rattling as he bounced on his heels. “Misfire won’t let us in.”

Tachyon won’t let you in!” Misfire protested. “I’m just doing my job, please don’t make this difficult for me.”

Brawl grunted. “C’mon Tex, we can come back later.”

“Or we can stay here,” Vortex said, “while Misfire fetches someone who can let us in.”

Misfire glanced at the door, then at Gigabyte.

“Off you go,” Gigabyte said. “I’ll make sure they keep their word.”

Vortex craned to catch a glimpse of Blast Off as Misfire scurried through the door. “I knew you’d say that. You do realise I outrank you?”

“You do realise you’re on medical leave pending evaluation?” Gigabyte said. “Oh, and you’re not in the military any more. If we were, I’d outrank you.” She folded her arms. “I saw Torsion just now, she asked me to keep an eye on you.”

“So you came down here,” Vortex said.

Gigabyte looked away. “Yeah. I wanted to see if the quarantine was over. He’s been in surgery since I left work yesterday.”

“He’ll be OK,” Brawl said. He glared at Vortex. “He will be OK.”

Vortex just stared at the door. Gigabyte shrugged, offering Brawl a brief smile. “You know,” she began, but the door opened and someone who certainly was not Misfire stumbled through.

“Before you say anything, I’m exhausted!” Tachyon declared, rubbing the front of their helm, and glaring at Vortex. “The surgery is over, and you may come in on one condition!”

Vortex nodded. “Just let me see him.”

“Seeing is all you’ll be doing,” Tachyon said. “He isn’t ready for visitors. You may go to the observation area and that is all.” The head of OnsCorp’s Medical Division glanced at Brawl and Gigabyte. “I suppose you two better come along as well. You there! Misfire! No more visitors. Starscape! Take these three to the observation area. Wingnut! Coolant! Now!”

The loading bay stank of solvent. A team of plastic-swathed janitors were pressure washing the floor, and a group of research assistants were busy wiping the water from Blast Off’s side.

“He’s repaired?” Vortex started towards him, but Starscape blocked the way.

“Tachyon’s orders,” he said. “Come with me, it’s still not safe down there.”

“Not safe? How isn’t it safe?” Vortex calculated a path to the shuttle, but Brawl grabbed his arm.

“We’re going with Star-thing,” he said.

“Starscape,” the other shuttle corrected. “Officially, Doctor Starscape. This way please.”

“Is he gonna be OK, doc?” Brawl said. “I mean he looks OK. He’s all clean and shiny.”

“We shall see,” Starscape said. He hustled the three of them into a roped-off area at the rear of the landing bay. Someone had put up a temporary railing and brought a few folding chairs. Starscape sat down with the sigh of someone who had been standing for far too long. “I escorted you in to Kaon,” he said, glancing up at Vortex. “I found you as soon as you entered the upper atmosphere and stayed with you until he landed. I don’t think he saw me, he didn’t answer any of my hails.”

“He was ill,” Vortex said, stepping to the railing. Brawl and Gigabyte joined him. “You should have called me.”

“I did,” Starscape said. “You were far from coherent. Blast Off’s heat shields failed, I’m surprised you were even conscious.”

“Is there likely to be lasting damage?” Gigabyte said.

Starscape shrugged. “That’s for us to find out,” he said. “I suppose that in his absence, you’ll have to search for a replacement.”

“That isn’t why she asked,” Vortex said as Gigabyte’s armour flared. “When can I talk to him?”

Starscape had the grace to look contrite. “When he’s awake,” he said. “Which might not be yet. You need to give him time.”

“Time,” Vortex said, “yeah. What are they doing?” The research assistants had finished wiping Blast Off down, and a group swaddled in anti-contamination suits clumsily exited his cargo hold. They closed the door, and Tachyon approached, wrapped again in protective plastic.

“They need him to transform,” Starscape said. “Repairs to our frames must be undertaken in alt mode due to the vagaries of mass shifting, but repairs to coding… Root mode is simply easier.”

The transformation was slow, a dance of planes and angles that went on far longer than usual, and which seemed to have been prompted by the datapad in Tachyon’s hands. Vortex gripped the barrier and watched, willing Blast Off’s shape to emerge from the storm. When it did, it swayed, optics dim and armour dull. Tachyon snapped their fingers and three of their assistants rushed forward to catch Blast Off before he fell. He stumbled, blinking at them, and they guided his fall onto a mobile repair trolley.

Vortex winced at the muted clunk as Bast Off hit the surface. His optics blazed bright for a moment, his lips moved, then the life seemed to rush from him and he slumped.

“Well done, everybody!” Tachyon cried. “Starscape! Wingnut! With me! Everyone else, get this place cleaned up and fit for purpose. Off we go!”

“I’m coming too,” Vortex said, but Starscape shook his head. He gripped the sides of the chair and heaved himself onto his feet.

“We’ll call you when he’s ready for visitors,” he said. “All of you.” He arched his back, nose wrinkling as he groaned.

“Starscape!” Tachyon yelled.

“On my way!” Starscape yelled back and began to trudge in their direction.

“Come on,” Brawl said. “We’ve seen him. We gotta let them do their jobs.”

“Wise words,” Gigabyte said, clapping Brawl on the back. “Let’s go. Vortex?”

Vortex watched until Tachyon had spirited Blast Off into the goods elevator and the massive steel doors had closed. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Onslaught called while they were in the refectory. Vortex, Gigabyte and Brawl were sitting in a corner booth, huddled over cans of complimentary coolant while Brawl gave them a blow-by-blow of the utter dullness of the Board of Trade event. Vortex poked the button on his arm, bringing his shiny new comms to life. Onslaught’s hologram was clearer than usual, but his expression was unreadable.

“You’re not in Recovery,” Onslaught commented.

“I’m fine,” Vortex said. “I left. Are you free?”

“Half a breem, my office.” The hologram fizzled out; Brawl pulled a face.

“You want I should come too?” he asked in a booming whisper. “You know how he gets when he’s worried.”

“Indoor voice!” Gigabyte hissed, and Brawl ducked his head into his armour.

Vortex patted him on the shoulder. “He’s not torqued at me, there’s something else.” He stood, pushing his can towards Brawl. “You can have this. I’ll catch you both later.”

Onslaught’s office was on the top floor, domed in tinted glass with a seamless panoramic window giving unrivalled views of the best and worst that Kaon had to offer. Onslaught’s desk usually sat in the center, but the floor contained all manner of things, and the room could transform according to the needs of the moment.

When Vortex entered the office was low lit, stars twinkling overhead and lights glimmering off a few pyrite sculptures dotted around the place on plinths. The desk was packed away, a small fountain in its place. Onslaught was waiting by the section of window that overlooked the business district and the main aerial highway. Taller buildings jutted from the cityscape, but they were few and far between, bounded by jet contrails and a web of moving lights.

“Take a seat,” Onslaught said, making himself comfortable on a recliner facing the window. The chair beside him was already adjusted to accommodate Vortex’s new rotors, and he dropped into it. Beyond the buildings and the traffic and a streak of yellow cloud, a moon was rising.

“Flame escaped,” Vortex said. “One of Solarstorm’s tanks was there. I had him, but she shot my arm off.”

“We’ll find him,” Onslaught said. “The Department for Public Health ordered an evacuation of Luna Two. Whether they did so before or after people began to leave en masse is a matter for conjecture. Flame will have returned to Cybertron.”

Vortex nodded. “I’ll get on it.”

“Not yet,” Onslaught said. “I know you, you’re angry, you want to do something. If I send you out now, you won’t be careful.”

“I’ll be careful!”

Onslaught shook his head. “I can’t take that risk. The Senate votes on the tax reforms in three days. Any hint of a scandal, and our friends are likely to withdraw their support. They’ll vote according to the wishes of other friends, or - worse - their consciences.” He gave Vortex a steady look. “The revenue from increased tax relief on colonial trade will be considerable. Enough to fund a bid to purchase shares in a spaceport, for example.”

Vortex nudged the chair; it produced a footrest and he leaned back, feet up. “Ugh, OK.” He sighed. “Sigma says she’ll see if she can get you on the approved bidders list. In return we deal with whoever’s making life difficult for her charity bots.”

“Who is making life difficult for them?” Onslaught said.

“Probably our customers,” Vortex replied. “Solarstorm’s too. It’ll be the gangs who deal in distribution in the low-quality high-volume areas.”

Onslaught nodded, silent a moment. “After the vote, I want you to deal with it. Send a message. I’m sure I can leave the details to you.”

“Why after? Why not now? No-one gives a scrap about low-end stim dealers.”

“Because,” Onslaught said, “right now Kaon looks quiet. Compared with HEX and Luna Two, there’s nothing newsworthy happening here. I want it to stay that way, at least until the vote.”

“I can be subtle,” Vortex complained.

“I know,” Onslaught said. “But this isn’t a situation that calls for subtlety, is it?”

Vortex huffed and shifted on the chair. “No, it’s not.”

Onslaught’s knuckles brushed against the back of Vortex’s hand, calm in his energy field. “I understand you’re frustrated,” he said, “but it won’t be for long. Now, tell me what happened on Luna Two.”

“It went to the smelter.” Vortex sighed again, pitching his chair further back. “Flame holed up in an office near the hotel. He let the virus out, some kind of trial run. It reached the barracks, then the hotel. We got out just before they bombed the pit of out it, and Sigma gave us the coordinates to this safe zone she set up.”

“Where you did not remain,” Onslaught stated.

“Frag no. Thrusters had the virus by then, he was starting to show symptoms. So we went back to Plan A, or Plan B or whatever it was: we went after Flame.”

Onslaught waited, optics fixed on the skyline.

“I didn’t hurt him,” Vortex said. “I just shook him up a bit. He had a guard with him, one of Solarstorm’s enforcers. You remember Trove? Massive tank, used to be a triple changer. And there was someone else, someone infected, another guard I think, name of Ambience. He wanted to bring her along, said she was the closest he ever got to success.”

“Was she?”

“Could be. He said something about her listening to him, taking orders.” Vortex shrugged. “Didn’t look like she was taking any orders to me. He had her strapped to a table. Did you get anything else out of Undercarriage?”

“Not about the nanites,” Onslaught said. “But it doesn’t matter. I think we can safely deduce that Flame was trying to create a formula with a military application, and that it went wrong.”

Vortex raised an optic ridge. “And he decided to test it on Luna Two?”

“Sigma Orionis was on Luna Two,” Onslaught mused. “It wouldn’t be the only attempt on her life during the course of the Reunion.”

“Yeah. Frag. OK, so Flame set up the test with the aim of killing Sigma? But what’s Valence got against Sigma?”

“Valence?”

“You know, Valence of Iacon, career civil service bot. He used to work for Senator Cynosure back when we first met.”

“Ah yes, I remember Valence. But how is he involved?”

Vortex gripped his tail rotors, and wished he could reboot his processors. “Didn’t I tell you already? It’s been a long orn.” He flipped up his visor and rubbed his optics. “OK, so Flame is being bankrolled or supported or something by Valence. Valence is a Regional Controller now. He’s on the Committee For Public Health, and I’m pretty damn sure he was behind the strike on the hotel, the quarantine, everything. He knew what was happening. That place where Flame was holed up? Crawling with Public Health Peacekeepers.” He tapped his foot. “But there’s one thing I don’t get. They were all tooled up with military kit, and Valence doesn’t have his cables in military.”

“Ha!”

Vortex turned his head, optics narrowed. “What?”

“It’s all beginning to make sense,” Onslaught said.

“What is? You’ve got that look you get. What’s going on?”

“Your puzzle is missing a piece,” Onslaught replied. “After we lost contact with you, I did some research of my own.”

“And?”

“And you can take a deep long vent and clear your energy field,” Onslaught said. “You’re not acting on this until you’re rested and we have a clear strategy. Is that understood?”

“Yeah, yeah I get it.” Vortex slammed his head back against the firm foam of the chair and cycled air through his vents.

“Better,” Onslaught said. “I had Engineering contract a mnemosurgeon to go through the rest of Undercarriage’s foul little brain. It turns out Flame’s plans aren’t the only things he saw.” He waved his fingers and a hard-light screen flickered into life in front of them. A keypad appeared on the arm of his chair, and he entered a code. The screen flushed grey, shapes emerging from the fuzz. “This was an orn before you left for Altihex. I’m sure you recognise Solarstorm?”

Vortex nodded; his former employer was hard to miss. He frowned. “The other two,” he said, “they’re kinda familiar.” He ran a search of his data banks, studying their squat grounder bodies and their hopeful open faces. “I’m drawing a blank, but I’ve seen them, I know I have.”

“You’ll have seen them on the news back when you were in Altihex,” Onslaught said. “Someone tried to teach their corpses to fly, remember?”

Vortex diverted the search to his more recent memories. “Yeah! Yeah, I remember. What was Solarstorm doing in Altihex?”

“Stealing the activation codes for HEX,” Onslaught said. “It’s been on the national news networks, these two were responsible, they were caught on a security camera. Their killer, however, remains at large.”

“So…” Vortex stared at the haze of Undercarriage’s memories, flicking his fingertips to claws and back again. “Solarstorm’s behind all this? I don’t buy it. I know her, I know her people, and the guys on HEX, they weren’t hers.”

“I believe she acted as a recruiting agent,” Onslaught said.

“Who for? This isn’t like her. She’s a shuttle, she was built on HEX, why would she help destroy it?”

“That wasn’t her call,” Onslaught said. “Take a look at this.” He entered another code and the image on the screen changed. There was a vertical sliver of light which gradually widened, a hushed babble of talk in the background. Vortex strained; he couldn’t make out any words, but he did begin to see patterns in the static, forms that gradually crystallised into Solarstorm sitting at a desk, a datasheet in her hand and a hologram standing proud of the table.

“You sneaky little eavesdropper,” Vortex whispered, imagining the lengths Undercarriage must have gone to in order to snoop. “Who’s she talking to? Is that Valence?”

Onslaught shook his head. “She’s talking to Senator Octans.”

“Octans? He’s the guy from Altihex, right, the one who came up with the plan to float the spaceport?”

“The very same.” Onslaught zoomed in on the hologram, and brought up a picture of Octans from the data net. The details matched perfectly. “Octans is also the Chair of the Military Funding Council. This conversation happened last quartex. If they spoke again, Undercarriage wasn’t around to observe them.”

“Let me guess,” Vortex said, “Octans isn’t popular with Sigma Orionis?”

“It would be truer to say that Sigma isn’t popular with Octans,” Onslaught said. “They’ve had numerous run-ins, and Octans has voted against every bill she has supported, and every action she’s lobbied for in the past five vorns.”

“Why?” Vortex gestured at the screen. “Is she cutting into his profit margin or something?”

“She’s the main barrier between Octans and a monopoly on trade in Altihex,” Onslaught said. “Among other things. As you will have noticed, Sigma Orionis is a very principled individual. She will fight for what she believes in, and she has the resources to do so effectively.”

Vortex held up his hand. “Frag, wait up a second. Airflow said something about Flame having a protector in Iacon. She thought it was Valence, but Valence doesn’t have access to military tech.”

“Airflow?” Onslaught mused. “Sergeant Airflow? I remember her.”

“It’s Lieutenant Commander Airflow now,” Vortex said. “When Flame got away from us he started screaming down a comm to someone called Tonic. Ring any bells?”

Onslaught began to smile. “Yes,” he said. “Yes it does. Tonic is Senator Octans’ Chief of Staff.”

Vortex blew air out of his vents. “Hot scrap. OK, then what’s Valence got to do with all this? Airflow didn’t just pick his name out of the air.”

“I don’t know,” Onslaught said. “Could be he’s working for Octans. There’s a lot here we don’t understand.”

Vortex pursed his lips, staring at the picture of Senator Octans. “We need to find out,” he said. “I need to get on this.”

“You need to rest.” Onslaught lay a heavy hand on Vortex’s arm. “Three days, remember.”

“But this is important!”

“What is?” Onslaught demanded. “Capturing Flame? Getting to the bottom of this mess? Getting revenge?”

Vortex pursed his lips. “All of them,” he said coldly.

“I understand,” Onslaught said, “but we do this on my terms and with a clear head, or we don’t do it at all. I will not be swayed on this.”

“All right, all right! I’ll take the night off, I’ll go home.”

Onslaught nodded and released Vortex’s arm. “All right. But you’re not going alone, Coruscate is waiting for you in the lobby.”

Vortex rolled his optics as he stood. “Of course she is,” he said. “OK, I’ll behave. But you better come up with a plan.”

Onslaught sank into his chair, waving his hand at the screen to bring up his portal to the data net. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Now go.”

Chapter Text

Light stung as Blast Off onlined his optics, like needles through his processor. He had to shut them down again.

He groaned, a staticky sound from a sore vocaliser. It wasn’t the only part of him that was sore; his whole body ached, his head throbbing and his side prickling with the unnerving sensation of self-repair integrating new plating.

Why?

His mind was hazy, his memory banks a mess. Even his thoughts felt sore.

After a while he managed to bring his optics back online, this time without wanting to vomit. They showed him a light grey ceiling and uncomfortably clean walls.

He was laying on a berth. There was a chair next to it, but it was unoccupied.

The room had two doors, but no windows, just this annoyingly bright light.

He didn’t bother thinking about where he was. Maybe it was a prison. Maybe he’d been captured again. Wouldn’t have been the first time. As long as they repaired him, they couldn’t be that hostile.

He turned on his better side and offlined his optical input, going back into recharge.

* * *

The next time Blast Off came around, he was still sore, but the world made more sense. He even managed to sit up.

The room was still bleak and boring, but there was enough chaos inside his mind that he didn’t care. Boring was good.

His memory banks had been defragged. They weren’t as messy as before, and Blast Off knew he wasn’t in alien custody. Though he didn’t have much more time to properly boot his memories because someone entered his room.

He raised his optical ridge.

“Good morning,” the intruder said, and if Blast Off hadn’t already known that he was on Cybertron, the figure in front of him would have made him doubt it. The bot was wrapped in plastic, her instruments on a slab that she held with one hand. “How are you feeling?”

“Confused?” Blast Off replied honestly.

“I’m not surprised,” she said as she stepped closer. “You’re on Cybertron in OnsCorp’s medical ward.”

Blast Off nodded, looking at the instruments as she set them down next to him on the berth. “Who are you?” he asked. Her voice was familiar, but the white plastic shrouded her frame, only her optics showing through a transparent slit. Not that it was guaranteed Blast Off would recognise her even if he could see her frame. “And why are you wearing all this?”

“I’m Wrench,” she told him.“I’m working under Tachyon.”

At the name, Blast Off’s memories slotted together. Awareness came back with a vengeance and he groaned, covering his optics at the sudden flood of information.

“I see you remember?” Wrench asked, apparently entertained by Blast Off’s display.

He gave another nod. “I assume your outfit means I’m still under quarantine.” It wasn’t a question.

“We just need to be sure. Your condition was severe, and we don’t know much about the infected nanities. I need you to open your medical port for me.”

At least she let him do it, keeping touching to a minimum when she plugged in a device. The fact she didn’t connect herself was another sign that they weren’t certain about his wellbeing.

“Your temperature is on the default level, the nanite activity is normal for component integration.” She docked another smaller device on the first one. “I need to run a scan on your processor functions, it’ll take a while.”

Blast Off sighed. “Whatever. It’s not like I have anywhere to be.”

It wasn’t meant to be a joke, but Wrench laughed. “You should be cleared in a few cycles. When you’re free to leave, what would you like to do?”

“Not be in a med-bay for another vorn, or any quarantine zones,” he answered dryly. The question made him think about his plans; he couldn’t see himself staying with Onslaught.

“I’ll be in Iacon in a quartex,” Wrench said, looking at her device and the readings. He sensed the presence of the scan prodding his systems, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable. “I’ll be studying Advanced Neuroscience. I’ve heard you were a scientist too?”

Blast Off frowned behind his visor. He didn’t feel like small talk. “I was.” Thankfully it was a topic he could fully remember. “But I wasn’t that kind of scientist.”

“What did you do?” Wrench asked casually.

“Xenological research, exploring and mapping space, linguistic research on alien species, environmental analyses, these kinds of things.”

Wrench’s optics brightened under her cover. “Sounds challenging. So, you were decoding alien languages?”

Blast Off gave a one-shoulder shrug. “It’s like maths once you figure out where to begin.”

She nodded, still watching the readings. It was then that it began to make sense to Blast Off.

“I take it you compelling me to talk is part of the scan?”

“Cognitive reactions and progression analysis,” she confirmed “Your hard drives were a heap of scattered data, and the nanities did their own part.” Wrench shifted slightly, the plastic rasping. “It’s good that your firewalls are so advanced. The heat was affecting your processor, but when the nanites tried to upload something they couldn’t break through.”

“That explains why I feel so sore inside,” Blast Off muttered.

“Well, that actually might be from us having to break through forcefully. Your firewalls wouldn’t back down, and it’s alpha coding. It took us some effort to do that. I’m sorry for that. You’re lucky you’re an alpha,” she said, “I’m sure any other class would have been irreversibly changed at that point.”

“It’s not alpha coding,” Blast Off responded. He shuffled on the berth and leant against the wall. “It’s shuttle specific.”

Wrench looked up. “Is that so?”

“You’ll learn when you’re studying neuroscience.”

“You could tell me now?” Her voice was intrigued.

Blast Off huffed. “Do you have to worry about being hacked by aliens?”

“Oh, I see. That ever happened to you?”

At that, Blast Off glared.

“Okay, sorry,” Wrench held up one hand in an apology. “That’s personal.”

Exhaling air deeply, Blast Off dimmed his optics, then he shrugged. “Will this take much longer?”

“Another breem maybe. Like I mentioned, your memory banks fragmented pretty badly, plus you have additional hard drives that need scanning.”

Blast Off didn’t react, just let his head fall against the wall. Some moments passed, but the silence was odd. It didn’t distract him from the prodding of the scan.

Eventually he asked, “Where’s Vortex?” Blast Off didn’t even know if the rotary had survived re-entry. His shields had failed, the heat would have been intense. He couldn’t remember returning to Cybertron, only the sense of the intention to do so.

“He’s fine,” Wrench replied “We repaired him, but it was a lot of work. His frame was in bad shape. Not in comparison to yours, but still…”

“Then he didn’t explode in my cargo hold. That would have been a mess.”

Wrench laughed. “He didn’t, but it didn’t look like he was happy about that ride.”

Blast Off huffed. “He shouldn’t complain, he didn’t have to try not to burn up.” He couldn’t remember his efforts, and frankly he didn’t want to, but he hadn’t burnt up. It meant he had somehow managed to bring them planet-side.

“Vortex came to see you when they made you transform.” Wrench typed something on her device, and the prodding increased for a few astroseconds. “I think he was worried.”

“I bet he wanted to touch me,” Blast Off mumbled. “He’s always touching.”

“Awww. He isn’t that bad.”

“You like him?” Blast Off wondered if Wrench had been intimate with the ‘copter. Considering Vortex’s reputation, he wouldn’t have been surprised.

“I repaired him often enough,” Wrench said. She gave Blast Off a look through the plastic, optics glowing. “He grows on you, don’t you think?” There was something in her voice, something Blast Off didn’t recognise. He disliked being unable to read between the lines, and he disliked even more having to admit it.

“It’s not like he gives you a choice, with how persistent he is,” Blast Off commented, and earnt himself another laugh.

“So, done.” Wrench unplugged the device, and let Blast Off close his medical port. “You’re fine for the time being, but we need to observe you a little longer. If you need anything, there’s a button by the door”

“I could use something to read,” Blast Off said.

“You can access TV channels on the console,” she replied.

Blast Off shook his head. “Too loud.”

“Okay.” Wrench shrugged. “I wouldn’t want you accessing the data-net for a while, just until you’re back on your feet again. Is there anything in specific you want to read?”

“Not really. Just no fiction.”

“And especially no romance, I take it?” Wrench said with a teasing note that Blast Off could decipher.

Blast Off vented air in an amused huff. “No, how do you know?”

“Just an educated guess. Anything else, or just a few datapads?” She put the device back on the tablet, and hooked them up to a small datacrystal.

“A long range comm enhancer, if I’m allowed. I need to make an off-planet call.”

Wrench’s optics brightened, and with an audible smile she answered, “I see what I can do.”

* * *

Vortex disentangled himself from the panting grounder slumped against the alley wall. Euphic had a weakness for rotors and wicked grins; one of Onscorp’s payroll team, he had a taste for adventure everywhere except for his job. Vortex had found him in The Rusty Cog, his hopeful smile and rich red curves too enticing to resist.

“You could take me home?” Euphic suggested, a lazy grin on his face and his cables lewdly swinging.

Vortex released his hands, watching him slump even more. “I’m not going home,” he said, leaning in to cover Euphic’s pretty mouth with his own as the racer’s smile began to fade. Euphic cleaved to him, so pliant and willing, but then his hands began to wander and Vortex grabbed a hold of his wrists again and pinned them to the wall. Euphic pouted.

“Now don’t make that face,” Vortex said. “You know you’re my favourite thing on wheels, but I said no touching the new equipment.”

“Literally everything you’ve got is new,” Euphic complained. “If I was a shuttle, would you take me home?”

Vortex ignored the snort of laughter from around the corner. “If I was going home, I’d take you home. Don’t make this weird, OK?”

Euphic sighed. “Whatever. I’m calling it a night. If you change your mind, you know where I live.”

Coruscate was leaning against the wall outside the Cog, examining her claw tips in the light from the neon bar sign, when Vortex swayed into view.

She smirked. “Feeling better now?”

He flicked his rotors at her. “You can call it a night too you know,” he said, setting off in the direction of the next bar.

She caught him up easily. “Nice try,” she said. “Where next? Lava Moon? The Last Stand?”

“Metallico’s,” Vortex said.

Coruscate grunted.

“What?”

“I see what you’re doing.” She tugged his arm, pulling him away from a knot of laughing grounders. “It’s not gonna work.”

“I’m technically your superior,” Vortex said. “How about I just order you to go back to HQ?”

“How about I just order you to go frag yourself?” Coruscate suggested. “You’re not going to Metallico’s.”

“It’s a veterans’ bar!”

Coruscate’s large engine growled. “Five vorns ago it was a veterans’ bar. Now it’s a dive full of stim junkies and empties. I am not on disposal duty tonight, and I am absolutely not explaining to the boss how I let you get carried away with some scrapheap you dragged out of the gutter.”

“What do you have against fun!” Vortex cried. “I gotta do something, I’m dying here!”

“You’re drunk,” Coruscate said, taking a firmer grip on his arm. “Now you can come with me to a decent bar with decent people or we can go track down that poor little racer and you can give him something more than a quick overload in a dirty back street. Those are your options.”

“He gets sentimental,” Vortex muttered.

“What do you expect?” Coruscate steered him away from a wall. “He’s a normal person, he’s gonna get attached if you keep going after him like that. You lead him on.”

“I wanna go back to work,” Vortex said. “I left something in my office.”

“You haven’t set foot in your office in three orns.”

“Why do you have to be so difficult? I’m going flying.”

Coruscate rolled her optics. “Vector Sigma! All right, flying. I suppose you don’t care that you’re too drunk to fly?”

“No such thing,” Vortex stated. “You gonna let go of my arm?”

“You gonna stop being a coghead?” She frowned, waiting until she had his attention. “I’m faster than you, I’m bigger than you. You get one chance. You pull any of that aerial acrobatics scrap and try to lose me in the slums, and you’re gonna need another new set of rotors. You got that?”

Vortex swallowed, his energy field buzzing. “Or… you could take me home?” He stepped in close, meeting her displeased scowl with a grin. “You know I like it when you order me around.”

Her scowl refused to budge. “Just get in the air.”

* * *

Blast Off had gone back to recharge almost immediately after Wrench had left.

The next time he woke up, more than half a day had passed and still he felt exhausted. And not just that, but cold too.

It was an annoying subjective sensation, most likely due to the contrast between his nanite-induced high temperatures. Now his default level just felt too low.

He sighed deeply, and put an arm over his optics. The cool atmosphere of the room didn’t help. The light was still stinging and the walls were still boring. There was nothing there save the chair no one needed or used.

He was dozing off again when there was a beep, and a light appeared next to the door at the opposite wall from his berth.

Blast Off frowned.

Wrench had explained that the door led to a small visiting room. It was partitioned off, so that they didn’t have to dress up in plastics.

It beeped again, and Blast Off struggled to get to his feet. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to see anyone, though it would be a distraction from the soreness and his mind wandering to places he didn’t want it to go.

With another deep vent of his intakes, Blast Off made it across the room and opened the door.

The room was an odd installation. Divided by a huge plasglass wall, there was a table in the dead centre, the wall running through it, and chairs on either side.

The room was white, with the same sterile light as the recovery room, and broken only by the green-grey blotch that was Brawl.

“Hey, Thrusters!” the tank said, his voice too loud despite being muffled by the glass.

“Brawl…” Blast Off muttered, too tired to be surprised.

He hadn’t expected the tank. Onslaught, certainly. Vortex, most likely. Definitely more medics, but Brawl hadn’t been on the list.

“How are you?” Brawl said, as Blast Off said, “What are you doing here?”

Blast Off sighed; Brawl’s visor flickered.

“Yeah, well, nice to see you, too,” the tank said, crossing his arms over his chest.

Blast Off resisted a huff and sat down, shaking his head. He was still unstable on his feet, and his equilibrium was glitching.

“I just wanted to check on you. You looked awful when you transformed, you know.” Brawl said, cheerful again as far as Blast Off could tell.

“You were there, too?”

Brawl nodded and sat down opposite Blast Off, behind the glass. “Me, Tex and Giga. Your paint was all weird and stuff. You look better now.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m better, rather I’m less bad.” Blast Off shrugged. “Why are you interested anyway?” Maybe Onslaught had sent in Brawl to check if he was ready to debrief? And why had Gigabyte been there? Blast Off wondered if he’d missed more memories than he’d first thought.

Brawl gave him a disapproving look, his head tilted slightly and his visor unevenly bright as one optic dimmed. “If you work with people, they worry about you?” he said. “And frag, Tex told me you almost turned into a zombie.” The tank shifted on the chair. “And you got to shoot stuff. That’s so much better than what I was doing. And you punched through plasglass and threw a juggernaut class tank around! I’d have loved to see that! My assignment was so boring.”

Blast Off’s engine rumbled. He rubbed his face, and only now realised they had taken his visor off. “If you like the idea of almost being burnt alive in space twice, seeing your home destroyed, and being shot at by missiles at least three times while trying to fight off a virus and trying not losing your mind in the process, then yes, it wasn’t boring.”

“That… was a very long sentence.” Brawl’s cannon barrel twitched noticeably. “When Vortex talked about it, it sounded more exciting.”

“I can imagine.”

It was quiet for a moment. Blast Off didn’t know what to talk about, not that he felt like talking.

“So, you seen Vortex?” Brawl broke the silence.

“No. Just heard he’s still alive.”

“Oh. Okay. I haven’t seen him all day, I thought he’d dropped by.” The tank gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Which reminds me…” He started fumbling under the table, and Blast Off stopped himself from muttering a condescending comment. “Here.” Four datapads appeared with Brawl’s hand. “Wrench said you wanted something to read.”

Brawl opened a hatch on the table near the plasglass, and put the pads down.

Blast Off raised an optical ridge. Something hummed and orange writing appeared on the glass: ‘Decontamination in progress.’

The humming stopped, and the hatch on Blast Off’s side clicked open. It was followed by a knock on the door.

Brawl turned around. “Aw, frag.”

“What’s wrong?” Blast Off asked, taking out the datapads. He was surprised Wrench had thought about them.

“It’s Armature,” Brawl said as though Blast Off should know who that was. “He let me visit you for a few minutes, but I guess the time’s up. He’s waiting outside.”

Blast Off gave a brief nod. “I see. And who is he?”

Brawl slowly stood up. “The brain doc.”

Resisting a sigh, Blast Off leant back in his chair. Another neurologist looking at him; he shouldn’t be so annoyed, it made sense. It was just that he was tired and now he had something to read. He didn’t want any more company, least of all more examinations.

“I can tell him you’re okay,” Brawl said, in a weird tone that made Blast Off raise his optical ridges. “I mean you seem okay to me, no need for him to visit you, right?”

Blast Off just stared. Brawl wasn’t a medic.

“I don’t think Tachyon would accept your judgement,” he said, hopefully not too condescendingly.

“Yeah,” Brawl muttered, not seeming offended, “Guess you’re right. Anyway then, good to see you’re okay. And good luck with Armature.” The tank left with a wave and bright optics, but the door remained open behind him, and someone smaller stepped in.

The newcomer was a grey and orange grounder, Praxian, if the door attachments were any hint.

“Good afternoon,” he greeted. “I’m Armature.

Again, Blast Off nodded. He doubted the medic wouldn’t know his name.

“Onslaught wanted me to talk to you,” the grounder continued, smoothly sliding into the chair.

“About?” Blast Off asked.

“Recent events.” Armature smiled calmly, and took out a datapad.

“What do you want to know?” Blast Off had thought Onslaught would come in person to debrief him, but maybe it was a combination of more cognitive testing and debriefing at the same time? He still hoped to see Onslaught at some point. There were things he needed to tell him directly.

“How are you?” the medic asked, making Blast Off shrug.

“Better. I was repaired, the components are integrating well. I’m just sore. Tachyon can give you the exact details of my repairs, if you need.”

“I see,” Armature wrote something down. “I’m glad you are feeling better physically, but that was not what I meant. How do you feel when you think about the recent events? HEX is gone and-”

“Ah, frag.” Blast Off interrupted, his optics flickering once before he stared at the other in realisation. “You’re a therapist?” He’d had enough therapists and counselling for a lifetime back on HEX. He rubbed his face.

“Yes.” Armature said. “That is my profession. I sense you have some negative feeling towards my kind?”

“I have met a few…” Blast Off huffed. “Let me guess, you’re here to check if I’m traumatised? I’m not. I’m good. Just sore and tired, and I want to read.”

“With all due respect,” Armature said, and Blast Off resisted rolling his optics. “I don’t think you can judge this kind of damage. Denial is often the first sign of-“

“I’m not in denial,” Blast Off interrupted once again. “I know what PTSD feels like, and this is not it. Will I feel unwell when I think about recent events? Most likely. Will I get flashbacks or sensor echoes? On a bad day, maybe. But I’m not suffering from trauma.” His engine revved, a rumble both angry and exhausted. His hands clenched at the sound. There were worse things, things worth being traumatised by.

The grounder typed something on the pad, then looked up. “If you say you know how PTSD feels, you should know that not every trauma feels the same. What happened last time you needed to receive treatment?”

Blast Off glared. He hated the question, that it implied he needed to be treated now. “I went missing in space for over four and a half vorns.”

It was hard not to feel satisfaction when Armature’s optics widened. “That is a very long time, even for Cybertronians.”

Blast Off shrugged. “A long time starving, hardly sleeping, no maps or information of the place you’re in. I was trapped in dark space for almost a quarter vorn at first. That is a reason for trauma.”

“Dark space?” Armature asked. He had stopped typing on his datapad.

“The empty space between galaxies.”

“Oh.” The grounder’s doorwings twitched. “Well, that is unfortunate-”

Unfortunate isn’t the word I would use,” Blast Off spat.

“-but,” Armature continued without any hint he’d heard, “the recent events were awful as well. You almost died, or worse, and your old home was destroyed.”

“I never said I feel like dancing happily around,” Blast Off said with a dose of condescension. “HEX is gone. How would you feel if someone bombed the Crystal Garden?”

The other’s doorwings twitched again, and Blast Off continued. “But we already lost HEX vorns ago when they shut her down. If I want to talk about what happened, I’ll talk to someone who can relate, no offence.”

“None taken.” Armature nodded. “I understand your issue about HEX, but this still leaves your experience of the infection. I heard about it in the news, and read the report from Tachyon. It is rather frightening.”

Blast Off heaved air deeply. He put his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. Why couldn’t he just be left alone? He didn’t want to talk about that; he didn’t want to go through all this counselling again when he knew it was useless and unnecessary.

He shook his head, and then looked up at the other, crossing his arms on the desk. His voice was tired, and void of his earlier condescension when he spoke. “Space is a very dark, very dangerous, very lonely place, and it’s where I spend most of my life.” Blast Off looked for signs that the other understood, but he couldn’t read what he saw. “I am not traumatised, I just want to read.”

Armature stared at Blast Off for over a klik. When he broke the silence, Blast Off knew he’d brought his point across.

“I see.” The grounder said with a slight nod. “I will grant you access to the long range communication enhancer you requested, and update Onslaught on your status.”

“I appreciate it.” Blast Off’s tension eased, making him realise how tense he’d become.

“You should get the communication device within the next few joors,” Armature said and stood up. Before he turned to leave, he showed a small smile. “Thank you for this very interesting conversation.”

Blast Off nodded in confusion, and watched the other leave.

Chapter Text

When Vortex staggered into OnsCorp HQ it was already late. Coruscate strolled behind him, whistling an aggravating little tune she’d picked up in her army days. Vortex leaned on the security barrier, fumbling for his ID. The guard on duty went to swipe him in, but Coruscate must have shaken her head, because she went back to politely waiting.

Eventually Vortex gave in and offered the cable from his wrist.

The guard went through all the rigmarole of plugging him in while Vortex sagged. “Aaaaand clear,” she said cheerfully. “Welcome back, sir.”

“Where’s the shuttle?” Vortex demanded.

“Which one?” the guard asked, and what the frag was her name? Boxy frame, Insecticon antennae, bright smile; he couldn’t remember.

“The contractor,” Vortex replied, wincing as his audials screamed feedback directly into his central processor. “Blast Off.”

“Are you having wireless problems with that hangover?” Coruscate said, smirking. “Look it up yourself.”

Vortex flashed her an obscene gesture with his tail rotors.

“He’s in the ward off med-lab two,” the guard said. “Floor fifty-one.”

Vortex nodded and pushed his way past the security bar. “Not coming with me?” he said to Coruscate.

“Oh I’ve done my duty,” Coruscate said, giving a wave as she turned to the exit. “Tex, you owe me a drink. You owe me a whole evening of drinks. See you later, Nadir.”

“Have a nice night!” the security guard called.

Vortex clutched his head, and hit the button for the elevator. Floor fifty-one was a long time coming, and he spent the journey hunched over, one hand on the wall, waiting to see if his churning insides were about to follow through on their threat. The lurch as the elevator drew to a halt was almost too much, but he vented past it and managed to push himself upright before the doors opened.

He wasn’t far down the corridor before a blurry shape stopped him.

“Rough night?” Wrench asked, leaning close to peer into his visor.

It was an effort to bring her into focus. “Awesome night, rough day.”

“You’ve come to see Blast Off?” She asked, continuing when he nodded. “Wait there, I’ve got a package for him.”

Vortex swayed to the nearest wall and leaned against it. “I’m a delivery bot now?”

“Just wait there!”

Wrench wasn’t long. She came back with a box wrapped in Private and Confidential tape. “OK, I need to go. Just feed it through the drawer in the wall, yeah?”

Vortex nodded again, and took the box. Wrench left at speed, and he groaned, wishing the med-lab wasn’t such a long walk.

Blast Off was still in quarantine. Getting there must have taken the better part of a vorn, but Vortex eventually arrived. He grabbed himself a coolant, and shut himself in the little sealed cubical by the door. There was a chair, thank frag. It transformed for him, making way for his rotors, and he sank gratefully down.

The shuttle was a long while coming. The inner door was dark, but the glass lightened as Vortex watched, becoming transparent as Blast Off came over.

“You look like I feel,” Vortex said.

Blast Off shrugged, and fetched himself a chair.

“Ugh, I got a thing for you.” Vortex glanced around looking for somewhere to put the coolant. Eventually he set it down on the table in front of the plasglass barrier and held up the package. “I opened it for you, it’s a thing. A black thing. Comms augmentor maybe?”

“You opened my mail.”

“So you didn’t have to,” Vortex said, lifting the torn lid of the package and taking out the device. “Wrench said there was a drawer to put it in?”

Blast Off pointed at the hatch on the barrier, just in front of where Vortex had put his coolant.

“I brought you something too,” Vortex said, pushing the device through the hatch. He leaned over on his side and rifled through the compartment on his hip. “It’s here somewhere.” After a moment he tugged out a small cube, and put that into the hatch too. “Took me half the night to find a shop that sold these,” he said.

The hatch closed and a light flashed, and Vortex grinned as Blast Off’s optics brightened.

“It’s that gross smelling shuttle energon stuff you like,” he said. “Like they had on… yeah. What do you need the long range comms thing for?”

“To call someone,” Blast Off said. He picked up the cube, clearly inhaling whatever vapours had escaped from the seal. Happily, his optics were firmly fixed on Vortex, where they should be.

“When are they letting you out?” Vortex asked.

Blast Off shrugged. “When they’re certain the danger has passed.”

“You could break through that shield though.” Vortex smirked. “It can’t be that thick.”

“I can’t imagine why I’d want to,” Blast Off said. He put the little cube down next to the comms augmentation device. “You do realise we have quarantines for a reason?”

“Wasn’t why I asked,” Vortex replied. “You feeling better? Looks like they put everything back how it’s meant to be.”

“I’m tired.” The shuttle leaned his elbows on the table, optics flicking from Vortex’s rotors to other parts of his frame.

“I got an upgrade,” Vortex said. “I think the bots in Engineering like to experiment. I got this custom extra armour stuff.” He waggled one of the hinged flanges covering his hip. “And Wrench tweaked my engine.”

“Indeed.”

“You don’t like it?”

“It’s different,” Blast Off said.

Vortex flicked a tail rotor. “I’m still the same.”

The answering smile was fleeting and tired. “You are.”

“I spoke to Ons,” Vortex said. “He put me on medical leave.”

“Wise.”

“Eh, he’s just worried about the import duty vote. After that’s sorted I can get things done.”

“You’re going after Flame?” Blast Off said, and there was an edge to his voice that sent a pleasant tingle through Vortex’s sensor net. It was a nice distraction from the nausea.

“Not just him,” Vortex said. “I’ll fill you in when my head stops spinning. You look like you could use some recharge.”

Blast Off pushed himself upright. “What will you do now?” he asked.

“Fragged if I know.” Vortex stood, slowly. He leaned on the table. “They got rid of the virus, yeah?”

“Of course.”

“So I could sneak in there and no-one would know.”

Blast Off rubbed below his optics. “I am in quarantine.”

“And I’ve got a whole set of new equipment just waiting for you to try it out. You’re not sick any more, Wrench isn’t on site right now. They can put me in quarantine with you.”

“That’s…” Blast Off sighed. “That’s not how quarantine works. It’s late, perhaps you should consider sleeping off your hangover?”

“Maybe I should,” Vortex said. He dragged the chair as close as possible to the barrier and flopped back into it. Coruscate was long gone, but Onslaught would have arranged for someone else to be waiting for him in the lobby, to follow him the whole night through, to make sure he didn’t do anything that any of them might regret later. He picked up his coolant and drained the can, watching Blast Off’s blank expression.

“You’re staying here,” the shuttle observed.

Vortex hooked a leg over the side of the chair and made himself comfortable. “Why the frag not?”

* * *

Blast Off felt odd closing the door, knowing Vortex remained in the visitors’ room. Hopefully the ‘copter would refrain from comming him once he inevitably grew bored.

With a sigh, Blast Off sat on the berth, eyeing the device, unsure whether to wait or to use it now.

He was too tired to figure out what time it was on the diplomatic space station and alien planet his batch mates currently called home. He could leave them a message.

Plugging the device into the port on his wrist, Blast Off let the quick installation program run. He went through the settings easily, knowing which satellite he could use for both calls, and rerouted access and user log-in to FTL communication.

After what had happened to HEX, no one would question why he was calling his batch mates.

Blast Off pinged Lunar Pulse first, but no one answered. He was probably in recharge, or busy working.

With another sigh, Blast Off tried to contact Light Screen, but he also didn’t pick up. There was static and a familiar buzz that hinted at bad space weather.

His shoulders slumped. Blast Off would have been lying if he’d said he hadn’t looked forward to speaking to them. After the events of the last few cycles, he wanted to hear familiar voices and talk to someone who would get it.

Who would get him.

He cancelled the pinging, and lay down. It was stupid that he was so exhausted when he’d recharged so long the day before. Even reading was tiring, but it was still better than going straight back to recharge. He turned on one of the datapads, but didn’t look at it.

Wasting time like this felt wrong, and Blast Off was restless after what Vortex had told him.

Going after Flame… Blast Off hoped he would get the chance to be a part of it. He wasn’t much for revenge, but this mech had almost turned him into a monster, and even hearing Flame’s name gave him an unnerving itch. Blast Off wondered if the urge to infect that mech with his own virus hadn’t been entirely one of the symptoms.

Sighing, Blast Off rubbed his optics. Who knew? It didn’t matter; musing on it wasn’t reasonable, it raised a suspicion that his urge for revenge might be a hint that the virus was still active somewhere deep inside him.

“Frag,” Blast Off muttered, and shut the datapad off. He didn’t want to think any more. It was probably good that he hadn’t reached any of his batch mates. At least he didn’t need to talk about HEX, or anything else he’d been through.

Forcing himself to recharge wasn’t as difficult as expected, and Blast Off’s systems wound down within a few kliks, the communication device still attached to his wrist.

* * *

He awoke in confusion. Someone had pinged him, and his systems had read it as an emergency. Processor clocking fast, optics snapping online, he looked around, tense, until his memory banks fully booted.

Blast Off accepted the call before he even saw the signature.

“Yes?” he muttered, drowsily.

“Hey Blast Off,” a familiar voice replied, “did I wake you up?”

“Lunar Pulse,” Blast Off muttered as if to make himself realise who was speaking to him. “Yes, but… it’s okay. I’ve slept enough.”

“You don’t sound like you slept enough, to be honest.”

Blast Off shrugged, even though he knew the other couldn’t see him. “It’s been a rough few cycles…”

“I can imagine.” Lunar Pulse’s voice was sombre, it lacked its usual cheerful note. “I’ve heard about HEX. Even on Vandeen it’s big news. I think the organics are worried Cybertron will go to war again.”

“I…” Blast Off rubbed his face. He could see what impact it had on the intergalactic community. Cybertronians weren’t known for mercy when one of their colonies was attacked, let alone if something happened to Cybertron itself

He remembered vividly how Iacon had built a genocide machine to wipe out the entire home planet of a particular race because they traded weapons with the Quintessons.

“I mean,” Lunar Pulse continued, “the Galactic Trading Board isn’t too worried, since we’re on good terms with them and no one wishes us harm, but-“

“The Triangulum Galaxy Council is alarmed?” Blast Off guessed. Of all the factions and alien federations out there, that was the one with the most unstable diplomatic relation to Cybertron. “I’m sorry you’re caught in this mess.” Blast Off sat up and leant against the wall. “I’m going to take you sub-voc, wait a moment.”

“Sub-voc?” Lunar Pulse asked. “Where are you?”

//I’m in OnsCorp’s medical ward,// Blast Off explained once the reroute was complete, //and there’s someone outside. Well, at least I think he’s still there. He doesn’t need to hear everything.//

//Someone outside? And why are you in a med-bay?// Lunar Pulse seemed taken aback, making Blast Off sigh.

Frag, he shouldn’t have mentioned any of this.//“Like I said, it was a rough few cycles. I can’t say more, not over a public comm-line.//

//You know that this doesn’t make me any less worried. What the pit? And who’s waiting outside? I know you’re working for OnsCorp, but do they have to guard you?//

//No,// Blast Off shrugged again. //No guard,// he said, and hoped Onslaught wasn’t using Vortex like that. //It’s Vortex. You met him once. He’s… sleeping off his hangover.//

//I remember Vortex,// Lunar Pulse said, and from the edge in his voice, he wasn’t pleased. //“He’s that ‘copter that was with you when you stopped off here a while back. Why’s he outside waiting for you?//

//Like I said, he’s sleeping off his hangover.//

//That…// Lunar Pulse vented deeply, audible through the comm. //He’s not stalking you, right? I mean he’s still in another room, so…//

Blast Off uttered a dry laugh, thinking about how Vortex had tried to talk his way into the sealed room. //He is, but if it wasn’t for the quarantine-//

//Quarantine?// Lunar Pulse interrupted. //For frag’s sake. Why are you in quarantine?//

//I-// Blast Off began but his batchmate didn’t leave him time to explain.

//See, this is what I hate about you. You lose an arm and it’s ‘inconvenient’, because you can’t transform anymore, but it’s ‘not too bad’ because you stopped the energon loss! You’re in quarantine, but you don’t think it’s something you should tell people! Why don’t you take better care of yourself?//

//It wasn’t my fault that I ended up here,// Blast Off spat.

//No, but if the topic of Vortex hadn’t come up, you wouldn’t have told me about the quarantine. I worry about you.// Luna Pulse’s tone was familiar, and Blast Off knew not to disagree.

//I’m sorry,// Blast Off said, and meant it. It was hard to work out what people would think was of interest, even for his batch mates. He wished he was better at those social things. If he was, they’d be talking about HEX, and not arguing about something trivial.

//I know,// Lunar Pulse said, sounding as tired as Blast Off felt. //Me too. I just don’t want you to have to deal with someone like Heliopause again. And this rotary didn’t strike me to as being like Windcut, you know.//

Blast Off looked at his healing knuckles, not responding, just thinking to himself that he rather would not be reminded of Heliopause or Windcut.

//But then,// Lunar Pulse continued, //considering how it turned out with Windcut, it might be better he isn’t like that.//

//Yeah…// Blast Off let his head drop against the wall, and sighed deeply. He really hadn’t intended for the conversation to go in that direction.

There was a moment of mutual silence, but not the awkward kind. It was as if they were sitting in the same room and reading, or playing games, just minding their own business.

Lunar Pulse spoke first. //I’m gonna come to Kaon soon.//

//Why?//

//Because I can hear you feel like slag, even if you won’t say it. And HEX is gone. It’s… not right. I should be on Cybertron. And you said you can’t talk over a public channel, and I know you want to.//

Blast Off relaxed. Somehow it was good not to have to explain everything, how he was, and what he needed. He was glad Lunar Pulse knew him well enough. //Thanks,// he muttered, earning a laugh from the other.

//Okay, and now stop thanking and apologising to me, because that really has me worried.// Lunar Pulse said, with amusement that made Blast Off grin.

//We can meet in Altihex. I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying in Kaon,// Blast Off offered.

//Why? I thought you just settled in?//

//I’m going to quit.//

Lunar Pulse was quiet for a long moment, and Blast Off was about to ask if he was still on the comm, but then his batchmate spoke up. //Why do you want to quit? No, wait, just tell me when I’m back on-planet. It might take a while, because of all this HEX mess going on and aliens preparing for war. Not sure when they’ll open a bridge to Cybertron.//

//It wasn’t aliens that blew up HEX,// Blast Off said before he thought about the impact of his words. //I’m not an official source, but you should talk to Sigma Orionis.//

//I…// Lunar Pulse seemed confused. //When did you speak to Orionis?//

//At the reunion on Luna Two.// Blast Off shrugged.

//You were at the reunion? And you didn’t tell me? And how do you know what happened to HEX…?//

//It was a last minute decision, and not mine. And… I really can’t talk about that now.//

//Okay,// Lunar Pulse had caught himself again. //I’m going to make you tell me everything in great detail once I’m on Cybertron. From why you’re in quarantine to HEX to the reunion to that new rotary of yours! And if it means I have to get you drunk, then so be it.//

Blast Off laughed, feeling better for the first time since he’d been cleared of the virus. //That-//

//Oh Frag!// Lunar Pulse cut in. //Does that mean you met Star Reign? At the reunion?//

//I did.//

//I definitely need to get you drunk!//

* * *

Lunar Pulse had talked a good long while, distracting Blast Off from his situation and the dreaded memories of the last few cycles. Instead of bad sensor echoes, Blast Off had his first deep and restful recharge since leaving for Luna Two.

He woke up marginally less tired, and once he booted his optics, something instantly caught his attention.

The light that indicated a visitor in the other room came on. Blast Off sighed.

He had been awake for less than a breem, and already someone was here to bother him. It was probably still Vortex, bored and wanting to be entertained. Blast Off checked his chronometer; that would mean Vortex had stayed all evening and through the night. He doubted Vortex could have endured that long.

Which meant it was someone else.

Hindering a pained groan as he got up, he took the few steps to the door. When he entered, the plasglass cleared and it wasn’t Vortex who greeted him.

“Good morning,” Onslaught said with a nod. His visor was bright and battle mask withdrawn, revealing an almost friendly face – if Blast Off’s perception was worth anything.

“Morning,” Blast Off replied, and sat down.

Onslaught huffed a soft laugh. “I had to throw Vortex out. It seems he was here all night, I hope he didn’t bother you?”

Blast Off raised an optical ridge. “No, we just talked briefly, but that was yesterday evening.”

“Well, then I hope he merely slept off his hangover and didn’t disturb my medical staff during the night.”

Blast Off nodded. He didn’t have much to say to that. “Where is he now?” he asked, an image of Flame coming to mind.

“I sent him out with Brawl.” Onslaught leant back, relaxing slightly. “He shouldn’t have been here in the first place. What did he say to you?”

Blast Off shook his head. “Not much. Just that he’s on medical leave and he wants to talk to me once we’re both better.”

“I see,” Onslaught said, eying him up.

Blast Off glared back.

“Well, Vortex told me some very interesting things,” Onslaught continued. “But first things first: how are you?”

“I’m better than I was a few days ago.” Blast Off shrugged. Onslaught had probably read his medical report, there was no need to elaborate.

“You didn’t look very good when you arrived. I was worried.”

Blast Off uttered a huff. “I can imagine. The prospect of a crazed shuttle running amok in your hangar would have had me worried, too.”

“That wasn’t what I meant.” Onslaught’s visor dimmed for an astrosecond. “I’m responsible for you. I sent you and Vortex up there, and this is not how I anticipated things turning out.”

“Neither did I…”

Onslaught inhaled air loudly as he finally sat down. “I want to know what happened.”

“I thought Vortex told you everything already?”

“He told me what he thought was important. I want to know your view, and I want to know how you became infected.”

Blast Off tensed. His ailerons clicked, but he resisted snapping something impolite. What was the point in repeating everything Onslaught already knew?

“You know about Orionis asking us to investigate HEX?” he asked. The less he was forced to say about the reunion - and his interactions with certain fellow shuttles - the better.

Thankfully, Onslaught nodded. “You got to HEX,” he said. “What happened?”

Sighing, Blast Off began to talk: how they had discovered intruders on HEX, how they had reached the core, and how they’d split up when he sent Vortex to the control ring.

“You were connected to HEX?” Onslaught asked, in the same tone Vortex had used when he’d asked the same. Onslaught rubbed his chin, looking at Blast Off as though he questioned his sanity. “Why did you do that?”

“We had to break HEX apart, and I didn’t know the code.”

“So, you had to hack HEX after someone else had hacked it?” Onslaught’s optics flickered, and Blast Off allowed himself a tiny grin; the sentence was a tongue twister. “You know what I mean,” Onslaught added.

Blast Off gave a nod. “I was connected, but I didn’t need to hack her. I had permission to enter her systems.” He hid the fact that he had also downloaded content from HEX’s databanks. Onslaught hadn’t asked about that, and Vortex seemed to have forgotten to tell their boss about the crystal.

“Vector Sigma,” Onslaught muttered and leant back.

“It could have been worse,” Blast Off said, not believing it himself. “I mean, I don’t know how, but it could have been full of organics.”

“Organics? On HEX?”

“From the labs…” Maybe Blast Off shouldn’t have mentioned that.

Onslaught waved a hand. “Okay, just tell me what happened next?”

Venting deeply, Blast Off continued. He didn’t mention how he and Vortex had spent some of their time, and glossed over certain things. He focused on the quarantine and Sigma Orionis, and how he’d crushed the head of that one particular zombie.

“I suspect that was how I got infected,” he said. “My knuckles were still torn from the plasglass.” Blast Off shrugged. He swallowed dry, and pondered asking for energon.

“Right, plasglass,” Onslaught said, tilting his head. “Vortex told me. How did you break it?”

Blast Off frowned. “With my fist. Hence the torn knuckles.”

“Interesting.”

Blast Off didn’t bother to comment. Instead he continued, talking about the quarantine zone and how they got there.

“We escaped the hotel before the detonation. We had help from a fake employee-”

“Fake employee?” Onslaught asked, his visor going bright for the fraction of an astrosecond.

Blast Off shrugged. “She was a thief, I think. She later vanished into thin air in the quarantine zone.” He frowned at the memory. He still had no idea how Haze could have done that. Maybe his symptoms had been bad then already, and he just hadn’t noticed? But he’d been sitting opposite the door.

“Blast Off?” Onslaught dragged him back to the present.

He shook his head, and sighed. “I don’t remember much. My symptoms began to show, and it’s all a bit hazy. I remember we escaped the quarantine zone as well, and I was shot and leaking.” A vent of frustration puffed off Blast Off’s intakes and he tried to focus. “There was a ruined building, I think the one I crashed into, and a large storage area, that was like a maze.” Blast Off offlined his optics and rubbed his temple. He almost expected Onslaught to ask about the details of his symptoms, but the other didn’t interrupt him. “Peacekeepers were there too. There were so many, but I might be wrong on that. People looked… wrong, while I was infected.”

A jolt went through Blast Off, a surge of memory. A twisted figure, large and glaring, the head a single maw, mouths on its hands with sharp teeth. It was fighting a smaller monster that Blast Off had recognised to be a twisted version of Vortex. There were shots, large bullets and glaring flames, and Blast Off had pushed the monster into a whirling abyss where it dissolved in darkness.

“Are you all right?” Onslaught asked carefully, and with another flicker of his optics, Blast Off was back in the white room. His jaw clenched.

“I’m fine. I doubt I’ll be of any help at this point, however. I don’t remember much, like I said. I do remember Flame. I threatened him, I shot one of his victims, strapped to a trolley.” Blast Off sighed again. “Then I remember re-entry, not the most painful I’ve ever had, but definitely not pleasant. Everything in between those events is corrupted.” Blast Off also remembered the exodus from Luna Two, so many shuttleformers and ships heading towards the planet. There was a twinge inside his frame, accompanied with melancholy, and he reset his vocaliser. He kept that memory to himself. “After the re-entry, I have no memory at all, but I suppose you don’t need more.”

Despite the knowledge that it wasn’t the case, Blast Off felt as though he’d talked for hours, used too many words.

Onslaught looked at him. “I want you to take a few days off once Tachyon releases you.” There were no comments on the events; it was hard to know what he should think about that.

“I’m fine,” Blast Off said. “Your therapist said so.” He prevented himself from loudly venting air, and sought the courage to tell Onslaught that after his medical leave, he wouldn’t be coming back. “Also-“

“Armature never said you were fine,” Onslaught interrupted. “He merely told me that you were unwilling to talk to him further.”

That wasn’t what Blast Off had wanted to hear. He didn’t comment, and waited for Onslaught to continue.

“I can see that you’re not well, but I also know that I can’t relate to how you must feel about what happened to HEX.”

Blast Off’s optics narrowed. “No, you can’t.”

“And this is why I want you to take some time off.” Onslaught used a voice that allowed no protest. “I’m going to make an appointment with Gigabyte, you can brief her-“

“I’m going to resign.” This time Blast Off cut the other off, earning a bright visor and blank stare. When Onslaught didn’t react, Blast Off shifted on his chair and added, “Once I’m out, I’ll give you my official resignation letter. I won’t continue working for you.”

There was a pause.

“This is unexpected,” Onslaught replied flatly.

Blast Off signed. “Is it? After what happened?”

“For me, it is.” Onslaught crossed his arms. “And I have to admit I’m disappointed. Is it about money-“

“It’s not about money,” Blast Off said, then sighed. This was harder than he’d thought. “I didn’t sign up for all this. And I’m not particularly eager to be used as an entrance ticket for political shenanigans because of my caste. Not without being told. If that’s why you employed me, then you should look for someone who is better suited to social events.”

“That’s not the reason I offered you the position,” Onslaught said. If he was angry, Blast Off couldn’t tell – and he didn’t care. “You’ve been working in logistics for vorns, and as you know, OnsCorp lacks a real logistics department. I had plans to change that with your expertise.”

Blast Off huffed and shook his head. It sounded like a farce. “If that was true, then you should have let me do my job rather than using me as getaway ride or a space taxi.”

Again Onslaught took a moment to reply; the silence grated. “I think we need to talk about that face to face in my office, rather than through glass while you’re still in quarantine.” Onslaught nodded, and stood up. Now Blast Off could see that he was displeased.

But Blast Off was, too. He’d been the one who had almost died more than three times within the last orn. “We can do that,” Blast Off replied, and got up as well, “but I won’t change my mind.”

Onslaught made no comment. With another starchy nod, he turned to leave. “You need to focus on getting well for now. We’ll talk later.”

Blast Off watched. Once the door closed, he vented deeply and relaxed again. When had he become so tense?

Retreating back to the bright white room with the berth, Blast Off rubbed his face. All the memories of HEX had resurfaced because of the debriefing, and it made him restless. And he had no idea where his data crystal was.

Blast Off had no idea where any of his belongings were. Stepping to the door Wrench had come through, he pressed the button next to it, and waited.

After a moment, a tiny screen flickered to life.

“Hello, Blast Off,” an unfamiliar person said.

He frowned. “Where’s Wrench?”

“She’s off duty. I’m Torsion,” the femme said brightly, “I’m familiar with your situation. How can I help you? Are you feeling unwell?”

Blast Off shook his head. “No. I just want to know where my belongings are that were in my compartments when I arrived.” He’d been severely damaged, hopefully the crystal was still intact.

“Oh, right. We decontaminated them, they’re in storage. Is there something you need?”

“I’d like to have my data crystal,” Blast Off said flatly. There was only the one, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Torsion nodded with a smile. “Sure. I’ll be on my rounds in another joor, are you okay to wait till then? I need to check a few readings from your systems anyway.”

“Fine.” Blast Off wasn’t happy about it, but he wasn’t in any mood to argue.

“See you in a while,” the medic said cheerfully, and waved before the screen went dark.

Now Blast Off had a joor to waste.

His optics fell on the purple glowing cube next to Wrench’s datapads. He hadn’t opened it yet, but right now he was in the mood for some high octane.

Sitting down on the berth, he cracked it open. The smell was rich and tickled his memory banks to open files of similar situations.

Blast Off offlined his optics, and allowed himself to re-live a few of them.

Chapter Text

“You can’t go back to work,” Brawl said, grabbing himself a handful of energon sticks from the table in Vortex’s living room. He’d brought them along when Vortex had made the unwise decision to return to his apartment. “You’re on medical leave, remember?”

Vortex pulled a face, and slumped in his chair. “I can’t just stay here. How about Kalis? There’s that club you like.”

Brawl stuffed the treats into his mouth, and chewed until he could speak around them. “Onslaught wants you in Kaon. Besides, you really wanna fly with me dangling under you?”

“You’re not that heavy. We could take the shuttle-bus.”

Brawl snorted. “Not after the last time. Anyway, Ons didn’t say I had to entertain you. I just gotta make sure you don’t scrap anyone.”

“So I’ve got to entertain you?” Vortex flicked a crumb at Brawl.

Brawl flicked it back, and it pinged off Vortex’s visor. “Frag no. Though there is a Tank Bot marathon on Channel Seventeen.”

“Subtle,” Vortex said. He leaned over the side of the chair and tossed Brawl the remote.

“Don’t pretend you don’t like it,” Brawl said. “They’re showing season four, the one where they infiltrate the bad guy’s lair painted up like med-bots, and Tankbot has to do emergency surger-” he broke off. “Was that the door?”

“I dunno, you were talking. Turn it on already.”

No sooner had Brawl switched on the screen than the chime sounded again. He sighed, and groaned his way out of the chair. “You stay there, OK?”

“As though I’d make a break for it when we’re about to have so much fun.”

“Ha ha.” Brawl vanished into the hallway, the rattle of his treads lost under the crunch of the energon sticks. The door opened, but the ensuing conversation was hushed, and Vortex couldn’t make it out. Quietly he got up, a laser knife slipping into his palm, his footfalls careful on the spongy carpet.

“I dunno,” he heard Brawl say. “He’s meant to be resting.”

“I know,” the newcomer replied. “I… I just wanted... It’s OK, I should go.”

Vortex flicked the knife back into its sheath and peered into the hall. “Euphic?”

“Hi,” Euphic said, an uneasy smile wavering on his pleasantly curved lips. “Coruscate said you were home. I just… I thought I’d drop by and see how you were?” He held up a box. “I brought you something.”

Brawl smirked, and stepped back from the door to let him in. He glanced at Vortex. “I can’t stop him, he’s got high grade. It’s like the Universal Greeting in liquid form.”

Vortex grinned at Euphic and headed back to the sitting area, throwing himself on the sofa. Euphic had clearly made an effort. His polish shone, his headlamps glistened. He unwrapped the energon, his doorwings swinging on their cute little ball joints, and the etching on his hip catching the light. But when he took the seat next to Vortex his energy field was awash with anxiety, and it wasn’t his usual nervous anticipation.

He passed Vortex a cube, and held one up for Brawl.

“Khalian?” Brawl read the glyphs on the wrapper. “Nice. OK, so you do like Tank Bot, right? It’s what we’re watching.”

Euphic nodded. “I… I mean, I’ve seen bits of it. It’s the one about the spy with a tank alt?” He put his cube down without opening it, his posture tense.

“You could say that.” Brawl took his favourite chair, and put his feet up. “But it’s also so much more.”

As Brawl turned up the volume, fingers tapping to the rhythm of the theme tune, Euphic picked up his cube again. Then put it down. Then went to sit back, then glanced at the door.

“What’s up?” Vortex said quietly, smirking as Brawl increased the volume by another bar.

Euphic vented deep and shook his head. “It’s OK, it’s… Frag, I’m sorry about the other night. I-”

Vortex reached for him, and Euphic let himself be tugged back. “Don’t tell me you’re this jittery because of that. Just forget about it, yeah?”

Euphic shook his head. “It’s… not that. Coruscate…” He took another deep vent, and Vortex pulled him closer.

“Tell me.”

“Someone broke into my apartment,” Euphic said. “They didn’t take anything, they… they just went through my stuff, they moved things, y’know? I know it sounds crazy, but I know where I leave things, someone had been in there.”

“You told Coruscate?” Vortex said.

Brawl waggled his cube. “You tell us who did it, we’ll scrap ‘em,” he said, not taking his eyes off the screen.

Euphic sighed, melting a little against Vortex. “Thank you,” he said. “And yeah, I called Coruscate. She came over straight away, she said there was someone watching my apartment, but they left as soon as they saw her.”

Vortex rubbed the back of Euphic’s neck, feeling his energy field grow calmer. “Did she say who?”

“No, she didn’t know. She said it was OK though, she sent Coil and Bolter to keep an eye on things, but…” He twisted to look up at Vortex. “I’m sorry, I just feel safer here.”

“It’s OK,” Vortex said. “Like Brawl said, we find out who broke in, and we’ll deal with them.”

* * *

The evening wore on, and Tank Bot Season Four progressed. Brawl made himself increasingly more comfortable, his feet hooked over the arm-rest, and Euphic’s present balanced on his chest. Every so often he glanced around, making sure Vortex had seen and taken notice of the action on screen, smirking at Euphic sprawled dozing in Vortex’s lap.

Brawl opened a sub-voc comm. //You wanna take him next door, I ain’t gonna stop you.//

//Not now,// Vortex said, following the shift in the fluctuations of Euphic’s energy field as he fell into recharge. Brawl laughed, and turned his attention back to his show.

Vortex eased Euphic off his pectoral vent, and stroked his hand until he settled again. He wasn’t so bad when he was asleep, so small and quiet. Keeping his eyes on Euphic, watching the play of light from the screen over his shapely frame, Vortex rebooted his internal comms and called Coruscate.

//This better be an emergency,// she said by way of greeting.

//Hello to you too,// Vortex said. //Who was it broke in at Euphic’s?//

//Vector Sigma! You’re off duty, Tex, I’m not talking to you about work.// She sighed. //So Euphic found his way to yours then?//

//Safe and sound. You know who it was?//

//I’ve got a good idea,// Coruscate said. //And I’ll tell you in two days time when you’re back at work. I can deal with this.//

//Where are Coil and Bolter?//

Coruscate grunted, and there was a pause. When she spoke again, she took no pains to hide her aggravation. //They’re parked up at the base of your apartment block. Happy now?//

//Maybe. Just tell me who it was.//

//Look,// Coruscate said. //You’ve got one job right now - stay out of trouble. That’s it. Why don’t you spend your time making it up to Euphic for being such a mean gitch at the bar? I think he’d appreciate it.//

//I’m a what now?//

//You heard me. He’s a sweet guy, don’t be a coghead.// She cut the call, and Vortex rolled his optics. Euphic stirred, stretching and twining his slim red fingers around Vortex’s, but he didn’t wake up.

Vortex leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling. The brushed steel flickered with the reflection of the screen, colours shifting over the cleaning drones perched dormant in the corner. After a while, he called up a number from his recent memory and dialled the code.

It beeped for a good fifty astroseconds before Haze picked up and answered with a cautious, //Yes?//

//Hi there,// Vortex said brightly. //Are you back on Cybertron?//

//Am I… what? Who is this?//

//It’s Vortex,// he said. //The rotary from the hotel, remember? You vanished before we could offer to give you a ride home.//

There was a pause. //I… had somewhere to be,// Haze said. //You both got out OK then?//

//We had a few scrapes,// Vortex said. //Nothing major.//

//That’s good. Uh, is this a social call?//

//Nope,// Vortex said. //You’ve got skills I need, I want to hire you to use them.//

//I don’t think so,// Haze said. //You work for OnsCorp, don’t you? There’s nothing I can do for you that OnsCorp can’t.//

//We could do it internally,// Vortex conceded, //but there’s always the chance it could be traced. You know it’s less risky to bring in a freelancer. I’ll make it worth your while.//

There was a pause. //How do I know I won’t end up on some hit list for helping you?//

//You don’t,// Vortex said. //But it won’t be our hit list. And we tend to be very protective of our friends.//

Haze vented. //OK, what do you need?//

//I need you to trace a call and give me a location,// Vortex said. //There’s someone I’m going to comm, I want you to pinpoint where they are. That’s all.//

//When and where?//

//In two days. Kaon, Metallico’s Bar, fourteen hundred joors.//

//That’ll be a round ten k,// Haze said. //I’ll expect half in advance, I’ll patch you the account details.//

Vortex smiled. //Done.//

* * *

Blast Off lay on his back and turned the crystal in his hand, his optics alternately focusing on the glimmering stone and the ceiling beyond.

Shifting, he tried to get comfortable, but nothing worked. Not because the berth was too hard or too soft, but because his mind was in uncomfortable places.

The conversation with Onslaught hadn’t gone as he’d liked, and Blast Off hadn’t expected Onslaught to take the resignation personally.

He signed again.

He was looking forward to Lunar Pulse visiting, to talking to someone who could relate to him, and understand what HEX’s destruction meant to him – and to most shuttleformers. Though Blast Off wasn’t certain he wanted anyone else to know about what he had obtained from the station. That he had copies of a portion of the databases…

Vortex knew, Blast Off thought, but the ‘copter wouldn’t get just how important the crystal was.

It was the last touchable thing left from HEX.

His large vents puffed air in another sigh, and finally he had the courage to plug the crystal in.

Blast Off had downloaded lab reports, lab inventory lists, and an overview of research projects. But there were also logs from past social events like that stupid anniversary celebration he had always been forced to attend, and the political gathering where he’d met a planet-bound mecha that disliked Star Reign just as much as he did.

Blast Off’s lips tugged up in a small smile as he remembered that night, his own memories mingling with the security shots from HEX’s cameras.

It was ridiculous to cling to it, he knew, but it was the only thing left from his past on the station. He couldn’t even access his old research projects, what with having been fired from the Institute.

Anger boiled at the thought. His research had been taken away from him, and now his old home. Quitting OnsCorp better not prevent him from being allowed to go after Flame, and whoever it was who had broken into HEX.

And why HEX? The plague hadn’t seemed to be connected with the bomb on HEX, so why had they been on there in the first place?

Blast Off frowned. As a last act, he’d downloaded the access logs. It had been shortly before he’d had to disconnect himself.

Hesitating for a few astroseconds, he looked at the files the intruders had accessed. He shuddered, wishing he hadn’t.

It was the worst case scenario.

As if the plague hadn’t been bad enough, no – the intruders had been after the very thing Blast Off had thought had got loose when the first symptoms had begun to show.

Stupid planet-bound idiots. They had no idea what they were dealing with.

The labs were safe, Sigma Orionis had said… Blast Off rubbed his optics tiredly. How could they know if this particular lab was still safe if no one dared investigate?

And who knew if the intruders wouldn’t try again, with the labs floating in space.

“Frag everything,” Blast Off muttered and sat up. Without a second thought, he took the communication device and plugged it in. He didn’t know where Sigma Orionis was, but he had her private number.

The comm-link pinged for a while without an answer, but Blast Off didn’t hang up. Time passed, and when the slight burst of static announced someone answering, it took Blast Off off guard.

//Yes?// It was Sigma Orionis’ voice; she sounded exhausted, drowsy. It was to be expected, considering the time.

//We need to talk,// Blast Off said without greeting.

//Blast Off?// the admiral asked, confused. //Why are you calling me now of all times?//

//Did I wake you up?//

//No,// Sigma said. There was an audible sigh over the comm. //But I could have been in recharge…//

Blast Off frowned. //When was the last time you were in recharge?//

//I don’t want to think about it,// Sigma muttered, and continued with a less drowsy voice, //I’m actually really glad to hear from you. Onslaught sent a short message that you and Vortex made it out, but it’s good to talk to you and confirm it.//

Blast Off relaxed slightly. //Me too. But we almost didn’t make it. I was infected.//

//Vector Sigma,// the admiral said, and Blast Off could practically see her shaking her head. //You really take everything the universe throws at you…//

Blast Off’s lips curved in a bitter smile. He had a history with accidents, but it came with the territory for a researcher and explorer. It was just as bad as his history with abandoned space stations. //I have to live up to my reputation, don’t I?//

//Are you out of danger now?// Sigma asked, ignoring his bitter humour.

//I should be. OnsCorp’s medical team is quite capable.// Blast Off leant against the wall and stretched his legs on the berth. He didn’t mention that for a moment, he hadn’t believed he’d survive. //I’ve been through worse,// he said instead.

//I know,// Sigma sighed, //but that doesn’t make the current experiences less bad. How are you?//

Blast Off resisted a huff. He knew she didn’t mean his physical state. //I talked to Lunar Pulse. He’ll come to Cybertron soon. I couldn’t reach Light Screen.//

//The space station he’s on is having trouble with radiation from the second star-//

//What idiot puts a space station in a binary star system anyway?// Blast Off interrupted the admiral, and expressed the huff he’d suppressed earlier.

//Idiots that have more sense for politics than you,// Sigma Orionis replied in good humour, and once again Blast Off could hear her shake his head. //But seriously,// the admiral continued in a more sombre tone, //I’m glad you could talk to Lunar Pulse. I’ll see what I can do to get Light Screen on-planet soon.//

//Thank you,// Blast Off said, and meant it.

//But this isn’t what you wanted to talk about?//

The question dragged Blast Off’s mind back to the present, and the threat hanging over them all. A cold shiver ran down his back beneath his heat shields.

//What will happen to the labs floating in orbit?// he asked, hating how concerned he sounded even for his usual blank voice. //Especially the labs β/PN G75.5+1.7, β/M2-9 and β/Abell 39?//

There was a pause. Sigma Orionis had to know about the danger in those labs. //Do I want to know why you’re asking?//

//Maybe.// Blast Off shifted on the berth and rubbed his optics. //Can you tell me what will happen to them?//

Sigma Orionis sighed loudly. //I’ve talked to the Institute and the Senate, and managed to get them to agree to destroy those labs.//

Blast Off tensed.

//We’ve already begun building a secure shell for them for the transport,// Orionis added. //We’re giong to ship them through a portal to ∑-54.E-Ω.//

Blast Off raised an optical ridge. That star system was near the core of a galaxy. The radiation was intense and hardly habitable. But there also were massive stars in advanced stages of their lives that could burn up anything if it came too close.

//When will they be shipped?// Blast Off asked. Hopefully it would be soon and he wouldn’t need to mention what he knew.

//It depends, probably in two or three orns. Why do you want to know?// Orionis sounded suspicious.

Two or three orns was a lot of time. Enough time for the intruders to try again - with back up.

//I’m certain the intruders on HEX were after what was in those labs,// Blast Off explained. He didn’t leave Sigma Orionis time to ask anything and continued, feeling queasy. //I was connected to HEX shortly before it broke apart. I… downloaded information, some data from her core and databanks, access logs to files. Whoever invaded HEX had been looking for these things.//

//You should have told me you knew about that.// There was no judgment in the admiral’s voice, but Blast Off knew she wasn’t pleased.

//I only looked at them just now. I hadn’t thought about it sooner. I was too busy trying not to die.//

Sigma Orionis was again quiet for a moment, and when she continued it was as though Blast Off’s words had only just sunk in. //What exactly do you mean by ‘downloaded’?//

Offlining his optics, Blast Off braced for lack of understanding, and admitted what he’d done. He told Orionis the things he had hidden from her during the conference, things Vortex couldn’t have known since he hadn’t been there.

Saving that amount of data to his cache and alt-mode hard drives was foolish, every shuttleformer knew that, but Sigma Orionis didn’t judge. She didn’t chastise him, and her words took Blast Off off-guard.

//Could you give me a copy of the crystal?// Her voice lacked the business-like tone, there was nostalgia in it that Blast Off could relat to.

//As soon as I’m able.// There was no reason to deny her that request.

//Thank you.// Tiredness entered Sigma Orionis’ voice again. //What did Onslaught say to all this? He was the one who made you attend the reunion.//

Blast Off huffed. //I think he regrets it now, because I’m quitting.//

//Quitting?// Orionis was surprised. //As in, stopping working for him?//

//Yes.//

//Isn’t that a little extreme?//

Blast Off shrugged, knowing Sigma didn’t see it. //Is it? We talked, and even he admitted in a way that I’m doing things I wasn’t employed for.//

//I’m not going to ask what that means.// Sigma sighed, and continued with the question Blast Off dreaded. //What are you going to do now?//

There weren’t that many options for Blast Off, and he knew it all too well. //I guess I’m stuck with freelance logistics. I still have my license and a few former customers asked for my services while I was worked for Onslaught. I could contact them.//

//Flying cargo from point A to point B,// Orionis said. //Is that really what you want to do?//

//You know the answer to that,// Blast Off replied, trying to keep the annoyance from his tone. //It pays well, and it’s not that I have any great alternatives. But I can’t keep working for Onslaught. Not now.//

//You could work for me.//

Blast Off’s ailerons clicked against his legs. //I’m not military,// he said. He’d seen enough war when he’d explored space, he didn’t want to participate in one.

Sigma Orionis laughed. //You know full well that I wouldn’t put you on the front line.//

Blast Off didn’t know what to say to that.

//Blast Off,// Orionis added under a sigh, //you’re a very skilled person. Not only in the field of xenological research. With the right resources, you’re a great engineer, and you know it. Sadly the institute never let you develop your true potential.//

Blast Off tensed, thinking of all the research projects he’d had to abandon because officials thought they wouldn’t work.

//And,// the admiral kept going on, //you see the bigger picture, even for a shuttle. You have a unique view, a perspective with the emotional distance other people lack.//

//You mean my emotional malfunction,// Blast Off muttered bitterly.

//It’s not a malfunction!//

Blast Off shifted, staring at the bright white wall. He’d had this discussion before, with Orionis, with Lunar Pulse, with a few other people over the last few centuries. He’d been told so often on HEX that he wasn’t right, and it had stuck, no matter what people said. He sighed.

He felt just like back then, when he’d had to leave the Institute, not knowing what to do with himself or where to go.

//I can’t leave Kaon yet anyway. My lease lasts another three vorns,// Blast Off said, as though giving himself an anchor.

//We both know that’s an excuse.// Orionis said. //That would be an easy problem to solve. It would be good to have you back in Altihex. You belong here.//

Blast Off’s optics lost focus, and he shook his head slightly. //Ever since they closed down HEX, I don’t know where I belong.//

Chapter Text

Vortex took his usual corner in Metallico’s. The bar was dingy, the drinks rough. The patrons sat in sombre huddles, their backs to the wall, or alone at the bar, dozing with their optics on. The bartender, Wire, kept watch, her wary optics skirting over Vortex; he wasn’t the kind of trouble she was watching for.

It hadn’t been an easy few days. Euphic had taken the edge off the waiting, and the alternating company of Brawl and Coruscate was hardly unpleasant. But Onslaught had been serious about medical leave, and his few comm chats with Blast Off had left him jittery and unfulfilled.

Haze arrived early, her armour grubby, and a streak of soot over her left optic. She caught Vortex’s eye, gave the slightest of nods, and headed to the bar. She hadn’t come alone. A hulking blocky thing followed a few paces behind her, ducking its head to get through the door. The bartender frowned, but fetched Haze a coolant and didn’t say anything.

“Glad you could make it,” Vortex said pleasantly as Haze pulled out the chair opposite and perched on the edge. Her companion followed, taking position directly behind her. “That’s a very shiny drone.”

Haze shrugged. “It’s new.” She cupped her coolant without drinking; the air grew busy as she made a scan. “OK, how do you wanna do this?”

“Quietly,” Vortex said, then raised his voice as Wire flipped a switch and the first slow, mournful chords of an aeons old battle song rolled out from speakers above the bar. “We can do it here or outside. There’s a few options.”

There was a pause, a new roll of static, then the air cleared. “Here’s good,” Haze said. She set her drink down.

“Do you need...” Vortex patted his hip.

Haze shook her head. “Wrist is fine,” she said. “I just need to see where the call’s going.”

“I’m gonna keep it internal,” Vortex said.

“Wrist is still fine.” Haze pulled her chair forward and flipped a cover on her arm. Vortex unspooled the data cable from his wrist, and she plugged him in. Wire turned up the music some more.

“Let me know when you’re ready,” Vortex said, watching the lights glimmer on her shoulders. She nodded, and a flicker of impatience lit her energy field. She vented deep, and tugged a cable from the panel on her arm.

“Plug this into your comms,” she said. “Third port for preference.” She tapped her fingers on the table, then made a face. “Do they ever clean in here?”

Vortex smirked, clicking the plug into place. The interface was sluggish and localised. Confined to his comms equipment, it made his arm tingle.

“You don’t need to include me on the call,” Haze said. “In fact, I’d prefer you didn’t. Just keep whoever it is on the line for at least ten astroseconds.”

“You’ll let me know when you’ve got a fix?”

Finally Haze smiled; it was bright and not entirely comfortable. “I’ll do that.”

Vortex took a slug of his drink, and called up Valence’s number.

“That’s an old code,” Haze said quietly. “Make it twenty astroseconds on the line.”

Vortex shrugged. The code spooled, the comm silent, waiting. In the distant past he’d wondered if Valence did that on purpose, if he had a delay programmed in to make his callers nervous or reverent. Then there was a click, and the white noise of someone listening.

It didn’t take long for Valence to speak. //Who… what is this? Who’s calling?//

//An old friend,// Vortex said. He gave a moment’s pause, long enough for Valence to start thinking. //Don’t you remember me? We used to be so close. We shared all kinds of secrets.//

//What? Is this some kind of a joke? Very funny.//

//Would I do that to you?// Vortex said softly. He watched Haze, taking in the flicker of her optics, her pursed lips. She held up a finger: keep going.

//Who is this? Trellis? Is that you?//

//Of course it’s not,// Vortex said. //I’ll put you out of your misery, this is Operative Kappa Twenty.//

There was a pause, and for a second Vortex thought Valence might just hang up. But there was a cough, the sound of something being moved. Then the white noise of a call being diverted to internal comms. //You… uh, I thought you retired?//

//I did,// Vortex said, his grin widening as Haze nodded.

“Got it,” she said, and he made a gesture to her to write it down.

Valence coughed again. //Well, I hope civilian life is suiting you well,// he said. //This has been a lovely chat, but I need to be getting on.//

//In a moment,// Vortex said, reading the glyphs upside down as Haze scrawled them. //First you’re going to tell me where Flame is.//

The sound of Valence choking on his own vocaliser was beautiful. //What? Why would you… Who are you?//

//I’m Operative Kappa Twenty,// Vortex said. //I’m the interrogator you picked for Project Stellarcast all those vorns ago. You used to send me subjects in stasis lock, remember? All packed up in crates like cargo... and I used to separate the secrets from the spare parts and send it all back.//

//Yes yes, but who are you?// Valence snapped.

//You never knew?// Vortex feigned shock. //But I know who you are. And I know where you are. Where is Flame?//

//I don’t know what you’re talking about.//

//That’s a lie,// Vortex said smoothly. //You get three lies, that’s all. Three lies before I cut this comm and come pay you a visit.//

Valence’s tone grew cold. //I don’t respond to threats.//

//Do you respond to a punch in the face?// Vortex asked. //Do you respond to dislocated fingers? To having your coolant replaced with acid?//

Valence sputtered, and Vortex laughed.

//I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Unless you tell me where Flame is.//

//I don’t know!//

//Is that a lie?//

//No!//

Vortex smirked, and made no reply. Haze gave him a look, tapping her fingers on the table. He shrugged, and said aloud, “Keep tracking him, I want to know if his location changes.”

//I really don’t know!// Valence snapped. //I don’t!//

//That’s two,// Vortex said. //Technically three, but I’m being generous here. How’s the view, by the way? I always liked how the starlight catches the dome of the senate building this time of day.//

//Who the frag are you?!// Valence yelled, then he stopped, and Vortex could imagine him looking out of the window of one of the spires of the Iaconian Civil Service hub towards the glittering bulb of the senate’s wide dome. When he continued he’d managed to get a grip on himself. //I can find out who you are, I can send people after you.//

//I’m sure you can,// Vortex said. //But I know exactly where you are right now, and I’ll get there faster. Where is Flame?//

//I told you I-//

//You’re about to lie to me. That would be three.//

//I really don’t know! I don’t, it’s the truth! I… there’s a shuttleformer in Polyhex, she… she’s called Solarstorm. She’s a criminal, she runs a criminal network. She… took him when he got back to Cybertron. She has him in a safe house, but I don’t know where! I don’t need to know where. I’m just the intermediary!//

Vortex huffed through his facial vents, and Haze frowned at him. //Well done,// he said. //See, we can be friends after all.//

//I’ll find you,// Valence said. //I’ll find out who you are, and-//

//No you won’t,// Vortex said. //Not unless I come for you, and I really don’t think you want that. But this isn’t your fault, is it? The virus Flame released, the deaths, the bombings... HEX.// It was just a hunch, but the Solarstorm link was too strong to ignore.

There was a moment of stark silence, then Valence spoke in a hushed croak. //HEX… How do you-//

//I know a lot of things. I know you’re in Room thirty-B, office suite delta. I know your office overlooks central Iacon. I know you’re worried. I mean, here’s me, perfectly happy to hurt you, to kill you to get what I want. And there’s you, wondering how you got into this mess, and how in the name of Cybertron you can get out of it.//

//I told you where Flame is,// Valence said. //I… What else do you want?//

//I want Senator Octans.//

//Are you insane!//

//He’s in charge,// Vortex said. //He’s pulling the levers, isn’t he?// When Valence only swore, Vortex continued, grinning. //You’re going to give him to me. And I mean that literally.//

//He’s a senator! You can’t just kidnap a senator!//

Vortex treated Valence to a light-hearted laugh. //Remember back in the old days when you worked for the late great Senator Cynosure?//

Valence did not reply.

//Remember how fast he fell?// Vortex said //How far? Remember his enemies circling, readying themselves for the proverbial kill after all those secret files somehow became public knowledge? Remember how they were coming to arrest him, but suddenly he vanished, so they arrested you instead?//

//You… You killed Cynosure… Oh Sigma.//

//You see, you cankidnap a senator. I took him, and I killed him. And I shipped his components to the police piece by piece over the next vorn.// Vortex smiled. //That was a blast! Now, I think you were about to give me Octans. It’s funny, isn’t it? If you’d known then what you know now, you could have risen while Cynosure fell. You’d be a senator yourself by now.//

//I… I need to think about it.//

//No you don’t,// Vortex said. //You need to plan. I want a meeting with Octans, away from his people, away from the media.//

//I need time!// Valence sputtered. //I… if I give you Octans, you won’t come after me?//

//We’ll be friends again, just like in the bad old days.// Vortex grinned. //You do want that, don’t you? I can be very good to my friends.//

//Let me think about it! Can… Is your old comm still active?//

//No,// Vortex said. //I’ll call you. You have one day.// He ended the comm, and Haze held out her hand.

“Did you get what you wanted?” she asked.

“Maybe.” Vortex gave her back her cable, and pocketed Haze’s notes. “I’ve transferred the rest of the cash. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

Haze stood, and forced a smile. “Yeah, a pleasure.” she tapped the drone on the arm, and it began to make its way to the door. “Say hi to your shuttle friend for me,” she said, and left.

* * *

Blast Off lay on the same berth in the same white room where he’d been for days.

It was becoming less relaxing with each passing moment. The white walls made it feel like there was nothing outside, and the infrequent visits of medical personnel didn’t help.

Blast Off had been in quarantine on HEX before, but it had never lasted this long, and the rooms hadn’t been so unwelcoming.

Sighing, he shifted and rolled on his side, staring at the featureless white door with the red light next to it.

He could probably punch himself free. The plasglass in the visitors’ room wasn’t that thick.

Vortex had suggested it. Twice. Once during his visit - it seemed orns ago by now - and once during one of his many calls. Sigma knew what the ‘copter’s fascination with plasglass was.

Rubbing his optics, Blast Off hated to admit it, but he wasn’t averse to Vortex calling him again. It was a distraction. Blast Off had stopped counting how many times Vortex had done it.

He wondered why the ‘copter bothered at all. They’d already spent too much time together, and had interfaced more than once. Shouldn’t Vortex have run out of interest by now?

As if his train of thought had been some cosmic sign, Blast Off’s comm chose that moment to ping.

He opened the line, and was greeted by Vortex’s cheerful voice. //What are you doing?//

Blast Off frowned. He tried not to be flattered by Vortex’s attempts to stay in contact. He was probably just the only one the other could bother who couldn’t run away. Even cutting the comm wouldn’t work. He’d tried.

//I’m making plans to overthrow the senate and bomb the Altihex Institute in revenge for firing me,// Blast Off said in a voice that hinted to a shrug. //I already have plans for the bomb.//

//...you’re kidding, aren’t you?//

//Of course I am.// Blast Off resisted a huff. //I can’t build bombs. You should know that from Luna Two.//

//That wasn’t what I meant…//

Blast Off let his sigh be audible over the comm. //And I’m not planning revenge for anything. What did you think I was doing here? My scenery hasn’t changed since the last time you called.//

//Wow, you get crankier every time.// Vortex shouldn’t have sounded so amused. //Too bad you’re not planning revenge, because I could give you the opportunity.//

Blast Off sat up. //Flame?//

//Maybe. Or maybe something better: maybe the one who’s responsible for what happened to HEX.//

Blast Off tensed. //What about Flame?// he wanted to know. He didn’t want to think of HEX; and the scientist had been behind the virus and Blast Off’s infection after all. He was the reason Blast Off was stuck in this awfully boring white room.

//It happens that I have a lead on him.// The gleeful edge in Vortex’s tone reminded Blast Off on the other’s hobby of decapitating people. He wouldn’t mind seeing Vortex do it to that particular mech.

//I want to come along,// Blast Off said without thinking.

//Sure. I just need to talk to Ons before I can head off.// At that, Blast Off tensed. Onslaught was angry at him, he doubted he’d allow him to go along.

When he didn’t respond, Vortex continued, still cheerful. //You’re invited to our meeting. After all, you’re the one who has most experience with Flame’s experiments.//

//Very funny. I’m still stuck in this prison.// Blast Off shook his head.

//Awww, and there’s no way you could-//

//No,// Blast Off interrupted Vortex before he could even finish the sentence. //I won’t punch through that plasglass.//

//You’re no fun.//

Blast Off rolled his optics.

//But,// Vortex added before the shuttle could spit something, //it’d be better if you don’t damage your hands again. I still need them.// He chuckled.

Blast Off tried not to think about what that could mean and chose to ignore it. //I’d rather not rouse Tachyon’s wrath by damaging their equipment.//

//Heh, you won’t if they’re the one that lets you leave.//

//Hopefully soon,// Blast Off sighed. The red light next to the door turned green and he frowned.

//You’re gonna call me when they let you out?// Vortex asked, surprising Blast Off. It was like the ‘copter honestly wanted to stay in contact.

Or Blast Off was just imagining things, his mind grasping for similarities with the situation so many vorns ago with another heliformer.

//I...// He sighed again. The door opened. //I’ll talk to you later. There’s someone coming in. Bye.// Cutting the comm, Blast Off put his feet on the floor and waited.

And as if his last few sentences to Vortex had been another cosmic sign, it was Tachyon who entered the room.

“Blast Off,” they said, eyeing him up with their stern expression. “How are you feeling?”

Blast Off tensed even more, and gave a one-sided shrug. He dreaded not knowing what news to expect.

* * *

A mere breem later, Blast Off vented air deeply as he exited the elevator to the ground floor lobby. He was almost free. Only a few more steps and he’d be out of the building, finally able to leave and prepare his resignation.

Finally able to go home. Or not home, but to his apartment, his quiet safe haven in Kaon.

The main entry hall wasn’t busy. It was mid shift, and Blast Off didn’t need to evade people like he’d sometimes had to.

Tachyon’s final test hadn’t taken too long. Just another scan of his cognitive reactions and functions, and another check on his immune system and nanities. Thankfully Tachyon was just as quiet as Blast Off was, focusing purely on their task.

Blast Off frowned at a grounder that nodded at him, and kept walking towards the huge glass doors.

Only a few more moments…

“Blast Off?” a familiar voice asked. A voice that he’d heard only very recently. It made him stop and turn.

Vortex jogged from the reception towards him, his new rotors bobbing with the movement.

“You’re out,” the ‘copter said even before he’d pulled to a stop. “Did you punch the plasglass in the end?”

Blast Off resisted rolling his optics. “No. I’m free to go.”

“So, Tachyon approved?”

The shuttle gave a brief nod.

Vortex’s visor brightened. “And they just let you go? No restrictions on food or advice not to participate in any exhausting physical activity for a specified period of time?”

“No,” Blast Off shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I can just leave.”

“Heh, good.” Vortex’s tone and blatant way of eyeing Blast Off up made it obvious what he was thinking.

Blast Off’s ailerons clicked against his legs - he told himself it was because he didn’t like everyone in the entry hall seeing them like this. It had nothing to do with what Vortex might be planning.

“Is that everything?” Blast Off asked, becoming uncomfortable with being checked out like that in public.

“Well, yes and no.” Vortex’s rotors gave a twitch, but his intense gaze did not let up. “I’m going to meet Onslaught. You can come along? Like I said, you’re in on this, too, and you deserve to know the details.”

Blast Off shrugged. “I doubt Onslaught would like me attending your meeting.”

Vortex tipped his head to one side. “Why’s that?”

“I quit,” Blast Off replied with another shrug. “And I got the impression he took it personally.”

Vortex’s visor dimmed, and his stance shifted, rotors growing still. “You quit?” the ‘copter asked, disbelief in his voice.

“I told you I would. More than once if I recall correctly.”

“Yeah, you did, but…” Vortex shifted again, and the whole situation became even more uncomfortable. “But you were drunk. Or in a delirium. It wasn’t like, you know, you meant it.”

It was like normal people making a scene in a bar or a hotel. And why would Vortex care anyway? Blast Off sighed. “Exactly, I was in a delirium from an infection I’d never have had if it hadn’t been for Onslaught.”

“And that’s why you’re quitting?”

Blast Off shook his head. “Not just that. But it doesn’t concern you. Is that everything?” he asked again, really wanting to end this conversation now.

“Yeah… No. I mean,” Vortex visor flickered and Blast Off could almost hear his frown. “Onslaught’s just letting you leave, just like that?”

Blast Off tensed. He hadn’t told Onslaught that he was leaving the building right now, and he probably should hurry. Tachyon would tell him soon enough. “Why?” he said, and couldn’t help continuing in an antagonising tone. “Should I expect him to send you after me because I know too much?”

“What? That wasn’t what I meant.” Vortex sounded almost insulted. “And no, he won’t. Well, at least I don’t think so?”

“Wonderful…” Blast Off muttered and was about to turn.

“What are you gonna do now?” Vortex spoke up again, stepping between Blast Off and the exit

Blast Off sighed. “I don’t know. There’s enough work out there. And it’s not like I’m restricted to Kaon any more. Or Cybertron.”

Vortex’s battle mask moved, but no sound emerged.

“Why do you care anyway?” Blast Off asked, and regretted it instantly.

“I-”

“Your comm is flashing,” Blast Off interrupted the other, nodding towards the blinking light on Vortex’s arm. Thankfully he had a reason to cut the other off. It was better if he didn’t know the answer.

“Frag,” Vortex grumbled, glaring at his arm.

It was a good moment to leave, and so Blast Off turned. He heard another “Frag everything!” and then was out of earshot.

He only relaxed when he passed the doors.

He couldn’t remember if he’d ever welcomed Kaon’s dirty air like he did in that moment.

* * *

Vortex didn’t bother knocking. Onslaught was sat at his desk, a hard-light monitor hovering in front of him showing four different news channels at once. He shut them down with a wave of his hand.

“Good afternoon,” he said.

Vortex took the chair on the other side of the desk without waiting to be asked. “Why didn’t you talk him out of it?”

“I presume you mean Blast Off?”

“You could have talked him down, he liked it here.”

“You liked him being here.”

“And now he’s leaving!” Vortex spun the chair. “You need to offer him more contract work.”

“In time,” Onslaught said. “Perhaps.”

Vortex sighed. “So you won the vote?”

Onslaught nodded. “Fifteen to three, with an abstention of one.” His optics brightened, and Vortex could just feel the smirk growing under his mask. “I am grateful for your patience.”

“It’s wearing thin,” Vortex warned. “I’m going after Flame, and the shuttle’s coming with me.” He met the orange glare. “That’s non-negotiable. He needs some payback, and cash won’t do.”

“All right,” Onslaught said. “What’s your plan?”

Vortex shrugged. “Like I said, I’m going after Flame. Solarstorm’s got him, I don’t know where. I’m gonna find her, have a nice little chat, and I’ll bring him back with most of his body parts.”

All of his body parts,” Onslaught said. “In the correct places and the correct arrangement.”

Vortex shuffled, rearranging his rotors. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Onslaught leaned forward. “You do that.” He tapped the smooth surface of his desk, and a scatter of blue sparks appeared and formed the outline of a new screen. On the screen a familiar figure skulked through the streets by Metallico’s, a hulking great drone at her heels. “Who’s this?”

“Haze,” Vortex said. “She’s the one who got us out of the hotel. She’s talented, I’ll say that for her.”

“How so?”

“Tracing, vanishing, that kind of thing.” Vortex smiled at Onslaught through the translucent moving image. “I needed something doing, so I paid her. It was on my own time.”

“She stole that drone,” Onslaught said. “It hasn’t reached the news yet, but it’s all over the police frequencies. It was rather expensive, so I understand.”

“Heh, I said she was talented.”

“But she isn’t careful,” Onslaught said. “What did she do for you?”

Vortex sat straighter. “Nothing much, she just traced a call, gave me a location.”

“Whose location?”

“It was on my own time,” Vortex said. “It’s nothing you need to worry about.”

Onslaught huffed, sitting back. “Then you won’t mind telling me. I put a lot of trust in you.”

“It was Valence,” Vortex said, as though it was nothing. “I used our old private number, called him up under my old ID. I needed his location for leverage.”

There was a moment’s silence, and when Onslaught spoke he did so calmly. “And?”

“I got what I wanted. Flame is with Solarstorm. You’re right, Octans is pulling the strings.”

“How much does Haze know?” Onslaught asked.

“Frag all,” Vortex said. “She just traced the call, she didn’t listen in. She doesn’t like me, but she came for the money. She won’t be a problem.”

“I’m glad you’re so certain,” Onslaught said. “However, if I could get footage of her in Kaon I’m certain our fine security forces can do the same. If she’s arrested…”

Vortex laughed. “They won’t catch her. She disappeared from a high security quarantine zone just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “If Sigma’s people can’t keep track of her, frag if I can’t keep track of her, the cops got no chance. Besides, you were tracking me, weren’t you? Not her.”

Onslaught sighed. “Don’t sound so surprised, of course I was.” He held up a hand, and Vortex waited for him to continue. “While I place a great deal of faith in you, I know your limits, and I know when you need to be watched.”

“Then you’ll know to stop worrying, and let me deal with Valence,” Vortex said.

“Don’t tell me you’re planning further contact.” Onslaught’s optics paled as though he was grimacing under that mask.

“He’s doing me a favour,” Vortex said. “Don’t give me that look. I can deal with him.”

Onslaught continued to give him that look. “You’re taking risks,” he said.

“This is a risky business.”

Onslaught grew silent, and Vortex watched him, waiting. Eventually he shifted, squaring his shoulders. “Blast Off may accompany you. Brawl and Coruscate will be available as backup until such time as Flame is safely delivered to me. What you do after that is your own private business.”

Vortex nodded, and went to reply, but Onslaught hadn’t finished.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re planning, but there can be no link back to OnsCorp or to me.”

Vortex gave a one-shouldered shrug. “That won’t be a problem.”

“Good. Now go fetch me Flame.”

Chapter Text

By the time Blast Off neared his apartment building he wasn’t welcoming Kaon’s dirty air any more. After so long in the sterilised room in medbay, one short journey made him feel like scrubbing his vents from all the particles he’d involuntarily inhaled.

Once he stepped inside the building, the air became clearer again, and the stench of the industrial city outside vanished. Though Blast Off still just wanted to get a shower. And sleep.

He hadn’t done anything the last few days, and had recharged enough, yet he was still tired and drained. Hopefully he’d rest better in his own bed.

The elevator took way too long to arrive at the lobby, and way too long for the journey to his floor. If Blast Off had been allowed to land on the building’s roof, he would have. He lived on the second highest floor, it was ridiculous he wasn’t allowed to use the roof. Then he wouldn’t have to see his filthy, sick-looking frame in the lift’s mirrors.

Annoyed by this, and by just about everything else, Blast Off finally exited the elevator, only to be greeted by two of his neighbours talking at a door.

Blast Off recognised the one outside right away. The blue frame with all those heli-jet triple changer wings and rotors was quite familiar, and unfortunately his partner in conversation was the annoying airframe with the green finials.

Not that the annoying airframe had ever done anything or even talked to Blast Off - he didn’t even know their name. But they were looking at him with this weird expression he just couldn’t read.

At least Jet-Lag, the heli-jet, knew how to behave in public. His expression brightened when he saw Blast Off. “You’re back,” he said loudly, causing the other airframe to pop his head out of the door.

Blast Off nodded.

His neighbours talked a short moment to each other, then the door closed and Jet-Lag waited for him.

Blast Off sighed. He just wanted to get clean. He’d talked enough for one day.

“You were gone longer than expected,” Jet-Lag said as he fell in step next to Blast Off.

The shuttle nodded again. “I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s okay.” Jet-Lag smiled. It hadn’t been an apology, but Blast Off didn’t correct him. “I kept looking after your organic tank thing,” the heli-jet continued. “I kinda guessed you… wouldn’t return as planned.”

Blast Off raised an optical ridge, looking down next to him. “You did?”

Jet-Lag nodded.

They stopped in front of Blast Off’s apartment.

“The incident with HEX was all over the news,” the other said, giving a shrug. “I thought you might go to Altihex for a while.”

Blast Off tensed. His ailerons clicked against his legs. It was good that Jet-Lag didn’t know where he’d really been, but Blast Off wished it had been true and he’d have been able to stay in Altihex for a few cycles rather than getting stuck in quarantine.

Jet-Lag’s optics flicked to Blast Off’s legs and back up again. His expression was sombre, and unlike with Vortex, he knew it was real.

“I’m sorry about your home.”

“Something like this had to happen eventually,” Blast Off replied, and disliked the weird edge to his voice.

“It shouldn’t have.”

Blast Off shrugged. He glanced at his door; Jet-Lag was the only other person who knew the code. He had to for taking care of Blast Off’s experiments when he was away.

“You okay?” Jet-Lag asked.

Blast Off couldn’t answer. He was tired and didn’t want to talk. And he needed to get a shower badly.

Looking back at the triple changer, Blast Off decided that he didn’t need to get the shower alone. He wouldn’t need to talk much either.

“Do you want to come in for a moment?” Blast Off offered, raising his hand and flaring his field against the entry console.

Jet-Lag smiled again. “Sure.”

* * *

Coruscate was waiting outside Onslaught’s office when Vortex emerged. “Welcome back to the exciting world of work,” she said, falling into step beside him. They headed to the elevator, and Vortex typed his code for floor two-four-four, restricted access.

“Did Ons patch you the details?” he asked.

Coruscate nodded, her treads swaying as the lift cab jolted into action. “I’d rather be going with you,” she said. “But if I’m backup, then I’m backup.”

“Did you find out who was following Euphic?”

“Sure did,” Coruscate said. “A pair of empties from the slums. Knife-Edge was paying them.”

“He’s still working for Solarstorm?”

“Last time I checked.”

“Huh, figures. Are they dead?”

“No.” Coruscate transformed a finger into a claw and picked a bit of grit out of her treads. “They’re having a little vacation.”

Vortex smirked. “Somewhere nice I hope.”

“Nice and hot,” Coruscate said. “They’re in that old warehouse in the foundry district.”

The elevator came to a halt, and Vortex and Coruscate plugged their wrist cables into the override ports, letting the security system ID them.

The door opened to Brawl, maskless and grinning. He had a civilian issue plasma rifle in his hands, and a military issue rocket launcher strapped to his back. “Been itching to get you tooled up since your upgrades,” he said, springing away in the direction of the armoury. “Come on!”

The armoury was wide and bright, with a low ceiling and row after row of ordnance, neatly organised on transformable racking. Coil and Skyblaze from Coruscate’s security team were on duty at the door, and nodded to them as they passed.

Vortex let Brawl do his thing. The new weapons were sleek and matte, the power of a laser rifle in a pair of arm-mounted weapons no-one would look twice at. Their civilian-grade covers were painted teal to match his accents; their military-grade internals were well-tested and beautifully oiled. Vortex felt them synch, tested the new weight on his arms. He took a few shots in the firing range, his smile growing.

Coruscate saw to herself, filling out the paperwork for both of them. She sat with her compartments open, packing every available space.

“Grenades?” Brawl offered, pulling a crate off a shelf.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Vortex said. “And I’m gonna want something for the shuttle. Las-pistol maybe? Something with a big grip.”

“Coming right up!” Brawl shoved the crate onto Vortex’s lap, and jogged off.

Coruscate fixed a final pistol inside her thigh and watched the armour slide back to cover it. “I hope he’s worth it,” she said.

Vortex looked up. “Who?”

“Flame. I hope the boss gets what he wants.”

Vortex shrugged, then grinned as Brawl came bouncing back.

“This’ll fit him,” he said. “I checked against the last handgun he had. So, we ready?”

Vortex clipped the pistol to his hip, and stood. “Let’s do this.”

* * *

They parted ways at the door of the armoury. Coruscate headed to the roof to pick up her squad and fly to their first stop. Brawl went off to the basement where a monorail would link him to the main public transport network, and take him to the rendezvous with his own team. Vortex strolled out the main doors, giving the guard on duty a friendly wave.

He transformed as soon as there was a gap in the crowds. It was a short flight to the posher residential district, through shreds of smog and the steam rising from the commercial zone. Blast Off’s building wasn’t hard to spot. Vortex double checked the address, and landed on a well-marked helipad on the roof. There was a grubby-looking crystal terrace to one side, a maintenance drone slowly wiping grime from the facets.

The door into the building wasn’t like most roof doors, at least in Kaon. It was grand, an entrance for fliers and their guests. And it was locked, a neatly painted notice nailed to the veneer stating that the apartment managers were very sorry, but due to recent incidents this door was no longer in operation.

Vortex considered using it anyway, but he wasn’t here to make trouble. He flew down to street level; the crowds were thinner here and there was easily space to land. A few expensive looking shops gleamed like studs at the base of the tower blocks, the ruddy sky even more distant than usual.

“Good afternoon, sir.” A security guard greeted him at the door, reaching for the door handle but stopping short of opening it. “I’m afraid that your energy signature is unfamiliar to us. If you could please state the nature of your visit...”

“I’m here to see a friend,” Vortex said. “His name’s Blast Off, he’s in apartment five five two three.”

The guard smiled, and pulled open the door. “Very good, sir. Have a nice day.”

Inside was a wide expanse of rough carpet, and Vortex wiped his feet before heading to the elevator. A clerk nodded to him from a wide desk, where cleaning drones waited to be dispatched, and a small row of screens showed views of every public part of the building.

Blast Off’s apartment wasn’t difficult to find. One short trip in the elevator, where gentle music played and coloured glass glittered from the walls, then a brief walk around the fifty fifth floor, and Vortex was there. He hit the chime, and leaned against the jamb, cocking the hip with Blast Off’s new weapon attached to it.

He rang the chime again. The walls must have been thick, he couldn’t hear it ringing. After another long moment, he tried again, and sent Blast Off a quick ping.

Eventually the door opened, and purple optics glared out. “Ah,” said the shuttle.

“Ah? Is that all I get? I brought you something.” Vortex swung away from the wall, but Blast Off filled the doorway, unmoving. “Aren’t you gonna let me in?”

Blast Off yawned and refocused his optics. “No. What do you want?”

“No?” Vortex crossed his arms. “What do you mean, no?”

Blast Off shrugged. Then he sighed, and leaned his head on the jamb. “I mean no,” he said. “I don’t have to explain myself.”

“You… what the frag?” Vortex glared. “OK yeah, whatever.” He leaned in, lowering his voice. “I talked to the boss, you’re in. If you still want to, that is...”

This earnt a sharpening of Blast Off’s optics, a proper focusing of his attention.

Vortex gave him an equally sharp smile. “You’ll get what you want, I promise, but this is time sensitive. We need to leave. We need to leave now.”

Blast Off straightened. “Do you know where he is?”

“Not yet, but I know who does, and we’ve got a very small window of opportunity to talk to her. I’ll explain on the way.” Vortex tried to glance past Blast Off into the apartment. “You’ll wanna pack an overnight case, I can wait.”

“No,” Blast Off said, the little winglets on his legs clicking. “No, I need… Can I meet you somewhere?”

Vortex sighed. “I don’t need to bring you along, you do know that right?” When all Blast Off did was look at him, he shook his head. “You’ve got two breems. There’s a park with sculptures and scrap a few blocks from here, by that big overpass. You know it?”

Blast Off nodded. “Two breems,” he said.

Vortex slouched off towards the elevator. “Be there.”

* * *

Once the door was closed Blast Off leant against it. Sighing deeply, he rubbed his face, and stared out of the large window at Kaon’s dirty sky.

He wouldn’t need to pack much, since the trip shouldn’t take too long.

Pushing himself off the door, he walked back to the bedroom and was greeted by the view of Jet-Lag sitting up.

The triple changer yawned, and smiled drowsily as he put his interface cable back into his hip. “Who was that?”

Blast Off shrugged. “A former colleague.”

Jet-Lag didn’t probe further, but he remained sitting, looking at Blast Off.

“I need to leave again for a few cycles,” he eventually said. “One last job for OnsCorp.”

Jet-Lag nodded. “Okay. But you know you don’t have to explain yourself, right? I said I’ll keep taking care of your organic tank thing.” The heli-jet nodded towards the glass container in the corner of the room. “As long as I get my ‘payment’ once you’re back.” Jet-Lag grinned mischievously, and Blast Off wondered if it was a heliformer thing. He had yet to meet one who didn’t smirk like that.

He huffed, allowing himself the tiniest tug upwards on his lips. “I appreciate it.”

“Me too.” Jet-Lag’s grin grew, causing Blast Off to shake his head.

“I need to fetch a few things and leave immediately. I haven’t changed the code yet, so lock the door behind you.”

“Okay. You have time to feed your organics in a few kliks, or do you want me to do it?”

“You do it.”

“Sure thing,” Jet-Lag said, exhaling air loudly as he let himself drop back on the berth.

Blast Off left the room and went to the small storage containing energon and some other things. Standing there, he realised that his travel bag was still in the hotel on the moon - or not in his hotel room on the moon any more seeing as the hotel had been vapourised. There was nothing he needed to pack, and so he only took two cubes of high octane and a spare cloth, and hid them in compartments in his thighs.

“You still need to fetch me the name of the shop where you got your bed,” Jet-Lag called, and Blast Off frowned. He’d been meaning to do that for orns now.

Closing the storage room, Blast Off replied with an audible huff. “Remind me once I’m back.”

“That’ll be the sixth time.” There was rustling from the bed when Blast Off headed to the exit. “I’ll write you a letter with a reminder,” the triple changer continued, appearing in the doorway.

“Do that.” Blast Off said, his focus already somewhere else.

“Don’t lock the door. I’ll head out as soon as I’ve fed your organics.”

Blast Off gave a brief nod and left.

* * *

Vortex sat on one of the sculptures next to a sign which read ‘Do Not Touch The Art’, and threw small chunks of concrete at the retrorats that had gathered around a puddle of oil.

Blast Off sighed; the scene was like the best description of the essence of Kaon.

“Let’s go,” Blast Off said without greeting.

Vortex didn’t seem in a hurry, contrary to his words earlier. He jumped off the sculpture and slowly stepped towards him, his hip swaying, causing the hinged flanges to move.

Blast Off wasn’t impressed. Vortex’s frame was all new and weird.

“Almost thought you wouldn’t show up,” the ‘copter said.

Blast Off huffed. “I said I would, and so I did. Where are we heading?”

Vortex looked at him with an odd expression, and Blast Off wasn’t sure what to expect. “Kaon Airport, I already booked our tickets.”

Blast Off’s optics flickered. “Tickets?” He wasn’t flying? He would be so much faster than a regular flight. “I can get take off permission from Kaon quickly. I’m-”

“You’re bigger and louder than a normal passenger flight, and get more attention if only one single person steps out. Attention we don’t need, so we’re acting like normal people today.”

Blast Off didn’t like it. Neither the idea of using public transport, nor Vortex’s new look. He shifted on his feet.

“And here,” Vortex continued, unclipping the gun from his hip. “This is for you.”

Reluctantly taking the weapon, Blast Off frowned. “Why are you giving me a gun in public?” As if that wouldn’t get anyone’s attention. They were lucky that the statues were high and the park wasn’t exactly popular.

Vortex vented a sound that could mean he was annoyed. “I’m giving it here because you didn’t let me into your apartment.”

Blast Off resisted rolling his optics.

“Now, let’s go.” Vortex switched to comms as he transformed. “We have a plane to catch.”

Chapter Text

Blast Off clearly did not like public transport. He glowered the entire journey on the shuttle-bus to the airport, refusing to touch anything and glaring at anyone unlucky enough to come within the wide zone of his personal space. Which, Vortex had begun to realise, was anything within arm’s reach and then some.

Vortex made sure to keep inside that zone - ignoring the occasional glare and twitch of a winglet - making small talk and watching their fellow passengers. It was standing room only in the vestibule at the end of the carriage, and Blast Off’s relief was palpable when the shuttle-bus finally stopped and they could disembark.

“Normal people,” he muttered with clear distaste, and stalked off a few paces before turning and giving Vortex a sharp look. “Which flight is ours?”

Vortex pinged the airport’s wireless data-net, sending it their ticket numbers and receiving directions and check-point codes in return. “This way!” he said cheerfully, swerving around a knot of chattering minibots, and heading off across the concourse.

Blast Off caught up easily, head and shoulders above the majority of the crowd. He got some looks as well, but that was fine. Any attention he received was attention deflected from Vortex, and Blast Off had a far more cordial relationship with authority.

They passed through the checkpoint at door eighteen, and into the slightly emptier corridor beyond.

“This is filthy,” Blast Off said, rubbing his fingers together as though he’d actually touched the wall.

“It’s Kaon,” Vortex replied. “You’d complain if they made everyone shower before they came in.”

“Ugh.” The shuttle clanged elbows with a large industrial type heading the other way. “Watch where you’re going!”

“Get fragged!” the other yelled, not bothering to stop.

Vortex grinned. “Aren’t the people lovely?”

Blast Off huffed. “This had better be a quick flight.”

“It’ll be fine,” Vortex said, taking a sharp left and swiping their tickets over the scanner attached to the wall. A light over the doorway flashed green, and the door rolled open. “See, it’s all ready to board, no waiting around.”

A light sniff was the only reply. Blast Off followed Vortex through the little tunnel and onto the plane. There was no hum of an energy field, just the background silence of a dormant non-sentient machine.

A flight attendant materialised, giving them a wide smile. “Welcome aboard Quick-Air flight five two nine. Your seats are business class numbers fifteen and sixteen, located to your left. Is there anything I can get you before we take off?”

“High grade,” Vortex said. “Praxian, with sprinkles.” He took the window seat before Blast Off had managed a surprised, “Nothing, thank you”. The chair was pre-adjusted for Vortex’s frametype, and he smiled as he relaxed into it. “You like it?” he said as Blast Off took the seat beside him. It was technically an aisle seat, but the aisle was wide and each set of seats came with a little table and its own ambient lighting.

“I thought you said we were travelling like normal people?” Blast Off said.

Vortex shrugged. “This is normal. Kind of. I didn’t think you’d be happy with a seat in Economy.”

“Very perceptive,” Blast Off responded, stiffening slightly as the flight attendant reached past him with Vortex’s drink.

“Anyway, this is what expense accounts are for, right?” Vortex said, taking his energon and grinning.

Blast Off huffed, but at least this time he sounded amused.

Vortex sipped his drink, the sprinkles sparking on his tongue. Beside him, Blast Off took out a data pad and began to read. Vortex was tempted to ask questions, but his chronometer pinged him. He booted his internal comms, and dialled the familiar number.

This time Valence was quick to answer. //Uh, yes?//

//Hi there,// Vortex said cheerfully. //It’s me again, your old friend. Are you ready for your political ascendancy?//

Valence swallowed. //I…//

//Either you’re ready or you’re not,// Vortex said. //You don’t sound very confident.//

//I’m ready,// Valence said. //But I want some assurances first.//

//I’m listening.//

There was a pause, and Vortex could imagine Valence venting deep, maybe repeating some motivational soundbite to himself in the confines of his head. //You give me a comm frequency,// Valence said. //I need some way to contact you.//

//OK,// Vortex said, and sent him the string of numbers for one of the dozen cheap comms units sitting in a basement back in Kaon’s industrial zone. The basement was registered to one of his aliases, and the units were set to divert to him. Each had a tiny EMP grenade embedded in the back, in case someone tried to hack them. //Next?//

//I don’t get hurt,// Valence said. //Not now, not after. I didn’t have any hand in this, in HEX or Flame or any of it. I just made the connections, that’s all. I just did what Octans asked.// He coughed. //I’m doing you a favour, you will not come after me.//

//Sure,// Vortex replied. //We’re friends, remember?//

Valence gave a sharp, brittle laugh. //Forgive me if that carries little weight.//

//You’re forgiven,// Vortex said, and waited.

//I…// Valence coughed. //I have one more proviso.//

//Uh-huh?//

//What comes after,// Valence said. //I deal with it myself. You don’t interfere, you don’t release anything to the media, the police, anyone. And I mean anything. I need to control the flow of information, do you understand?//

//Now you’re sounding more confident,// Vortex said.

//Do you understand?// Valence said. //I need to frame this as a suicide. You can’t… do what you did... before. What you did to Cynosure.//

Vortex grinned. //I’ll be the model of discretion.//

Valence vented deep. //All right,// he said. //Frag… OK, here’s what I’ve arranged...//

* * *

Vortex’s energy field flickered with amusement, and Blast Off ignored it. He resisted glancing next to him, and tried not to tense even more.

He never could understand why they let grounders be pilots. Not that Blast Off knew the pilot of their current flight was a grounder, but it had to be expected. If it was an airframe, their ride would be sentient.

Insentient flight machines… Blast Off suppressed a shudder and focused again on his datapad.

For him as a shuttle, sitting inside such a vessel felt wrong. There was something twisted about it – perverse.

The feeling lingered for the full duration of the flight.

Blast Off stared out of the tiny window next to Vortex’s head – thank frag the ‘copter hadn’t talked to him during the trip.

He knew how he would approach the airport, when to decrease speed and what angle the turn for the runway needed. Watching it from inside while someone else did it, and did it differently, made him queasy.

Fortunately their seats were comfortable.

Still, Blast Off was glad when they exited the plane and finally stood in the Arrivals area of Polyhex Central Airport.

“Was it really that bad?” Vortex asked, and didn’t sound concerned. Blast Off guessed there was a grin behind his battle mask.

“What do you mean?”

Vortex shrugged; his rotor blades moved. Did the ‘copter do that on purpose?

“You were tense the whole time after take-off. I thought you’d enjoy business class travel a little more.”

Blast Off frowned. Did Vortex sound disappointed? “I just don’t like travelling if I’m not doing the flying. It feels… wrong.”

“Uh-huh…”

Blast Off shifted on his feet. The queue for Arrivals hadn’t moved. Polyhex wasn’t particularly known for alpha cast inhabitants, rather the opposite, so he started to tense. People were staring.

This city was just as bad as Kaon, just as dirty, the same polluted air, the same mindset.

“Where are we heading?” Blast Off finally asked. He wanted to get this over with and get Flame, even though he hadn’t yet worked out what he was going to do with him.

“I’m waiting for a call.”

Blast Off exhaled air loudly.

“We can get something to drink while we’re waiting?” Vortex suggested, and nodded to one of the stalls with chairs around at the other end of the plaza.

Blast Off shook his head. “I’d rather not drink before this kind of… job.”

“You didn’t have a problem drinking on Luna Two,” Vortex replied, visor gleaming.

“And I regretted every drop of it once the situation escalated.”

Vortex’s rotors gave a twitch. “I liked how the first night escalated.”

Blast Off stared. Was that some kind of come-on? Would he need to respond somehow? They were here to get Flame, and Vortex didn’t seem in any way concerned. But then, the ‘copter enjoyed shooting and all this military stuff. His only concern might be that their operation would go too smoothly.

Blast Off decided not to reply, and eventually Vortex stopped looking at him, giving another shrug with shifting rotors.

He sighed, and waved a hand as he stepped a few paces away. “Fine, I’ll call them. They’re a couple of kliks overdue anyway.”

Blast Off watched him, shaking his head. Hadn’t they been in a hurry back in Kaon?

It only took about a klik, Vortex’s visor bright when he came back. “Our meeting is delayed for an unspecified period of time. Let’s find a hotel!”

Blast Off’s optics flickered and he looked after Vortex who was walking away with a spring in his step.

Maybe he would need something to drink after all.

* * *

Vortex booked their room.

It had to be him, otherwise Blast Off would have had to pay for himself since he wasn’t with OnsCorp any longer.

”Unless you keep working for Onslaught, then you don’t need to pay,” had been Vortex’s very obvious attempt to change Blast Off’s mind.

The shuttle guessed Onslaught had instructed him to do that. Probably that was the reason he was allowed to go with Vortex in the first place.

That Vortex had got them only one room again with a single big berth was something Blast Off was sure was the ‘copter’s own idea.

At least Vortex had the decency to get clean before touching the bed, and he hadn’t been angry when Blast Off had declined his invitation to join him in the shower.

Venting a sigh, Blast Off glanced around the room. It was nowhere near as fancy as the hotel on Luna Two, but it would have to do. It was most likely the best Polyhex had to offer. They had a window to the dirty skyline and a large bed, and it was clean, so Blast Off shouldn’t complain. He hadn’t seen the shower yet, but he hoped Vortex would be done soon so he could get rid of the accumulated filth.

He took a look at the minibar, but he didn’t fancy any of the drinks on offer, and took out one of his cubes of high octane. From the hotel, Polyhex really was similar to Kaon, the only difference was that they produced standard machinery and mecha here, and didn’t have the focus on military gear and troops. But that was something you didn’t get to see.

“Nice view.”

Blast Off startled and turned, seeing Vortex leaning against the door to the shower, his battle mask withdrawn.

Blast Off huffed. “If you can appreciate Koan, I guess you can appreciate Polyhex.”

“Oh,” Vortex uttered, pushing himself off the wall. “I didn’t mean the city.”

Blast Off raised an optical ridge, but he didn’t comment on it. He didn’t get Vortex, and he didn’t want him to know. “How long do we have until we can meet your contact?” he asked as Vortex came closer.

“I dunno, long enough to get bored, I guess?” The rotors quivered and the ‘copter only stopped when he was in front of Blast Off. “Unless we can find something to fight the boredom, that is.”

Okay, even for Blast Off it was obvious what Vortex was hinting at, and he still didn’t know why the other bothered.

“If we have that much time,” Blast Off said flatly, “I’ll take a shower.”

“But I like you dirty.” Vortex’s hand came up, his index finger drawing a line on Blast Off’s lower arm.

Blast Off tensed at the touch. “You only want to write glyphs on my plating again,” he said, and it was half a question.

Vortex grinned. “Maybe? But maybe I didn’t only mean that kind of dirty.” The other’s energy field flared, rasping against Blast Off’s. There was no attempt of Vortex actually trying to hide his intent. “I haven’t let anyone touch my new rotors,” he continued before Blast Off could respond. It took the shuttle off guard, and he didn’t withdraw his arm when Vortex’s hand moved down to his, leading it to the ‘copter’s hip with its hinged flanges.

“Why?” Blast Off finally found his words again despite his confusion. He had to admit that he wasn’t that averse to Vortex’s plans, but he hadn’t expected this.

“Because I wanted you to touch them first.”

Blast Off raised an optical ridge and couldn’t keep his bafflement from his energy signature. It was clear for Vortex to read, and without prompting the ‘copter continued. “I want your hands on my rotors first. You broke through plasglass with them.” His engine rumbled. “That got me all revved up, you know.”

Blast Off looked from Vortex’s face to his own hand on the other’s hip and back. “What’s your fascination with plasglass?”

“Uh-uh,” Vortex shook his head, “not with plasglass.” He stepped closer to Blast Off, their fields now in full contact. “With you.”

Blast Off’s jaw clenched. Was he supposed to be flattered? Embarrassed? Was it some kind of mindgame to make Blast Off stay with OnsCorp? And more importantly, should he care when Vortex was offering himself like this?

“Your frame’s all different,” Blast Off said, because it was the first thing that came to mind.

Vortex cocked his head to the side, first frowning, then grinning. “Different doesn’t mean bad. It just means you have more things to explore.”

Blast Off vented a huff, blowing air over Vortex’s frame on purpose, and earnt himself a shudder in response. His fingers on the other’s hip stroked over the hinge of a flange, leaving a smear of grime on the freshly showered plating, but Vortex didn’t seem to mind. Blast Off’s other hand found its way to Vortex’s throat, closing gently around it, his thumb stroking from Vortex’s chin over his lips.

Vortex’s engine revved; his ventilation picked up. Under Blast Off’s thumb, the mouth parted, the glossa darting out carefully, and Blast Off allowed it for now.

He leant down, towering over Vortex, and casting a shadow as he blocked out the light from the city behind the window.

“Why are you so interested in me?” Blast Off demanded, not that he cared just then. Whatever Vortex’s motive, why not take advantage?

He didn’t wait for an answer. His hand moved further down to Vortex’s aft, and he spun them around, pressing Vortex’s back against the window. He extended his field, engulfing the rotary who arched against him.

Vortex’s answering flare was hot and present, a hard press of charge that made their plating tingle. Stepping closer, Blast Off almost crushed Vortex to the window; the rotor hub squealed, Vortex’s vocaliser letting slip a moan. Vortex slung a leg around Blast Off’s thigh, and his arm came up, hand wrapping around the shuttle’s shoulder as if for support.

And they both froze, slowly turning their heads to stare at Vortex’s blinking comm.

Frustration entered Vortex’s energy field, and his engine gave a whine while his vocaliser produced an annoyed groan.

With some difficulty, Blast Off reined in his energy field. He let go of Vortex’s throat, but kept his hand on the other’s aft. Maybe it would be a short call.

“If this isn’t important,” Vortex growled, static in his voice, “I’m going to kill them.”

Chapter Text

The call did turn out to be important.

“You still haven’t told me where we’re going,” Blast Off grumbled, as they turned down yet another of Polyhex’s warren of alleys. They had left the inner city behind, each step taking them further into the underbelly. The streets here were slick with grime, every corner deep with trash. Some of the trash had eyes; some of the eyes were watching them.

Rust tickled his vents, and Vortex sneezed. “We’ll find out when we get there,” he said shortly, stomping through a grimy puddle as though stamping his feet would help cool his interface hardware. “I’ve got directions. We’re heading to a rendez-vous.”

“They could have picked a better location,” Blast Off said. He was clearly feeling it too, his frustration making him snappish.

“And better timing,” Vortex grumbled. Stepping over a pool of rusty water he felt the tingle of a scan, a pair of red optics glaring from the shadows. Their owner pinged him, and he sent a codeword in return. The optics turned away.

Blast Off’s engine growled. “Am I going to regret coming with you?”

Vortex gave him a look. “Of course not. Now keep that rifle in your hand,” he said, “but don’t raise the muzzle. When we get there, let me do the talking.”

“And when the talking breaks down?” Blast Off said.

“It won’t,” said Vortex, taking another sharp turn into a littered back street. There was a door halfway down, recessed into the wall. It was scratched and filthy, but there was a difference between the neglected squalor of the undercity and this camouflage of dirt.

Vortex waited, ignoring a rustling deep in the heaps of trash. The door opened onto darkness and a flash of brightest blue. There was the tingle of another scan, and Blast Off tensed.

“I’m here to see the boss,” Vortex said. “She’s expecting me.”

The owner of the blue visor sniffed and stepped forward into the light. “This your bodyguard?” She nodded to Blast Off.

“My colleague,” Vortex said. “You gonna let us in?”

She sniffed again and stepped aside, gesturing with her tail. “Third floor, left at the top of the stairs. The elevator’s out.”

Vortex headed in, listening for the heavy footfalls of Blast Off following him. The shuttle broadcast derision, and Vortex smiled; derision was far better than uncertainty.

Inside, the building was cleanish, full of people, and alive with a soft hush of activity. Insecticons and minibots, Vortex thought, tracing their forms in infra-red through the unlit stairwell. None of them spoke, not even to chitter between themselves. But they watched, wary, intrigued. Vortex recognised a few of their energy signatures.

The third floor was clean and bright, a long corridor lined with war drones of the kind that Haze’s new pet was about to make obsolete. A pair of guards stood ready at the end, battle masks up, visors gleaming.

“Vortex,” one said, and the voice was familiar. But the frame, that was new, and it took Vortex a moment to recognise one of Solarstorm’s favourites from the old days.

“Linchpin,” Vortex acknowledged.

“It’s been a long time,” Linchpin said. He nodded to his companion, an Insecticon with bright compound eyes and three sets of slender segmented arms, only two pairs of which held weapons. She made a show of performing a scan, stepping close and looking them over. Blast Off shifted, and Vortex wished he’d said something about how to hold his gun. He looked like a civilian again, grounded and out of his depth.

The Insecticon clicked at them. “They’re clean,” she said, going back to her post. “No bombs, no surprises.”

“All right then,” Linchpin said, taking a step back and typing a set of numbers quickly into a keypad. He held up a hand for them to wait, cocking his head to show he was talking over internal comms. Then he straightened, and the door swung open. “The boss will see you now.”

Solarstorm was seated under a canopy of UV lights, one leg outstretched, her hands draped lazily over chunky arm rests. A trio of sleek silver minibots were busy scrubbing and polishing, one of them tending the missile launchers mounted in her shoulders, another waxing the barrel of a laser cannon projecting from her forearm. The third was knelt at her feet, using the light to scrub the dirt from between her long clawed toes.

They looked up as one, staring at Vortex with apparent surprise. Then they gave Blast Off a cursory glance and returned to their work.

Solarstorm’s lips curved up on one side, not exactly a smile. “You’ve changed,” she said, her voice a deep amused rumble.

Vortex flicked his brand new rotors. “Got an upgrade.” He stepped into the middle of the room. There were five of Solarstorm’s guards behind him, and two to his immediate right. Blast Off settled beside him, radiating that wonderful bored indifference even though he still didn’t look like someone who knew how to handle his gun.

Solarstorm raised two fingers of her right hand, and the minibots backed away; the UV lights faded. “It suits you,” she said, that half smile sharpening. “And look, you brought a bodyguard. It’s like you don’t trust me.”

Vortex shrugged. “I brought a shuttle,” he said. “He was built on HEX, you were built on HEX. I figured in the light of recent events you might have some common ground.”

Solarstorm’s smile vanished. “HEX, yes.” She sniffed. “Clear the room! Vortex and I are going to have a little chat.”

“But, boss!” one of the guards said, his laser sights on the back of Vortex’s head.

“Did my voice glitch?” Solarstorm said.

“No, boss.”

Blast Off turned to watch the guards file out, the three minibots following close. Vortex saw Linchpin slip in, moving quietly on his new triple-pronged feet to lounge against the back wall.

“And who are you?” Solarstorm said to Blast Off, ignoring Linchpin just like Onslaught would ignore Vortex in a similar meeting. “You’re not one of Onslaught’s soldiers.”

“He’s not,” Vortex said. “He’s Blast Off, I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”

Blast Off shot him a stern look, as if to say he could speak for himself. Solarstorm looked blank. “Whyever would I have heard of him?” she said.

Vortex gestured with his empty hand. “I take it Trove got back to Cybertron?” he asked with a smile.

Blast Off glared, but didn’t speak. Solarstorm glowered a moment, then she laughed, her vast shoulders rolling, and her missile launchers retreating into their housing. “You’re a piece of work,” she snapped. “So this is the one who tossed Trove around like a used rag? Ha!” Her expression smoothed. “What does Onslaught want?”

“Flame,” Vortex said simply.

“Ah yes.” Solarstorm drummed her clawed fingers on the armrests. “Trove is very angry with you. Both of you. Her repairs were quite costly.”

“So were ours,” Vortex said. “But I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.”

Solarstorm fixed him with her wide orange optics. “Try me.”

Vortex shifted his stance, keeping Linchpin in the very edge of his vision. “How do you feel about HEX?” he asked.

Solarstorm sighed. “Oh Vortex, you know me better than that.” But the smallest finger of her left hand kept clicking, and her optics brightened just a fraction.

“I know who ordered the attack,” Vortex said. “I know you helped them.”

Blast Off stiffened, and Solarstorm scowled. “You’re not a negotiator,” she said.

“Ons has the data,” Vortex said. “He can leak it anywhere he wants. There’s an oil slick a mile wide linking you to Flame, to Valence… to Octans.”

“So that’s your offer?” Solarstorm said with considerable scorn. “I give you Flame, and the data is deleted?”

“It’s up to you,” Vortex said. “Onslaught will have Flame. Now I can tear my way through everything you own from here to Iacon, or you can tell me where he is and none of your people get hurt.”

Solarstorm’s sharp one-sided smile returned. “Now with the threats,” she said. “This is the Vortex I used to know.”

Vortex unhooked his rifle and set it slowly on the floor. “It’s not a threat,” he said, taking a step closer to Solarstorm. Behind him Linchpin went to move, but Solarstorm raised her hand.

“It’s just a statement of fact?” she asked with a sniff. Then she snapped her fingers, and Vortex held out his left hand. Solarstorm stood, unfolding like the bloom of a firebomb in slow motion. Her armour was the colour of a dying star, her silver hand cold as it closed around Vortex’s wrist. She flicked the cover from his wrist port and plugged in.

“I expect reparations,” she said, as the data began to filter through the connection, sluggish for the force of their firewalls. “This has been an expensive enterprise.”

“You’ll have them,” Vortex said. “I expect you to stop trailing my contacts.”

Solarstorm laughed, and a bitter edge of amusement tinted the dataflow. “We’ll see,” she said, as the last of the data trickled through and the information began to compile in Vortex’s processor. She unclipped her connector and sat back. “Done,” she stated. “Now get the hell out of my sector.”

* * *

Linchpin took them to the edge of the slum, and turned back without a word. Vortex watched him go, clipping his rifle again to his thigh.

“Where next?” Blast Off demanded. He scowled, shaking his foot to dislodge a damp scrap of plastic. “Disgusting.”

“Kalis,” Vortex said, searching for a signal for the city’s datanet. “We’ll take the next flight out.”

“Good, I want to get this over with.” Blast Off stomped over to a cleaner patch of street. Overhead the buildings broke, showing a slice of grubby sky. “I hate this place.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Vortex said, as the home page for inter-state travel popped up on his HUD. He walked past Blast Off. “Come on, we’ll go back the scenic route. And you can put your gun away, it’ll scare the locals.”

Blast Off clipped the rifle in its holster. “Back?”

“To the hotel,” Vortex said. “To get our stuff.” When Blast Off had drawn up alongside him, still scowling, he continued quietly. “We’ll get into Kalis nice and quiet, take what we came for, and Coruscate’s team will fly us out again. How does that sound?”

“Suspiciously like a plan,” Blast Off said. He huffed, sidestepping a heap of molten something. “Doesn’t anyone ever clean the streets here?”

“Tourist!” snapped a grounder, swerving to avoid them.

“Get fragged!” Vortex yelled back. “OK, I’ve booked our tickets. We’ve got a quarter joor, let’s move.”

* * *

Blast Off wasn’t sure whether to be amused or annoyed by Vortex’s frustration.

It had been clearer before, but now the ‘copter had drawn his field close, and it wasn’t quite as sharp. It was for the best, considering they were back on a plane, and while they travelled business class again, they were still sat closer than Blast Off would otherwise allow.

Blast Off also wasn’t certain if relief or annoyance was the appropriate emotional response considering their mission progress. He was glad that he hadn’t had to face Flame just yet, but prolonging this whole thing unnecessarily wasn’t very appealing.

He wanted to get it over with, though he still didn’t know what he’d do when he saw Flame. He wanted to teach the scientist a lesson, but he had no idea how. Maybe Vortex would take care of that. The ‘copter was good at these things, but Blast Off wouldn’t tell him so. It wasn’t necessarily a compliment.

Blast Off leant back and tensed. The take off was rougher than the first flight, and he forbade himself to look out of the window.

When this was over, he was never flying as a passenger again.

When this was over, he’d finally be able to get clean.

And when this was over, they might have some time for entertainments that didn’t involve guns or filth.

Blast Off sighed. Whether it was because of relief that the pressure of acceleration had ceased or disappointment at the idea Vortex wouldn’t be interested in continuing anything once this was done, he didn’t know.

But he could always get some distraction from Jet-Lag later. Which was probably the better-

“So,” Vortex interrupted Blast Off’s train of thought. “Who’s Windcut?”

Blast Off tensed again; his optics brightened for the fraction of an astrosecond and he only just managed to resist gaping at the ‘copter. Where had Vortex heard that name? His answer was stiff. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do.” Vortex shifted on his seat, his rotor blades twitching. “You called me Windcut after you crashed into that building back on Luna Two.”

Blast Off didn’t remember. His fingers clenched at the missing memory, cramping hard into the armrest.

“Another rotary?” Vortex pressed on. “Your boyfriend? Girlfriend?”

Blast Off frowned and finally turned to the ‘copter. He didn’t want to talk about that. Didn’t want to talk about him. “No. Why do you care?”

Vortex grinned. Why hadn’t he hidden his face under his battle mask? The grin did nothing to make Blast Off more comfortable. “Why shouldn’t I?” Vortex shrugged. “It was me who saved your sorry aft, so at least you could have said my name.”

Blast Off opened his mouth to spit a retort, but Vortex just continued. “But I forgive you. You’d just crashed, you were out of it.”

Rolling his optics, Blast Off gave a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Next time you’re out of it,” Vortex said casually, “when you overload, I’ll make sure you say the right name.” How the ‘copter said this so calmly and with that naughty grin on his face, Blast Off could never understand. But he wished for a hole to hide in.

Thankfully, the flight attendant chose that moment to pass them. Their voice was friendly, but reserved. “Can I offer you a refreshment, a snack or something to drink?” They had a metal basket clipped to their arm.

Blast Off shook his head, and when he’d hoped Vortex would do the same, his hopes were dashed.

“Can I have a closer look?” the ‘copter said, leaning over Blast Off. The grey hand pressed on Blast Off’s armrest close to his own, the tail rotors almost touching his lower arm. The coronas of their energy fields touched; it was brief, but strong enough for Blast Off to get full measure of the lingering frustration, a small measure of amusement, and a good dose of overlying need.

Blast Off vented air, and it wasn’t on purpose this time that the warmth met Vortex’s plating. His rotors twitched more intensely, and Blast Off didn't listen to what the ‘copter and the flight attendant said to each other. The twitching increased, and Blast Off stared; since when did Vortex have four rotor blades?

Blast Off stopped himself from rebooting his optics, but his gaze lingered on the twitching extra blade. It was distracting, but not particularly annoying.

Vortex was still looking through the offered snacks; Blast Off could guess he was putting on a show.

The rotor blade twitched again, and Blast Off wanted to shove it away, to increase the distance from his plating just a enough. Though once he touched the thin metal, a jolt went through Vortex’s frame. His field pushed stronger against Blast Off’s own, and the stream of words directed at the flight attendant stopped.

Blast Off let go of the rotor.

Vortex chose a random snack and sat back down. His back pressed hard against his seat as he ripped open the bag of treats.

Right, Blast Off remembered. Vortex hadn’t let anyone touch his blades after the surgery… Now the shuttle could believe it.

“You have four rotor blades now,” Blast Off commented.

“You like it?” Vortex asked before he put a blueish gel cube into his mouth, more slowly than necessary.

Blast Off allowed himself a tiny grin and echoed Vortex earlier words. “It means I have more to explore.”

Chapter Text

Kalis was the antithesis of Kaon and Polyhex: clean airport, clean streets, even the air was clean, scoured by vast purificators mounted on the tops of office blocks and hyper-malls. They thrummed constantly, the background hum of the city, a pleasant companion to the scent of the energon distilleries.

Even the warehouse district was clean. Every street had its maintenance drone, every intersection its brightly painted air pollution monitor. A parade of flashing neon posters exhorted residents and visitors to Keep Kalis Clean! and Re-elect Senator Crosscut, for a better, safer Kalis!

“Crass,” Blast Off commented, and Vortex smirked. He’d withdrawn his mask to pass through Security at the airport, and hadn’t bothered putting it back on again. It was nice to feel the air on his face.

“At least it isn’t dirty?” he said, letting his knuckles brush through Blast Off’s energy field.

The shuttle’s winglets swung back, and his lips twitched up. “How long until we get there?”

“Not long.” Vortex sidestepped a sweeping drone, its antennae flashing. “That’s one of hers,” he said quietly. “Her people will know we’re here.”

Blast Off grunted. “I had better not regret coming with you.”

Vortex spun his rotors, enjoying the novel crispness of the breeze, and the strange additional input that came with having four blades instead of his usual three. “We’re gonna stop at the next underpass,” he said. “We’ll prep our weapons, then we’ll take the second door on the right. Solarstorm’s people are guarding the building, but Flame’s got some of Octans’ people in there too. Six, maybe eight of them. If it goes to the smelter, Brawl and Coruscate are already in position.”

Blast Off looked up, as though expecting to see Coruscate perched on a roof or flying slow circles in jet mode around the safe house. Vortex grinned, and made a quick visual sweep of the area. Solarstorm’s drones held the corners, a group of two-wheeled grounders sped along the road. There were no pedestrians, no observers.

“Are you ready?” he asked, as they came under the shadow of the fly-over.

Blast Off didn’t answer. Instead he glared, unclipping his rifle and performing the brief set of pre-engagement checks Vortex had taught him.

“Hold it higher,” Vortex said. “Keep that mean look on your face.”

Blast Off scowled. “What mean look?”

“Perfect.”

Vortex brought his arm-mounted lasers online, and readied his rifle. Their destination was a warehouse, a squat wide block of a building crouched under a bulbous accretion of offices. It was much the same as any other; clean, dull, faceless. No logo hung over the immense shutters which faced onto the road, no nameplate gleamed from the small side door.

Vortex approached. He pushed the door and it opened on a brightly lit vestibule. He nodded to Blast Off and went in, not bothering to quiet his footfalls. There was a room to the right, mirrored glass in the wall, the door open. A shape loomed to fill the doorway, bristling with weapons. Lips curled in a sneer. “You.

Vortex shifted his grip on his rifle. “We have clearance,” he said. Beside him, Blast Off tensed.

“You think you’re so clever,” Trove snarled, bringing her fists together in front of her. She cracked her knuckles, lip peeling back over her sharpened teeth. “Just you wait.”

“What for?” Vortex asked. He stepped past her, waiting for her to reach out, to try to grab him. But she held her position.

“The boss might have forgiven you,” Trove growled, “but I won’t.”

Vortex nudged the door to what Solarstorm’s directions had told him would be the warehouse. “You gonna open this for me?” he said.

Trove’s scowl deepened, her huge shoulders hunched. “I’m coming after you,” she said. “When this is done, you better start looking behind you. You’re a dead mech walking, Vortex. You and your alpha shadow.” Then she did move, but it wasn’t to attack, she stepped back and reached out to jab a button on the wall. The door opened. “Get out of my sight.”

Vortex gave her a friendly wave, and stepped into the corridor, Blast Off close behind. When the door closed, the shuttle sniffed.

“Am I supposed to know who that was?”

Vortex gave him a look. “You threw her down twenty flights of stairs. She tried to kill us.”

Blast Off’s optics dimmed, his lips set in a tight line.

“On Luna Two? That office building? Flame’s bodyguard?”

Blast Off grunted. “You expect me to remember everyone?”

“She shot me and my arm fell off?” Vortex said. “OK, never mind. We take the third door on the right-”

“Someone’s coming.”

Vortex swung around, crouched and ready. But the face that peered through one of the corridor’s trio of doors just blinked at them, then swallowed and slowly stepped to the side. Vortex straightened.

The newcomer bit her lip. “He’s in the bunker,” she said. “Our people are all on this floor. Take the ramp, the code for the door is two two five nine gamma. We’re going to lock it behind you.” She vented deep, antennae twitching. “Don’t come out until you’re done.”

* * *

The top of the ramp was guarded, a pair of Solarstorm’s people who looked the other way as Vortex typed in the code.

The door slid open, and Vortex went first, optics sharpening in response to the change in light. He made a sweep of the ramp: no people, no drones. There was a slick of oil on the unswept floor, long scrapes where something heavy had been dragged.

Blast Off stepped up beside him, and pinged him by comm. //If there are any of those things...//

//We kill everything that isn’t Flame,// Vortex said. //Dead, alive, infected, I don’t care. Let’s do this.//

He headed down the ramp, stepping carefully, as quietly as the weight of his footfalls would allow. Blast Off followed, careful and slow, an edge of determination in his energy field, a spark of anticipation.

There was nothing around the first corner, nor the second. The ramp descended in a wide spiral, no doors leading off it, no cameras on the walls or drones to watch them from the ceiling. At the final bend, Vortex rounded the corner ready to fire, but the seat by the bunker door was empty, the door open a crack.

An echo of voices spilled through the opening, and Vortex sprang flat to the wall, gesturing Blast Off to follow. He waited, listening to the rhythm of speech, trying to separate the different voices until the figures grew close enough to differentiate individual words.

“The security feeds are down again,” one said. It was a light voice, high, indicative of a small or slender frame.

The response was deeper, less cultured. “So did you report it to them upstairs?”

“Sure, they said it’s a software glitch, but this happens literally all the time.”

The deeper voice grunted. “I’m going back to my post. Just don’t tell Flame about the feeds, OK? He’ll blow a gasket.”

Vortex waited as the footfalls came closer; the wheeze of the big mech’s vents was audible over the background drone of the bunker’s aircon. The guard stepped through the door, and Vortex closed in. A stab to the throat, then a wide grating slash. The guard choked and thrashed, a scream bubbling from his lips. Vortex cut again, and the scream died.

“Peacekeeper,” Vortex commented, watching the guard drop to his knees.

Blast Off curled his lip, optics narrowed. “What are you waiting for?”

Vortex raised his arm, bringing the muzzle of his shiny new laser to nudge the guard’s temple. “Nothing,” he said, and fired.

The guard didn’t have time to blink. The laser did its job, quickly and quietly, but the small explosion in the guard’s ruined helm was less subtle. Smoke rose acrid, and Vortex sniffed. “One down,” he said. “Don’t give me that look. I’ll save the next one for you.”

Blast Off scowled, moving around the expanding pool of energon. “I’m guessing it’s this way now?” He pointed his gun at the door.

Vortex nudged the body with his foot. “Just give it an astrosec,” he said. “See if the noise brings anyone to us.”

Blast Off rolled his optics, but stepped back from the door, copying the pose Vortex had earlier held. But the corridor did not ring with footsteps, and the echo of voices was conspicuously absent.

Vortex shrugged. “Shoddy operation,” he said. “OK, if they’re not coming to us, we should go to them, it’s only polite.”

This time, he didn’t bother to mask his footfalls. The bunker was large, but not labyrinthine. A single short passageway led to a T-junction, and the direction they took wouldn’t matter. The corridor formed a square kind of loop with rooms coming off on both sides. If Flame did see them coming - and Vortex truly hoped he would - then he couldn’t get far.

Vortex signalled Blast Off to pause, and made a sweep of the junction. The walls were smooth, making a decent enough mirror; he smirked at his new frame, then beckoned to the shuttle.

They went left, following the murmur of voices. Someone laughed, and someone else made a long-suffering groan. Blast Off scowled, the grip on his rifle tightening.

A door was open, a warmer light spilling into the hall. Vortex gave Blast Off a happy grin, his finger on the trigger, and headed straight inside.

He had a split-second to check for Flame, a weird moment of calm as the three - no, four - peacekeepers gawped at him in abject confusion. One reached for her gun, and Vortex began to shoot. Behind him Blast Off said something in a sarcastic tone, and Vortex’s grin widened. Then the shuttle was beside him, rifle aimed. His shots went wide, despite the limited space, but it kept the Peacekeepers from rallying.

Vortex counted five astroseconds from the time he first squeezed the trigger until the sound of frantic footfalls in the corridor. He went in for the kill, close and quick. Two down, and the smoke was thick in his vents. Three, and he could feel the energon drip from his chassis and into his joints. The final Peacekeeper had gained his weapon, was aiming shaky with his one good arm. He snarled, and the butt of Blast Off’s rifle slammed through his face.

Vortex spun on his heel, just in time to see the rescue party cramming the doorway. The first muscled through, yelling, “Freeze!” She was masked and visored, her weapon aimed, her frame so tense it was shaking.

Vortex took a step back, foot crunching on broken glass. “Come and get me,” he said, flicking his rotors.

She stilled, steadying her aim, and Vortex dropped. He rolled to the side, then up again and barrelled forward just beneath the flash of laserfire.

Blast Off was firing too, a high and apparently accidental arc that caught the ceiling and the doorjamb, and sent the two peacekeepers in the corridor running.

Vortex caught a blow to the face, a kick to the hip. He clung on, too close to shoot, too quick to really hurt. This Peacekeeper was another class. Ex-military, she had the coding, she knew how to fight. Vortex went flying, slamming hub-first into a row of cabinets. The Peacekeeper charged him, roaring her rage, and he held still and limp until she was just close enough, then he twisted, claws out, and caught her through the throat.

The energon blinded him, a great gush washing over his visor, and he slashed and gouged, wild and desperate as she tore into him with ever-decreasing velocity. He grinned, and the laughter bubbled deep in his chest.

The fluids dripped, and his vision cleared. The Peacekeeper hung limp from his claws. He transformed them back to fingers, the energon hot on the insides of his hands. He reached for his gun in a puddle on the floor, then threw it back down and checked his integrated lasers.

Blast Off had made it to the corridor. Vortex launched himself through the doorway in time to see the shuttle sweep a tall Insecticon Peacekeeper off its feet with his rifle. The other Peacekeeper was down, but he was stirring, scrabbling for a weapon lying just out of reach.

Vortex sprang for him, but Blast Off was faster. He kicked the weapon, not pausing to watch it scoot down the hall, but brought his foot down hard on the Peacekeeper’s face. Vortex froze. The Insecticon winced at the grinding screech, then was up again, its arms transforming as it rose. Vortex raised his own arm, aiming an integrated laser just in case, but Blast Off was ready. He grabbed the Insecticon mid-transformation, pulling it into a tight, crushing headlock. With a single clean movement he twisted its head from its stubby neck.

“Nice,” Vortex commented.

Blast Off gave him a look. He dropped the body and squeezed the severed head until the metal buckled and the optics cracked. The personality component gleamed through the broken casing, sparking weakly. Then he dropped it on the floor and crushed it under his heel.

“Take me now,” Vortex muttered, straightening and shaking the drips from his rotors.

“Is that all of them?” Blast Off said. His fans were running high, his energy field a tantalising crackle as Vortex stepped up to him.

“Maybe.” He flicked a shard of plastic from the oil-thick mess on Blast Off’s arm. “Are you good?”

“I’m not injured,” Blast Off said. He sneered at his new paintjob. “Why do they have to leak so much?”

“To grind your gears,” Vortex said with a smirk. He calculated the likelihood that Flame had more guards, that a final security team was even then advancing on them. There was no time to press closer, to take advantage of the moment. He flared his energy field, a temptation and a promise. “Are you ready?” he said.

Blast Off bent to retrieve his rifle, his fingers brushing Vortex’s tail rotors as he went. “Ready.”

* * *

No one else came, and they didn’t find Flame. They had to look in every room, all empty save for some equipment and a lone weapons locker.

Vortex giggled as he chose a new gun, but there were no suitable weapons for Blast Off. They were all too tiny for his hands.

It did nothing to help his growing impatience, which resulted in the weird paradox of him not wanting to move on once he and Vortex finally found a room with another set of stairs.

These were like a corridor built into the walls. Narrower than the ramp and lacking illumination, the steps extended upwards into darkness. It was mostly quiet, only the hum of a generator that must have been upstairs somewhere broke the silence.

Vortex’s energy field was all over the place. “Is it booby trapped?” he asked, sounding excited.

Blast Off ran a scan of the entry and stairs - and of Vortex, but only because he was in the way.

“It’s safe,” Blast Off announced an astrosecond after Vortex had set a foot on the first step. His engine revved. “Wait, for frag’s sake,” he grumbled.

Turning his head, Vortex grinned. “For you? Always.”

And he did.

Vortex didn’t move even when Blast Off was right behind him, blocking the light from the corridor. Their visors gleamed as Vortex stared up at him, the energon on his quivering rotors catching the light.

If they hadn’t been in hostile territory, with no idea what encounters to expect… Blast Off stopped his train of thought and glared. “What? Do you expect me to push you all the way up?”

Under the red glow of Vortex’s visor, Blast Off saw the grin widen and the ‘copter’s field flared with what could only be a resounding yes. But Vortex kept quiet as he turned and swiftly climbed the stairs.

Blast Off allowed himself a moment to enjoy the view in front of him, and followed once Vortex had rounded the bend in the staircase.

Upstairs, they reached another T-junction. The walls were sterile and white, the ceiling lower. The stench of coolant and acetone stung in Blast Off’s olfactory sensors. The hum of the generator was louder here, an eerie noise in the otherwise deadly silence. It was impossible to tell where the hum came from.

At the end of each hallway leading from the junction was a huge door, the kind of thing he might have expected in a vault, with a wheel as the handle. There were no visible consoles or displays.

“Are those supposed to keep us out or to keep something inside?” Blast Off muttered, his fingers flexing around the grip of his rifle. Only one route in, no alternatives, no escape; he didn’t like it.

“Only one way to find out,” Vortex replied, sounding less enthusiastic now.

There was no way to tell why Vortex chose to try the right door instead of the left, but he got as far as attempting to turn the wheel. He stepped back, readying his weapons and adopting a fighting stance.

Blast Off sighed; that was subtle. Why did he always have to do the heavy work?

Holstering his weapon, he ignored Vortex’s stare, took hold of the wheel and turned.

At first it appeared to be locked, the wheel refusing to budge. The slimy coating on Blast Off’s hands didn’t help.

His engine revved, his hydraulics tensed, and he cursed his slippery grip. How was someone supposed to open this? He was a shuttleformer, and stronger than most, and even for him it was difficult.

Blast Off thought about the behemoth tank again, the one with a grudge against the two of them, the one he couldn’t remember. It had to have been the nanities. How could he forget someone who’d tried to kill him? And who he had apparently tried to kill, too.

Blast Off’s anger returned. Stupid tank, and stupid Flame, and stupid door built so poorly that no-one could turn the lock. His engine growled; the handle creaked. He forced it further, slowly at first, then faster until a click echoed loudly through the hallway.

Vortex crouched tense, his rotors stiff. He nodded, and Blast Off pulled on the door. It opened without a sound.

Vortex swung through it, the heavy smell of half-processed stale energon wafting out.

Blast Off followed fast, but froze when he saw what was inside.

The room was empty save for a medical cot. An occupied medical cot. The occupant were dead, the frame grey and streaked with slowly dripping energon. There were tubes on shelves on the opposite wall; Blast Off recognised the colours of coolant and energon and hydraulic fluid.

There was more energon on the walls, on the ceiling, but it was old and dry.

Vortex stood by a locker, glancing over his shoulder. “Stay by the door.”

Blast Off didn’t complain.

He waited as Vortex cracked open the locker and skimmed through the datapads he found inside. He was quick, but it still took too long for Blast Off. The scene made the pulse of his laser core accelerate, the stench of the room made his tanks lurch. There was a gnawing sensation in his memory backs and for once he was glad there was no actual memory. It still brought up the question of how many files had been corrupted by the nanities.

“Looks like another failed experiment,” Vortex said, and it was distraction enough to bring Blast Off back to the situation at hand. The ‘copter strolled over to him, an unreadable look on his face – not that it meant much to Blast Off. “Ready for the other door?”

Blast Off huffed. “Let’s go,” he said, but had to force himself to turn. It wasn’t as if they had a choice.

Behind them, something groaned. Not pausing to look, Blast Off quickly shut the door.

He ought to kill it; they’d said they’d kill it, alive, undead, it shouldn’t matter. But he didn’t want to know.

Vortex shot him a look, the teasing grin long gone. Blast Off struggled to keep his own expression blank.

“Let’s move on,” he muttered, and pushed past Vortex in the narrow hallway. Both their fields were drawn in, and Blast Off missed the promising mood of earlier. There was no room for that here.

They could only guess what was behind the other door, which looked just as heavy, and whose handle was just as difficult to turn.

It wasn’t as quiet, though. The handle squealed, and the door rasped over the floor when Blast Off pulled it open. Vortex had his weapons ready, an arm-mounted laser raised and a fresh gun drawn. His rotors twitched in a way that was different than the earlier quivering - then he vanished inside.

Blast Off took his rifle again, too, but his grip almost slipped when he saw what was behind the door.

Vortex stood in the centre of the room. Around him were eight medical cots, each one with a person bound to it. Two were grey, the others pale. They were all moving.

One of the grey ones tugged at its restraints when Vortex came closer, and Blast Off followed.

At the other end of the room was another door. It looked thick, but not as heavy as the two before, but they ignored it for now. They stared at the writhing grey frame in front of them. There was no visible cable like from the zombies they’d fought before, though Blast Off didn’t trust that one wouldn’t appear.

“Help!” A weak voice made them spin on their heels, weapons high and ready.

One of the pale frames stared at them, their optics dim. They were half raised up, supporting their weight on a freed, torn hand.

“You… can talk?” Vortex asked, but Blast Off saw the grip on his gun tighten.

The stranger groaned and dropped back on the bed.

Blast Off crossed the room, ignoring the twitching and hissing around him, optics locked on the one who had spoken.

Their dim gaze focused on him for a while, but then the focus shifted. The frame tensed, armour clamping tight around them. “Go away,” they breathed, and tugged on the remaining restraints in what could be panic.

Closer now, Blast Off saw the wound on their leg. Light grounder armour had been ripped open, armour that was grey around the edges. It reminded him of his knuckles.

“What happened?” Blast Off asked while Vortex wandered the room.

“Stay away!” they shrieked again, their voice cracking.

“You’re hallucinating.” Blast Off frowned, waiting for them to calm down.

It took a moment. The dim optics offlined completely, and were clearer again after they booted up. They flicked to the rifle in Blast Off’s hand.

Blast Off tensed, and his voice was oddly uncertain as he said, “There’s a cure.”

“There’s not,” the grounder muttered, and added something unintelligible.

“What did you say?“ Stepping closer, Blast Off’s frown deepened.

“What’s with him?” Vortex demanded, and Blast Off shushed him with a gesture.

The grounder’s cooling fans whirled, and for a moment, Blast Off feared he’d lost the rest of his sentience.

“I don’t want a cure… I don’t need… I need…” Their head dropped back on the bunk.

“Uh…” Blast Off heard Vortex utter. “Maybe you should get away from them, their arm’s free…”

Free, and dripping energon.

Blast Off raised his rifle, and nudged the grounder’s leg.

The pale face contorted into a grimace, and Blast Off recognised himself in it. How it had been to fight the hallucinations and the overheating. The throb of his torn knuckles, and the aggression that had built without reason.

The grounder’s damaged hand darted forward, and Blast Off was too slow to pull back in time. But it grabbed the barrel, tugging it forward.

“Shoot me,” they ground out between clenched teeth, and Blast Off stared, watched them pulling it close to their forehead.

“There’s a cure,” Blast Off said again, weakly.

“Blast Off?” In his peripheral vision, the shuttle saw Vortex coming closer.

“Just shoot.” The fingers tightened around the barrel, the edges of their plating already becoming grey. “I don’t want to become like them.”

Blast Off’s jaw clenched, he understood too well. He fired.

The frame slumped, head gone.

It could have been him.

Blast Off was stiff as he turned, and shot the next - one groaning voice silenced. “Let’s clean up here and find Flame,” he ground out to Vortex, moving on to the next pale and hissing frame.

Vortex stayed where he was. He watched Blast Off move from bed to bed, shot after shot.

Chapter Text

The next door they came to led to a hallway, that led into another room - which was empty. Thank Sigma, Blast Off thought, but his impatience grew, and his dread. It mingled with anger that he couldn’t blame on anything reasonable, so he tried to ignore it.

He failed, and it was thick in his energy field.

Vortex didn’t mention it. The ‘copter was tense, ready to shoot.

“Maybe he fled,” Blast Off muttered into the silence. He couldn't say if it was his words or the tone of his voice that made Vortex’s rotors twitch.

“Solarstorm wouldn’t dare cross Onslaught.” Vortex glanced at Blast Off. “He’s here somewhere.”

Blast Off’s grip on his rifle tightened; they moved on.

Another corridor, but this time there was an open door. Blast Off watched Vortex sweep around the door frame, but no shots rang out.

“Monitor room,” Vortex commented when Blast Off entered. As if he wouldn’t notice with all the flickering screens on the wall. Some were offline, only showing static, but a few displayed familiar-looking areas in black and white.

“There he is,” Vortex said, poking a screen with a sticky finger.

Flame had more people in his room, one was strapped to a medical table that looked even less inviting than the berths they’d seen before. Two people stood near the entrance, guards perhaps. How they could stand being in a room with a mind so sick, Blast Off couldn’t fathom. He snarled at the view, his anger focusing and making his engine rumble.

Vortex didn’t comment on it. “He’s close. Behind the next door,” he said instead, and didn’t wait for Blast Off to reply.

The next door turned out to be the one at the very end of the hallway. It was nothing special, just a regular, boring door flanked by a console, the light glowing yellow.

“Looks like they didn’t expect anyone to get this far.” Vortex smirked. He opened the console’s latch and plugged his wrist cable in one of the ports. Blast Off didn’t bother to watch.

He stared at the door, fingers clenching and unclenching around his rifle.

“Be ready,” Vortex muttered. “In three, two, …”

The console light turned green; the room opened up.

“I told you, stupid…” Flame spat, and broke off when he saw who stood there.

“Hi again,” Vortex said and stepped in.

Blast Off couldn’t move. The stench of all kinds of fluids and the groaning frame on the table made him sick.

For an eternity of four astroseconds, time seemed to have stopped, then Flame bellowed, “Forty eight, Fifty six, attack!”

The guards moved. Only they weren’t guards. Their frames were grey and leaking, their visors dull.

Vortex fired at the closest. “Blast Off!” he yelled as one frame crashed to the ground, but was up again in an astrosecond.

The voice made something in Blast Off snap.

His engine revved.

He rammed the muzzle of his rifle through the zombie’s visor and fired. The head exploded, the frame tumbling back from the recoil before it hit the ground.

Blast Off didn’t stop to watch. He let go of his weapon and stormed towards Flame.

* * *

Vortex recoiled from the spray of foul, tainted energon. The guard groaned and sputtered, not leaping back to its feet this time, but swaying, in ruins, its personality component cracked, its laser core on fire. Vortex shot it again, and again as it fell to the floor.

He had time to hear Flame scream a curse before Blast Off’s fist connected with the scientist's face, sending him flying across the room.

“Don’t kill him!” Vortex cried, shooting the twitching mess of the guard one more time before turning his gun on Flame.

Blast Off grunted, and shot the occupant of the closest med-berth. Flame groaned, a tangle of gaudy limbs, and tried to raise his head.

“You!” he snarled, lifting an arm weakly, scrabbling for his comms.

“Yes, me,” Vortex said, a trace of his grin returning. “You didn’t want to listen last time, so I won’t bother with the introductions. Hands behind your back, you’re coming with me.”

Flame jabbed a button, his optics flickering. Vortex stepped over the steaming pile of ex-guard, and lifted him by the arm. There was a dent in the wall behind him, and his chin was cracked.

“You… you don’t have to do this,” Flame said, his legs swinging weakly. “I have money, connections. Please.”

“Shut up.” Vortex swung him around, pinning his arms and clipping a set of stasis cuffs around his wrists. Flame went rigid for a long tense moment, then collapsed in Vortex’s arms. His engine whined, his fans a panicky whirr. The impact had cracked his hip as well, and bent his spoiler. Blast Off was rubbing his knuckles, like he wouldn’t mind another go.

“I mean it,” Vortex said pointedly. “We’re not killing him.” He fired up his comms. “Collection to Extraction, please pick up.”

“Extraction responding,” Coruscate’s voice was muffled. “Is it done?”

“We have the package,” Vortex said. “We’ll meet you on the surface.”

“Received.”

Blast Off sneered at the mess, flexing his fingers. “If he makes a move,” he growled.

“Then you can punch him from here to Iacon,” Vortex said, his grin returning. He threw Flame over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

* * *

Trove was waiting at the top of the ramp, glaring murder as the bunker doors opened. Beside her stood Coruscate, fully armed and smirking, her people at strategic points behind her.

Trove snarled, but said nothing as Vortex traipsed past, dripping gore. Flame’s limp frame dangled over his shoulder. Blast Off followed close, disgust clear in his energy field.

Coruscate nodded and turned, leading the way. Her people fell in behind them. Veterans, all of them, confident and capable. Vortex shunted Flame further up, one hand on his thigh to stop him from slipping. His bright paint was streaked now, his finish showing through in glossy patches.

Outside, Kalis was as clean as they were dirty. A hover-jet descended to fill the road outside the warehouse. Glide wore the colours of a civilian transport company, her wide wings decorated with the logo of an unrelated organisation from Vos.

Blast Off looked up, his face blank. Glide was a mass shifter; Vortex wondered what he made of her.

“Welcome aboard,” she said, lowering her ramp.

“I could have flown,” Blast Off grumbled as he followed Vortex into her hold.

“Not in this state,” Vortex said, keeping a tight hold on Flame. “I think it’s best we get a lift.” He swiped a finger through the slime on Blast Off’s arm. “Pretty.”

Blast Off grumbled, and went over to the far windows. He sat heavily. “Where are we going?”

Glide answered. “Iacon,” she said. “Vortex, secure the load. Coruscate, do we have everyone?”

“We’re ready to go,” Coruscate said, as Vortex fastened Flame to a chair.

Takeoff was smooth, a slow vertical ascent while Blast Off gazed from the window and Vortex watched him from his seat next to Flame.

“He’s pretty banged up,” Coruscate commented, taking the seat opposite.

“He’s very fortunate,” Blast Off commented.

“He’s fine,” Vortex said. “Trove’s spitting lugnuts though.”

“Good old Trove.” Coruscate leaned back, folding her massive arms behind her head. “How’s air traffic looking, Glide?”

“We’re clear,” Glide replied. “Brace yourselves for acceleration in three, two, one...”

Flame whimpered as the g-force hit, and Vortex snickered.

The trip was brief, a handful of breems between Kalis and Iacon at Glide’s swift pace. Blast Off appeared to doze; it must have been slow for him, and boring. Vortex watched the team’s medic do her rounds - seeing first to Flame, then Blast Off, then finally to Vortex himself. Flame didn’t look any better by the time they landed, but at least he’d stopped leaking.

Glide brought them down in the outskirts, on the roof of a tall, wide building in one of the city’s many middling residential areas. Central Iacon was a glow on the horizon, framed by the rising Luna Two. Vortex removed Flame’s cuffs and took him by the arm.

“Nice and steady,” he said. “We’re all friends here.”

Flame choked, his lips shaping words his vocaliser couldn’t process. He shook his head, his ventilation on the verge of panic. He glanced at Coruscate and Blast Off, at Coruscate’s soldiers and the medic who’d patched his hip. Then he closed his mouth, his energy field harsh and tangled.

“You’re getting the hang of it,” Vortex said.

Flame shivered as Vortex led him down Glide’s shallow ramp to the roof. Brawl was waiting with his team, armed and ready, and Flame nearly missed a step. Vortex kept him upright, sharing a grin with Brawl as he passed.

“That was quick,” Brawl said.

“From your perspective, perhaps,” Blast Off commented, his footfalls heavy and his engine rumbling. “Is this going to take long?”

Vortex flicked his rotors, and replied by text. ‘Just stick with me, I’ve got something lined up for after. You’re gonna love it, I promise.’ He looked back in time to see Blast Off roll his optics, but the shuttle fell in behind him and made no verbal response.

Brawl’s people ran security for the safe house, a team of grounders in fashionable bright colours, their integrated weapons neatly concealed. They nodded to Vortex and Coruscate, and to Flame, whose optics were everywhere and whose footfalls were becoming more steady.

By the time they reached the elevator, Flame could support his own weight. Vortex kept a hold of him, enjoying the subtle shaking of his frame, and the way he kept looking in Blast Off’s direction.

One of the Iacon team stepped into the cab, and plugged his wrist cable into the control panel. “The boss is here,” she said.

Flame shook all the way to the second floor, his vents hot against Vortex’s arm. “You want me to carry you?” Vortex asked, and the look of loathing he received was hilarious.

Onslaught’s secretary was waiting for them in the second floor lobby, a wiry old warbuild who’d seen action with Onslaught on countless worlds. Slip grinned around his cygar, standing as the elevator opened. “Dead on time,” he commented. “Dr Flame, I presume? Please come this way.”

Slip led them through a narrow carpeted corridor to the lounge of a suite of rooms with heavy doors and a jamming device in the corner of each ceiling. Onslaught was seated by the tinted window, a glass of energon in his hand, his cannons gleaming in the light from a tank of alien aquatics.

“Why don’t you take a seat,” Slip said, as one of the vibrant minibots stepped forward to adjust a chair.

Flame blinked, looking from Slip to Onslaught, trying to tug away from Vortex. Vortex let him go, giving one of his treads a pat as he flopped gracelessly down.

“Good afternoon,” Onslaught said. “I’m pleased that you could join us.”

Flame’s optics widened. “Join you? Your goons kidnapped me! They tried to kill me!”

“No, they didn’t,” Onslaught said. “However, I understand your distress. I have a med team on standby, and I’m willing to cover the cost of your repairs despite the significant amount of trouble you’ve put me to. Now…” He waited until Flame’s lips had stopped moving. “You should have a drink. Relax. We’re going to have a conversation.”

Vortex leaned on the back of Flame’s chair, sharing a look with Slip, who smirked at him. What he didn’t expect was the muffled slow step behind him, and the ripple of Blast Off’s energy field against his rotors.

Flame accepted a glass from a minibot with extreme suspicion. “What do you want?” he said.

“I want you to work for me,” Onslaught said. “I take it you know who I am?”

Slowly, Flame nodded.

“And you know what my organisation does?”

Flame’s optics narrowed. “I have a government contract,” he said. “I think I see where this is going, but I can’t… I can’t engage in private work at this time. I’m very sorry.”

Onslaught set his drink on the side table and smiled. “You had a contract with Senator Octans,” he said. “Do I need to place greater emphasis on ‘had’?”

Flame swallowed. “What are your terms?”

“Extremely favourable,” Onslaught replied. “I recognise your talent, doctor, and I wouldn’t dream of insulting your intelligence. Work for me, and I’ll guarantee a very generous budget, command of your own team, and a lab with the very best in security.” He passed Flame a datapad. “Furthermore, I own significant holdings in several offworld colonies and uninhabited planets, ideal testing sites.”

Flame took the pad, and Vortex stepped back from the chair, putting a warning hand on Blast Off’s arm. The shuttle’s engine growled low, his energy field drawn tightly in.

After a while Flame set the datapad down. He shuffled to the edge of the chair, leaning forward. “You understand the nature of my research,” he said.

Onslaught nodded. “I think there are several avenues which have potential.”

“I won’t be dictated to,” Flame continued. “I follow my own research agenda. I don’t design to a brief.”

“I welcome your creativity,” Onslaught said. “I don’t seek to stifle you. I seek to provide you with a safe environment within which you may explore the bounds of your potential, to our mutual benefit.”

Flame finally raised the glass to his lips, although Vortex couldn’t tell if the liquid actually touched. He put it down, and heaved himself out of the chair. “May I?” he said, using the seatback as support, turning to bring his bright orange gaze onto Blast Off. “You were infected,” he said. “Strain twelve, virulent, slow burn. I saw you start to change.”

Blast Off tensed, and Vortex gripped his arm, his palm slipping on the fluids that hadn’t yet dried.

Flame looked to Onslaught. “I need to examine him,” he said. “He shall be my first subject. He-”

Blast Off slid out of Vortex’s grip, his fist powering into Flame’s face before anyone could react. Slip choked a laugh, Vortex went to grab the shuttle, and Flame’s scream caught in his throat, his body flung clear across the room to crash into the opposite wall.

“That’s enough,” Vortex hissed, seizing the shuttle by the elbow.

“Indeed,” Onslaught said, but he hadn’t risen, and his cannons remained inert. Flame groaned, twitching, and Brawl went over to pick him up. Onslaught took a long sip of his energon. “Request denied,” he said to Flame. “While I recognise your genius, doctor, I am not blinded to your recklessness. There will be no repeat of the events of Luna Two.” He smiled. “Come, let’s discuss the finer points of your contract while we wait for the medic.”

Flame turned his head, wincing. “That’s the second time he’s done that! Get him the frag away from me!”

“Vortex?” Onslaught said.

Vortex nodded, and nudged Blast Off, who took a step backwards, then turned and marched towards the door. Coruscate gave them both a sympathetic look as they headed out.

Chapter Text

Blast Off stormed along the carpeted corridor. The grounders shot him a look, but no one stopped him on his way out.

Which might have been because Vortex was on his tail.

“Wait, for frag’s sake!”

Blast Off didn’t slow. Out! He needed to get out of there, away from this mad scientist and his former boss. He felt betrayed, not just by Onslaught, but by Vortex too.

That was supposed to be his revenge? Let Flame continue with his disgusting research? Vortex had seen what had been in the bunker, Vortex had seen what had happened to Blast Off, and he just went along with it?

Blast Off’s engine revved. The grounder by the heavy door hurried aside as Blast Off neared.

He pushed the door open, and no one stopped him. He was greeted by the idyllic view of Iacon’s outskirts, a crass contrast to what had happened inside the building.

“Will you wait just an astrosec!” Vortex called.

Blast Off huffed, and kept walking, but he did slow a little to let the ‘copter catch up.

“What do you want?” he growled, surprised by his own tone. He couldn’t remember ever having been so angry.

“What do I want?” Vortex said when he came up beside Blast Off, his vents working fast from the short run, his visor bright. “That’s not the point,” he continued. “Do you have any idea why you were able to leave that building?”

Blast Off glared.

“Anyone else would have had Brawl’s and Coruscate’s weapon on their heads and my blade at their throat if they’d endangered an asset like that.”

A deep rumble emerged from Blast Off’s engine.”You knew this. You knew Onslaught wouldn’t stop his madness,” Blast Off growled. “You knew, and still you dragged me along! Be glad I only punched him.” His vents exhaled air in a hiss. He was there for revenge, even though Blast Off didn’t know how that would even look. He was there to get some justice for HEX when it was impossible to bring Octans to account. The mech was a senator; whatever Sigma Orionis might be able to do to his career, it would never be enough. “Why did you bring me along if you knew I couldn’t make him pay?” Blast Off rumbled in anger, but didn’t wait for a reply.

He turned down a darker alleyway between two huge apartment buildings. It wasn’t as clean as the main street, but Blast Off was still filthier, and he didn’t need anyone to see him like that. His priority should be finding a public washracks, not listening to Vortex.

Still, he let the other continue, slowing enough for Vortex to walk comfortably.

“Onslaught let you hit him,” Vortex explained, a huge grin on his face. “And frag, I don’t think he’d anticipated you throwing him across the room into a wall.” He didn’t react to Blast Off’s accusation. “He also said there’d be no repeat of Luna Two. He said that for you.”

Blast Off stopped and turned under one of the pale lights, causing Vortex to almost run into him. Their energy fields touched, Blast Off’s rich with anger, Vortex’s thick with joy, anticipation. Blast Off ignored the hot crackly need.

“Onslaught let me?” Blast Off spat, echoing Vortex’s words in mocking anger. “You should have just tried to attack me.” He snarled a warning, visor glaring and bright. They had no idea what he was capable of. Had he but transformed, he would have brought the whole building down with everyone inside it, and he wouldn’t have got so much as a scratch on his paint.

“He values you.” Vortex stepped even closer. “More than Flame. That’s why he wants you to come back, and that’s why he let you take out your frustration like that. He wanted you to teach Flame a lesson”

“Come back?” Blast Off’s voice was a mere rumble, his anger bordering on infuriation – a disgusting reminder of how he’d felt while infected. “After all that?” He turned to face the dark grey wall, venting air deeply in a fruitless attempt to calm down.

“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow…” Vortex stepped back into his field of vision, a tip of a rotor scraping over the concrete wall behind him. “Onslaught values you. And your potential. Flame is just another speculative investment.”

“He let him live!” Blast Off spat. “Do you have any idea…” He growled and trailed off. Venting deeply, he ran a hand over his face, the other clenching to a fist. He didn’t want to go through everything all over again.

“Flame’s research can pay off. It can be profitable in the long run, something you could profit from as well if-“

“Don’t defend him!” Blast Off snarled, glaring at Vortex.

If you stay and help Onslaught make the right decisions concerning Flame. Onslaught has a plan, he always has and-“

Don’t defend him!” Blast Off’s fist hit the wall next to Vortex’s head. The concrete split, a crack spreading down from the impact to the ground. A heap of large containers nearby rattled.

“Frag…” Vortex breathed. His red visor was gleaming, his energy field all over the place with so many sensations it was hard to discern them. His cooling fans switched on. “You asked what I want,” Vortex rasped. One of his hands came up, clinging to Blast Off’s lower arm around the heat shield. “I want you to stay.” Static entered Vortex’s voice. “Because frag… I want you. Now.”

Blast Off revved his engine again. It was running hot from anger, his field extending wildly.

Black shuttle fingers closed around Vortex’s throat. He craned his neck, a whine emerging from his vocaliser, needy and hopeful. Blast Off forced Vortex harder against the wall, where shivering rotors clattered against concrete.

The kiss was harsh. Vortex’s whine turned into a moan, and he slung his hands around Blast Off’s neck, clutching tightly. Blast Off didn’t mind. His hand moved from the throat to the grey waist; so small in his hands, it would be easy just to squeeze. And he did. It earned him another needy moan, and Vortex’s energy field pressed hard against his, their edges rasping and crackling, creating tiny shots of static lightning. He was still angry, but Vortex’s need was infectious, and he had to do something.

He lifted Vortex, legs slung around his waist as Vortex melted against him. His new frame was only a little heavier than before, still light in Blast Off’s grip, and he needed only one arm to support the rotary leaving Blast Off the chance to explore. He ran a hand over Vortex’s new hip panels, down to his aft and back up, but his fingers always found their way back to the other’s waist, to the new hinged flanges that were so easy to play with.

His engine still rumbled loudly, shaking their frames, the vibrations thrumming through their every part, making Vortex create more of those needy sounds.

Their energy fields shifted and changed, adapting until they became one. The rush of charge made them both moan. Vortex broke the kiss, head clanging back against the wall.

A click echoed loud in the alleyway despite the noise of their cooling fans.

Blast Off looked down at Vortex’s open interface panel, then back up to his face. And his desperate and hopeful grin.

Vortex went to speak, but Blast Off didn’t let him. He pressed his lips to the ‘copter’s again, hard and demanding, mirroring the strength of the grip with which he took Vortex’s connector out of its housing. Vortex gasped at the touch, his part of their enmeshed energy field becoming hotter, but Blast Off didn’t give him the chance to break the kiss again.

Two more clicks followed – Blast Off’s own panel, and the plug sliding home.

Vortex’s need hit like a waft of hot air on a cool frame, like a crash into boiling liquid. It was dizzying, his own arousal increasing tenfold.

Vortex arched against Blast Off, their fronts scraping together, the filth from dead mecha smearing on the grey frame, turning it pink and white and dark blue.

Vortex wanted Blast Off to complete the connection, it was palpable in every inch of his frame, his energy field and stream. Blast Off complied.

Their streams mingled, and it was a clash of charge: need and arousal, and anger, surging back and forth. It was hot and on every circuit, every wire, and it was so much, Blast Off punched the wall again, missing a rotor by an inch. The impact shook Vortex, his optics widening behind his visor as he uttered a greedy whine. “More,” he gasped, letting go of Blast Off’s neck, hands alternately roving, claws scratching over Blast Off’s plating or gripping tight.

Blast Off groaned against Vortex’s lips and pressed even closer. The rotor hub squealed, an unhealthy sound drowned out by their engines, their ventilation, their vocalisers.

Everything was tingling and burning. Charge crawled, then rushed over plating and lines, straining sensor nodes in the best possible way. Their lip plates were moving, shivering against another or biting tight. Glossae fought, stroked and fought again until Vortex finally gave in.

A growl build in Blast Off’s vocaliser, possessive and angry, it combined with the heavy noise from his engine, and the hard vibrations from his frame. It made Vortex’s plating rattle, and made Blast Off push even more, pulsing stronger through the interface. Vortex screamed.

The kiss broke again, and Blast Off didn’t care.

The red visor in front of him flickered. Vortex’s mouth hung open when he howled, he bit his lip when he whined, and his lip plates trembled when he gasped a moan.

Blast Off didn’t bother silencing him. He didn’t bother silencing himself, or fighting the charge rising and the increasing restlessness. His hands clenched, one around Vortex’s thigh, the other digging into the concrete wall.

Vortex was so easy to touch, so eager to be touched, but Blast Off couldn’t muster the focus.

The pitch of his engine rose, mingling with all their other noises that echoed through the small alley, and that, too, didn’t matter.

Concrete crumbled under Blast Off’s fingers as the charge peaked. Overload was a wash of pleasure, intense on sensors that hadn’t been strained like that for a while. It was almost painful, almost like the return from a long trip in space, and Blast Off bathed in it - in the dizziness and blissful agony as pleasure nullified his anger.

Vortex overloaded with another scream until his vocaliser gave in, the charge flooding through Blast Off. A last rush of sensations drowned out the sting of Vortex’s fingers gripping through transformation seams on sore circuits.

They rode it out together, Blast Off’s face buried in Vortex’s neck, the two of them standing motionless, even after the pleasure had ebbed and the tingling set in.

Vortex stroked slow circles on Blast Off’s back, the touch light on the circuitry under his heat shield.

“Frag,” Vortex muttered hoarsely over the noise of their cooling fans, “I needed that…” His lips were moving against the side of Blast Off’s helm, nibbling on the metal or placing small kisses there with his glossa darting out. “Wanted that since Luna Two.”

Blast Off let it happen for now, and huffed. “You weren’t subtle about it.” His engine gave a sated rumble. “You’re loud…” His voice was just as staticky as Vortex’s.

“Uh-huh.” Blast Off felt Vortex grin. “Only because you made me.” He let his energy field flare, increasing the charge of their combined field around them. “Scrap, you’re amazing.”

At that, Blast Off huffed, partly amused. “Right… How many people do you say that to?”

“Hey!” Vortex said in what had to be fake shock, “I’m not that bad. I only told it to a handful of people.”

Blast Off detached himself from Vortex’s throat to give him a dubious look.

“And I meant it to even fewer…” the ‘copter added with a grin. “Are you feeling better?”

The question took Blast Off off-guard. His optics flickered and he shrugged, uttering a non-committal noise that could have meant anything. He was tired, and refused to think about Flame any more.

“Are you still angry with me?”

At that, Blast Off frowned. There was a nudge through the interface, insecurity, hope, and an apology that might or might not have been honest.

“I don’t know,” Blast Off said. Unlike Vortex he didn’t try to fake an apology, and he didn’t pretend.

Vortex’s curious expression gained a hungry edge that made Blast Off shiver. “I booked us a hotel…”

Blast Off tilted his head to a side, sending the questioning impulse through the interface.

“I told you I had something lined up,” Vortex replied, drawing idle glyphs on Blast Off’s upper arm. “You’re gonna like it.”

“Hotel?” Blast Off huffed. They were filthy and hot. Some of the energon on their plating was scorched from when the metal had become too warm. “I doubt the way we look they’d let us in the most rundown hotel anywhere…”

“Well, if you hadn’t stormed out of the safe house, we could have got clean there.” Vortex grinned.

Blast Off leaned in to him, their foreheads almost touching. “If I hadn’t stormed out, you wouldn’t have been between me and the wall,” he growled, sending a reminder through the connection of how much Vortex had enjoyed it.

Vortex moaned; his optics flickered. It took him a moment to collect himself again, giving Blast Off a surge of satisfaction.

“Public washracks then?” Vortex eventually asked.

Blast Off nodded and opened up a map of Iacon from the datanet.

Chapter Text

The nearest public shower was thankfully empty. It gave Blast Off and Vortex time to attack the filth that seemed to cover every last inch of them.

They helped each other.

Blast Off wiped the grime from Vortex’s rotor blades, taking his time, enjoying the thin quivering metal under his fingers, giving sensor clusters some extra attention. He even allowed Vortex to clean his back and the winglets on his upper arms, and he knew the ‘copter wasn’t hurrying either.

By the time they were done, they didn’t need the blow dryer. Their frames were warm enough again, their ventilation increased.

Blast Off was playing with the hinge of one of the flanges on Vortex’s hip when the door opened.

“Why do I even still listen to you,” someone said angrily as they stepped in, looking over their shoulder at someone behind them. Their frame didn’t give away their alt-mode. When they saw Blast Off and Vortex, they glared at them.

“I hope the hotel isn’t too far,” Blast Off muttered, his gaze meeting Vortex’s gleaming visor.

The ‘copter merely shook his head.

* * *

Their hotel was in central Iacon, their room a penthouse suite overlooking the spires of the Central Archive. Vortex had charged it to his expenses, and Onslaught might or might not accept that. It didn’t matter. What mattered was Blast Off’s quiet huff as they walked into the lobby, the way his gaze lifted to the high ceiling with its mosaic of constellations. His energy field resonated with a quiet satisfaction, and he waited patiently while Vortex checked them in.

“This isn’t terrible,” Blast Off commented as they took the elevator to the top floor. “Is this the surprise you mentioned?”

Vortex grinned. “Nope. This is just a nice place to wait.”

“Wait?”

“We’ve got a while before I go collect your present.” Vortex turned his rotors to nudge the winglet on Blast Off’s arm. “I’m sure we can think of something to fill the time.”

“Do you ever think of anything else?” Blast Off said, his fingertips brushing against Vortex’s rotor hub.

They were considerably closer when the elevator stopped. The doors opened on an expensive-looking grounder who made a show of ignoring them.

Sadly, Blast Off saw fit to set Vortex on his own two feet for the journey to their room. The top floor of the hotel was vast and light, translucent crystal panels in the ceiling giving the impression of daylight filtering through glass. The hotel’s automated tracking pinged Vortex with a set of directions, the deep plush carpet tickling his landing gear.

“I got the hotel to send some stuff up,” Vortex said. “I think this is ours.” He swiped his keycard, and the ornate double doors rolled back.

The shuttle made a sound somewhere between surprised and impressed. The suite had its own lobby, a comfortable waiting room opening onto a large, airy living space. Staff had populated a long low table with a selection of drinks and snacks, and Vortex grinned as Blast Off gravitated towards the small cluster of cut-crystal cubes gleaming with shuttle-grade energon.

“Altihexian,” he commented, lifting one. “And you’re sure this isn’t my present?”

Vortex laughed, and threw himself onto one of the enormous soft sofas. The outer door shut by itself, and he pinged the room’s computer to throw up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. “I’m not telling you what I’ve got you. You’ll have to wait and see.”

“You know I don’t like surprises,” Blast Off said, peeling the lid from the cube and settling at the other end of the sofa. Vortex pushed off the springy cushion and sprawled into his lap.

“You like this,” he pointed out.

Blast Off grabbed him by the rotor hub, moving him up onto his chest. “I like good high grade and appropriate hotel rooms, what a shock.”

“And you’ll like what else I’ve got for you,” Vortex said. He folded his arms over Blast Off’s chest. “I like it when you pick me up.”

“I know.”

“I like this too,” Vortex said, making his energy field ripple. “I don’t want you to leave Kaon.”

Blast Off tilted his head, his free hand toying with Vortex’s hip, fingertips catching the edges of his interface panel. “Because what you want is so important.”

“You’re an aft,” Vortex said, flaring his EM field.

The catch came loose; Blast Off wound his fingers in the cables. “And what does that make you?”

“Amazing,” Vortex said. “Hot, brilliant, inventive.”

“Easy?” Blast Off suggested with a smirk.

“You like easy,” Vortex said, his voice catching as Blast Off connected them. He sighed as the interface came to life. “Don’t tell me you’re happy to leave all this behind.”

Blast Off sniffed, the lazy pulse of his presence in the interface morphing, taking on a harsher edge. Vortex squirmed, and Blast Off wrapped a hand around his rotor hub to still him. “You know why I resigned,” he said. “You won’t make me beg to get my job back. Especially not after… that.”

“I’m not asking you to,” Vortex said, stroking the thin segmented armour of the shuttle’s neck. “Tighter,” he said, shivering and sending the effect back through the interface. “Frag, that feels good.”

“Am I meant to guess what you do want?” Blast Off said, and Vortex traced the edge of his helm, the smooth curve of his lips.

“This,” he said softly, opening access to his sensor net. Blast Off seized his opportunity, taking control with such forceful ease it made Vortex quiver. He sighed as Blast Off determined the input, making him tingle and heat, making his head spin.

“You just want me for my cables,” Blast Off said, but his amusement was clear, and there was something else too, gratification perhaps, satisfaction.

“Not just your cables,” Vortex said, fingers wandering across the shuttle’s broad shoulder. He stroked the edge of the winglet on his upper arm, pulsing his energy field to catch the hidden sensors. “Stay in Kaon. There are other places you can work.”

“Those other places, I’ll be in space a lot.”

“Then you won’t need to move,” Vortex said. “Make Kaon your base, and each time you come home…” He cycled the charge, pulsing in time with his energy field.

Blast Off’s engine rumbled, the vibrations deep and satisfying. “You’ll be waiting?” he asked. His optics narrowed, and the energy stream intensified. Fragments of data passed through the connection, thoughts let loose so they didn’t need to be spoken.

“Of course I won’t be waiting,” Vortex responded. He wriggled up, briefly pressing his mouth to the shuttle’s, and whispered, “I won’t pine for you, I won’t fall in love with you. I don’t want exclusivity.” He shivered at the increase in charge, at the tightening of Blast Off’s hands around his rotor hub, his cables. “But I want you. Frequently. Repeatedly.”

Blast Off fixed his gaze, his lips holding the slightest of smiles. “How can I be sure you won’t just get bored?”

Vortex laughed, and filled the feed with the depth of his arousal, the thrill and the heat inspired by the pressure of Blast Off’s hands, the size and power of his frame. “I know what I like,” he said, “and what I want. I know you can give it to me.”

“So I keep my apartment in Kaon,” Blast Off said, his voice that smooth, cultured purr that made Vortex melt a little inside. “And when I’m on Cybertron, we interface?”

Vortex grinned. “You keep your apartment, and when you’re in town we frag like there’s no tomorrow.”

“And that’s it?” Blast Off thumbed the sensor-rich edge of a rotor blade. “There are no catches, no other stipulations.”

Vortex sighed and stretched, and reached both arms behind Blast Off’s head. He pressed close, the warmth of the shuttle’s lips a tingle against his own. “You don’t have to live in my world,” he said, stealing another brief kiss. “No more zombies, no more organised crime screwing with your life. If anyone tries to drag you back into it, I’ll kill them.”

“That… sounds a little self-defeating,” Blast Off said, but the interface rang with satisfaction.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Vortex said, squirming with the charge. “I won’t do it in front of you.” He stroked the back of Blast Off’s neck. “Unless you want me to.”

“And if you get tired of this... of Kaon… Will you leave?”

“How the frag could I get tired of this?” Vortex waited for a response, but Blast Off just looked at him. Vortex met his gaze, his own optics bright. “I told you, I know what I want,” he said. “And I can give you what you want, you just have to let me.”

Blast Off’s optics flared, and Vortex clung tight, responding to the split second of warning through the interface. The shuttle flipped them over, pressing Vortex into the rich softness of the sofa. His engine roared, the interface blazed, and Vortex moaned as Blast Off covered him, so solid and huge and heavy.

“Is this a yes?” Vortex asked, arching as Blast Off pinned his hands above his head. “Tell me it’s a yes.”

Blast Off glared down at him, his energy field flaring wildly, the interface spinning them both towards overload. “It’s a maybe,” he said.

Vortex grinned; that was good enough for now.

* * *

When the hour arrived, Vortex was lazing on his back across Blast Off’s lap, licking the remnants of a scandalously expensive treat from the shuttle’s fingers. He stretched and rolled onto his front, fanning his rotors.

Blast Off watched him. “I had better like this present.”

“You will,” Vortex said, trailing the mess of cables through his hands before pulling the plugs one by one. Before the last plug slipped out, he sent a tiny, inconspicuous file. “Directions,” he said. “Meet me there in one joor.”

Blast Off pinched the end of a rotor as it passed by his face. “You’re not bringing my gift here?”

“We’ll come back after,” Vortex said. “They’ve got an oil bath spa thing on the roof, it’s amazing. We’ve got it booked all night if we want it.”

“You think of everything don’t you?”

Vortex stretched, easing the kinks from his cables and turning his hips for Blast Off to see them to their best advantage. “I always do.”

He left the shuttle lounging, his cables spilled on the plush of the sofa, a datapad already in his hand. It was a scene worth saving to his long term storage, along with the rest of their evening so far. Vortex took the short flight of stairs to the roof and transformed, launching himself into the clear, bright Iacon sky.

The senate building was a no fly zone, a patch of calm in the heart of a storm of traffic. Vortex flew low, sweeping down from the hotel roof and the tetra-jet lanes into the labyrinth of airspace between the city’s high rise blocks. It was a route for the agile, mostly heliformers and hovercars, and the occasional reckless grounder with a jetpack. Billboards clung to the sides of buildings, their adverts glaring, the soundtracks set to ping each passing flier for permission to be heard.

Vortex headed out, weaving through the maze. The buildings clustered closer, squat piles encrusted with neon, splattered with graffiti. He passed the safe house, just another faceless block, rusting gently at the corners like everything else.

He opened a line to Valence. //Are we ready?//

Valence coughed, a nervous tick. //He’s on his way, ETA three hundred astroseconds. You’d better be there.//

//He’s alone?//

//Like we agreed,// Valence said. //I don’t go back on my word.//

//Then I won’t need to go back on mine,// Vortex said.

//Don’t hang up! Remember what we said. He has to vanish. Completely, utterly. He can’t come back, not a single part of him.//

//Relax,// Vortex told him, and cut the comm.

The Astrolabe had been a hotel, once. Back when Vortex was new. The skies had writhed with battalions of rotaries fresh from the Kaon factories, allowed one brief taste of civilian life before they were shipped off to war on alien worlds. The Astrolabe had seemed so thrilling, so full of luxury. The old sign still rose above the flat roof, but the neon tubes were cracked, the words grey.

Vortex landed on the helipad, a creaking concrete ledge clinging to the side of the building. He typed a code Valence had given him into a dirty keypad, and a door shuddered open. The building was multiple occupancy now, a block of low rent apartments and cheap drinking joints. He passed shuttered windows, still painted with an advert for a long-closed repair shop. The flavoured-coolant bar next door had been blocked off, a jumble of glyphs spray painted on the tatty boards warning passing Cybertronians that organic immigrants were living there.

The whole block had an organic tang to it, slimy and ripe with nostalgia. Vortex closed his vents, and followed the route Valence had given him. A stiff breeze swept through the halls, the central light well opening up before him. Once there had been a lobby here, a pleasant place to sit and view the daylight beaming down into the vast open space at the centre of the hotel. But Cybertron’s star was dead, the hotel roofed over. The windows onto the light well had been smashed, the lobby empty of furniture.

Vortex tried the door to the old maintenance store. It gave with a creak, the frame rusted, the lock dangling by a single screw. A light flickered on, automatic. The room was empty save for a broken set of shelves and one large and battered old crate. Vortex opened it up, using the combination he’d specified when he’d instructed Valence to contact the haulage firm who had a shop in the old hotel entrance. Inside, the crate was clean, the lock firm and new. The dents were superficial, the hinges solid.

Smiling to himself, Vortex went out again into the lobby. Alien voices drifted up from the light well; a new breeze brought a strain of old-fashioned music. Lights danced several storeys below, and the building gave a deep and aching groan as the ancient elevator came into service.

Vortex waited by the broken glass, his arms gently humming as his lasers powered up.

The elevator rumbled to a stop, the doors opening slowly. The occupant huffed, ice blue optics glaring from the gloom. After a few seconds, he shoved the doors and strode out, his wings unfurling, and his paintwork glimmering like oil on water.

Vortex scanned him, a quick comparison of all major points of reference to the picture of Senator Octans in his databanks. The paintjob was different, the wings augmented. But his frame was the same, his face, the faint hint of his energy signature thrumming through his chest.

“You’re G’tak?” Octans demanded, his lips pursed tight as he looked around. His voice was the same too, this was definitely him. “I was expecting an organic.”

“Do you want the data or not?” Vortex said.

Octans’ optics narrowed. “This better be good,” he snarled. “I don’t appreciate time wasters.”

Vortex smiled, extending his hand, his wrist cable dangling. “You won’t be disappointed.”

The senator moved awkwardly, cautiously. Vortex watched him with a copy of that bored expression he was so used to seeing on Blast Off. Octans was clearly in disguise, and he wasn’t used to it. Vortex could see the little clips attaching the extensions to the senator’s shoulders and arms. His real wings would be in there somewhere, his real weapons perhaps.

Octans stopped short of grabbing his hand. “You couldn’t just put it on a data slug?”

“Slugs get lost,” Vortex said. “You do want to know who’s been costing you money?”

“Don’t get smart,” Octans warned. He curled his lip, and uncovered his own data port. “Make it quick.”

Vortex shrugged and plugged in. “You’ll have to give me access,” he said, affecting just a hint of impatience. “I can’t give you the files if you don’t.”

Octans glared, then rolled his optics and granted access for data transfer. It was all Vortex needed. Octans froze as a hit of old, old military code rolled past his firewalls. An interrogator’s tool, a secret Vortex never should have taken to his civilian life. Octans shivered, gears grinding and motors whirring.

“Now now,” Vortex said, giving the senator’s throat a gentle squeeze. “Don’t fight it. I hear it’s very painful if you fight it.”

It was a quick job to disable Octans’ comms, to cut the linkages in his arms and legs. Vortex held him upright, jumbled and limp. Only Octans’ eyes moved, his optics the expensive kind with a separate organic-style mobile iris. Vortex tapped one with a claw; they were rather attractive in an alien kind of way.

“That’s better,” he said, lifting the dripping frame and carrying it into the maintenance room. Vortex laid him in the crate and disengaged the cable. Immediately Octans’ mouth opened, a hiss of air rushing through his vents. Vortex smiled down at him. “I’ll turn your voice back on later, I promise. Now sit tight.”

Octans’ mouth was still working as Vortex closed the lid.

* * *

Blast Off looked at Iacon over the edge of his datapad. He didn’t really feel like reading. This was one of the very rare times that it bored him.

With a heavy sigh, he slid down further on the plush sofa and put a foot up on the table in front of it.

For the third time, he checked the coordinates Vortex had given him. He still couldn’t find anything of note nearby. A frown built on his face.

He didn’t like surprises.

It had been less annoying before, when they’d been busy, when Blast Off had been distracted from thinking about it. Now, it started to grate. But Blast Off would rather think about that than about the offer Vortex had made.

Rotaries… Blast Off thought, and rubbed his optics. Why were rotaries all so similar?

Blast Off would be lying if he said he didn’t find the offer tempting. Kaon wasn’t pretty, compared to the view Blast Off was even now enjoying from the hotel’s panoramic window. Kaon was a speck of muck on the surface of Cybertron. And Blast Off wasn’t a stranger to agreeing to stay on Cybertron for the sake of a planet-bound rotary.

He slumped even further, his mind drifting to the past.

The tingle of interface was long gone, making room for the nostalgia that seemed to crawl up on him. Just like the melancholy.

It settled, and there was still so much time until Blast Off had to head off to meet Vortex. The distraction would be welcome.

A comm-ping startled him. He snapped to attention by reflex, and answered as soon as he recognised the frequency.

//Sigma,// he said.

//Blast Off,// the admiral responded, sounding just as tired as the last time they’d spoken. //How are you?//

Blast Off frowned. //I’m better. But you don’t sound very well.//

//Just a few busy orns with no prospect of them becoming calmer.// Her exhaustion was clear, the lack of sleep, a surplus of frustration. There was nothing in the world that would make him want to do Sigma Orionis’ job. //But I’m calling to tell you some good news for a change,// she continued. //We’re almost done with the hulls around the labs, and they’re scheduled for deployment in three cycles.//

Blast Off tensed, but soon relaxed. That were indeed good news. //Does anyone else know?//

//No. Only a few escort shuttles from my most trusted fleets. I didn’t tell anyone on the senate or other boards about it. I don’t know how the intruders got their information. I don’t want anyone trying a last minute attempt to breach them.//

Blast Off nodded. //Makes sense.//

//I thought you deserved to know,// she said. //And I thought you might also be interested to know that I managed to get Light Screen’s leave approved,// Sigma added, and Blast Off could almost see her tired smile. //He’ll be on Cybertron within the next three orns.//

Blast Off put his datapad down. His second batch mate, Light Screen, they hadn’t seen each other for several vorns. //Thank you,// he said, and meant it. It had been ages since the last time all three had been together. The anticipation of seeing both Light Screen and Lunar Pulse made it feel like old times back on HEX. The thought made Blast Off’s optics dim.

//I’m sorry.// The admiral broke the silence. //I never meant for any of this to happen. Or to involve you to the degree that I did.//

//You couldn’t have known,// Blast Off said, but it was just a platitude, slipping back into the old pattern of pretending. It was something he hadn’t done for a while, something he didn’t need to do around Vortex. But thanks to Sigma Orionis he’d see his batch mates again, and that was something worth pretending for.

//I shouldn’t have exploited you and Onslaught like that.// Sigma sighed though the comm, a sound that was laden with guilt. She must feel awful if even Blast Off realised it. //And speaking of Onslaught and you… Your job, or ex job.... Did you think about my offer?//

Leaning back against the couch again, Blast Off stared at the Iacon cityscape. He liked the view, but the city itself could go to the smelter. //Where would I be stationed?//

//Wherever you want. Altihex, one of the moons. Any other colony or planet that happens to be in the area of my responsibility. You could stay in space for the rest of your life, if you want?// The last part was said teasingly.

Blast Off gave it some thought, venting deeply before he asked, //Kaon?//

//Well, Kaon isn’t really known for anything related to spaceflight, is it? And I thought you wanted to leave?//

//I still have my three vorns lease there…//

Sigma Orionis laughed. Blast Off kept silent.

//The offer still stands,// the admiral said, most of the amusement gone from her voice. //I mean it. And not just because I owe you.//

//I need to think about it.// Blast Off checked his chronometer. //Properly.// His alarm would pop up in under a klik, when he needed to leave to meet Vortex. //It’s all too much right now. I...// Frowning, he trailed off and started anew. //It’s not the time to make hasty decisions.//

//I understand. I hope you can settle now knowing the labs will soon be destroyed. We’ll talk another time.//

//We will.//

They said a few brief words of farewell, Blast Off already getting up and making for the door. He cut the comm as he left, and headed off to collect his surprise.

* * *

Vortex flew low, taking the cargo lane. It wasn't far from the Astrolabe to the factory, but it was best not to draw any attention. The crate hung from his chassis, a dead weight swinging by a strong new chain.

It would be morning before Valence would announce that Octans was missing, a day or so before it hit the news. Vortex rounded a corner, steady and slow as the crate came around in a wide arc. He wasn't the only rotary hauling something bulky through the cargo lane, and they were far from the only traffic. But he was the only one to turn off at the Old Socket Interchange, into the quietest sector of Iacon's manufacturing zone. It wouldn’t do to draw attention.

He ducked between a pair of warehouses, following a dusty cracked road along which a single truck trundled. It was a flat-bed, loaded with boxes. Iacon was small scale, building data pads and light fittings, cutting the crystal on classy energon cubes, and knitting the polymer fibres for waterproofs and blankets and bed coverings.

Vortex veered right, around the back of one building, above the forecourt of another. This one was empty, closed up, Onslaught's latest purchase in the expansion of OnsCorp's consumer goods arm. Vortex rose carefully, keeping a close eye on the crate in case it started to spin. He came over the roof, hovering, and waited for the building's computer to notice him. After a second or two it pinged him, and he sent a code in response. A section of the roof slid back, and Vortex descended.

Blast Off was waiting. Vortex lowered himself until the crate connected with the floor. The roof closed over him, and he released the chain from the clip on his chassis, his rotors drawing a storm of dust.

With the crate safely on the floor and the chain detached, Vortex transformed mid air, and landed at the shuttle's feet.

"Did you miss me?" he said, grinning.

Blast Off pursed his lips. "What's in the box?"

"You'll see. Just give me a sec." Vortex made the computer raise the lights, the metal dust glittering as it settled. He checked the building's security log. All internal cameras were switched off, all externals were working; they were alone. Smiling, he flipped the cover from a compartment on his arm and took out a key. "Do you want to open your present?"

Optics narrowed, Blast Off crossed his arms. "You do it for me," he said.

Vortex flicked his rotors and knelt by the crate. The lock clicked, and he gently raised the lid.

Blast Off stared.

Senator Octans was a mess. He'd been clean enough when Vortex had put him in the crate, but at least one of his wounds had seeped, and the motion of flight had not been kind. He stared frantically up, his mouth working fast, and his wings clacking as he struggled to move.

Blast Off blinked. "Is... That's..."

"Your revenge," Vortex said. "May I introduce you to our dear Senator Octans. He's changed his paintjob since he was last on the news, and he's wearing some kibble that isn't his, but this is him."

"You..." Blast Off stepped forward, his arms still crossed. "How did you..."

Vortex stood, leaning into the shuttle's energy field. "It took a little organising," he said. "But I thought you were worth the effort. Do you like your surprise?"

Blast Off continued to stare. His vents were quiet, even his engine was still.

"I figured you might like some payback.” Vortex flickered his energy field. "Real payback. For HEX, for yourself."

"You abducted him," Blast Off said flatly, but his energy field responded, a sharp flare that made Vortex shiver. "He's injured."

"I only cut his cables. I can patch him up, make him something worth crushing."

"I don't want to fight him."

"Do you want me to fight him?" Vortex crouched, pulling Octans up by the throat. "I'll do whatever you want. This is your revenge, you should enjoy it."

Blast Off leaned closer, glaring at Octans with such focused loathing that Vortex thought for a moment he’d just rip the glitch’s head right off. But he held back. “Can he talk?”

“I can turn his voice back on,” Vortex offered.

The shuttle was still for a moment, then he shook his head. “Leave him like that, he doesn’t deserve to speak.”

Octans’ wings fluttered, his optics rolling. He snapped at Vortex, his teeth missing by a mile.

“Whatever we do,” Vortex said, “it needs to be tonight. That doesn’t mean you have to make it quick. I just need to get rid of his body before anyone knows he’s missing. We can keep his mind, put his personality component in a drone maybe. I could get him reformatted for you.”

“I don’t want a slave.”

“There’s always the smelting pits,” Vortex said. “Whatever you want.”

“Whatever I want,” Blast Off said. He sighed through his vents, his optics narrow. “I want HEX to have never been destroyed. I want to have never been infected with that foul zombie plague.” He leaned in, looking Octans directly in the eye. Then he stood, turning his back on the senator. He glanced over his shoulder at Vortex. “Pack him up. I’m going to show him what he wanted.”

Chapter Text

Space traffic was still a mess when Blast Off left orbit. No one asked questions about their leaving, even though he had to call in a favour to keep it that way.

Vortex sat next to the crate. He hadn’t asked to enter the flight deck this time. Instead, he looked alternatively at one of Blast Off’s cameras, outside or at Octans. Why Vortex had opened the lid, Blast Off didn’t know, but it was possibly to stop the senator from leaking.

“Where are we heading?” Vortex asked for the fourth time, and Blast Off still had no intention of clarifying.

“You’ll see.”

Octans’ optics were wide. The blue dimmed and brightened, and his wings started twitching once he spotted the space junk floating by Blast Off’s window. Space junk that used to be HEX. The senator might have turned in panic to watch it if it weren’t for the stasis cuffs.

Blast Off had asked Vortex to repair Octans enough so that he could move. Being immobile for what Blast Off had planned would be even more torturous, but he wanted to see Octans suffer.

Blast Off headed to the location Sigma had mentioned, but even if he hadn’t known the coordinates, the construction ships and the huge light grey hull around a black heap of scrap was hard to overlook.

There were shuttles nearby, some obviously military and armed heavily, others hiding as civilian transport, and Blast Off knew they could vaporise him if they wanted.

He’d sent his ID earlier, comming Sigma’s second in command to say that he wanted to have a look at the labs himself. He’d been one of the few people to ever have been exposed to what was locked inside. Airflow had approved his request, and no one queried why he would want to make sure everything was in order. Sigma knew him; that was enough.

One of the shuttles guarding the hull pinged him, a wordless request for his ID. Blast Off sent it along with the access code Airflow had provided. And that was it - no scan, no questions -they were through.

Slowing, he entered the almost-finished shell, and headed towards the scorched area of metal inside. It was empty of observers, and just as well. Puffing air from his reaction control system, Blast Off turned to dock on it.

“Take him and exit through my flight deck. And don’t touch anything. I mean it.” Blast Off said, hoping that, this once, Vortex would listen to him. It wasn’t him who Blast Off wanted to see affected.

Vortex merely nodded, and rather ungently helped Octans out of the crate. He snapped something at the senator, followed by a giggle, but Blast Off wasn’t listening.

The side door from his cockpit opened with a hiss. The sound made Vortex laugh and Octans’ engine whine.

Blast Off drank in his reactions. The senator deserved everything he was about to get.

The transformation was a little awkward, but finally Blast Off stood next to Vortex. The copter’s rotors twitched, his visor bright, but he didn’t speak.

The colourful large biohazard and cyberhazard signs might have been the reason he was waiting so patiently.

Octans looked as though he was about to faint.

Without a word, Blast Off flared his field against the console, conveying a hidden coded order. Then he had to type in a separate code, still active from the time HEX had last been in commission, and flare his field again before the door opened.

“What’s in there?” Vortex asked as they passed through. The atmosphere had taken a turn for the bleak, like the bunker when they’d got to Flame.

Blast Off opened the second door the same way. “Before they set the bomb, Octans sent his friends to HEX to look for a few things that were stored there.” He glared at the shivering senator. “I wonder how he got the knowledge they exist in the first place.”

The optics that looked so much like alien eyes widened.

Vortex nodded. “And to cover his tracks he blew her up,” he said. He leant in to Octans, and even Blast Off felt the ‘copter’s field flare with glee. “And then there’s the the attempts on Sigma’s life, the bombing of Luna Two. All those zombie supersoldiers-gone-wrong. He was clearly gearing up for something. Commercial monopoly on military contracts, maybe, Maybe even a coup, take over the senate, make himself Prime. I bet he’s regretting it now.”

Octans’ engine revved again, an unhealthy pathetic sound.

“We have two more doors to pass. Let’s go.”

They entered a heavy security lab. Most cameras were offline from the emergency break-up, but some still glowed with a pale green light. There was a T-junction ahead.

“Are you going to tell me what’s in here now?” Vortex seemed to be less excited, eying the warnings on the walls in the red light of the corridor.

“You go left.” Blast Off nodded, and grabbed Octans by an arm. “He’s coming with me.”

“Awww, but I wanna-”

“No!” Blast Off glared at Vortex, leaving no room for protest. “You most certainly don’t. Get in the guard booth and stay there.”

The door to the security room wasn’t looked. Blast Off heard it open and close behind him. He waited another few astroseconds to make sure Vortex really had made himself safe before he moved on.

Octans couldn’t speak, and Blast Off didn’t want him to. What use was it to have the answers to his questions. Why had Octans wanted this of all things from HEX? Why he’d chosen that particular path to cover his greed? Why would he make it look like a terrorist attack? It wouldn’t make sense to Blast Off, even if he did give Octans the chance to explain.

Three more doors, three more locks, and Blast Off begun to feel unwell.

They reached the final part of the corridor before the storage room, way too close for his tastes.

He let go of Octans’ arm. The senator looked up, and Blast Off punched him in the face. He could almost hear Vortex’s cheer from the security room.

Leaving the senator no time to recover, Blast Off headed back, making certain to lock and seal every door behind him.

“You really like setting up tension,” was the greeting from a grinning Vortex once Blast Off entered the room. Monitors showed the hallways they’d passed. Some were dark or flickering, and some showed an apparently empty room.

“Octans wanted something, and I just gave it to him.” Blast Off sat next to the ‘copter, and didn’t complain when Vortex leaned against him. “Do you remember the quarantine zone on Luna Two when my first symptoms showed?”

Vortex tilted his head.

“I thought this had got loose,” Blast Off said. “I vaguely remember telling you something about it.”

“You mentioned black wafting clouds and tar…” Vortex sounded doubtful.

Blast Off huffed and pressed a button. On screen, the last door opened, and Octans slowly stumble-stepped into the empty room. “Just watch.”

* * *

It took about a breem before Octans staggered to his feet, a hand on his dented head. He stilled, and began to look around the room as though he was searching for something. Only it wasn’t the methodical search of someone looking for a way out. His head turned swiftly, his optics trying to zoom. On his frame appeared tiny black spots that were only visible if you knew what to look for.

After three breems, he pressed his back against the wall, avoiding the floor. Another few moments and he tried to crawl up the wall. He crossed the room with jumps to the other side.

A little while later, he started moving his mouth like he was trying to yell. The black spots stuck like tar to his frame.

“He’s going nuts…” Vortex said, frowning. “Is this like the zombie plague?”

Blast Off shook his head. “Worse.”

“What is it?”

Blast Off shrugged; “We don’t know.” It didn’t have a name.

After a joor, Octans clawed his first optic out.

“Shame, I liked his optics…” Vortex sighed. “Could we get them later?” He looked up at Blast Off with a grin.

Blast Off shook his head. They were tainted. Nothing in the universe was going to make him go back in there. “No. It’s time to leave.”

Vortex fell in step beside Blast Off, waiting as he opened and closed each door in turn, on their route to the airlock. “What’s going to will happen to him?”

“The containment hull will be finished soon.” Blast Off explained. “And in three cycles, it will be deployed to the centre of our galaxy where it will burn up in a star. If he hasn’t killed himself by then, he’ll explode and melt before he dissolves.”

Vortex stared up at him, maybe in something like awe, but Blast Off wasn’t sure with Vortex grinning like that. His rotors were quivering as he said, “I’ll make sure never to get in your bad books.”

* * *

On the way back to Cybertron Vortex lounged on the flight deck, flicking through news channels on his internal feed. There was nothing about Octans yet, although Valence was there, standing behind another senator giving a press conference about the cleanup on Luna Two. It was live, with a lag of only a few astroseconds. It was fun to watch Valence stiffen as the comm came in, to see him feign attention on his colleague as he let it connect.

//You’re looking shiny today,// Vortex said.

Valence’s optics widened, then he seemed to get a grip on himself. //I’m sure half of Cybertron can see how shiny I currently am,// he said. //Is it done?//

//Done and dusted,// Vortex replied. //Use the opportunity well, I’ll be watching.// He cut the line, laughing as Valence tensed, fists balled.

“What’s so funny?” Blast Off said.

“Just something on the news.” Vortex stretched, rippling his energy field. The curve of Cybertron rose ahead of them, the lights of Iacon twinkling. “You never told me about Windcut,” he said.

“I don’t expect I ever shall.”

Vortex looked up into the nearest onboard camera. “You called me by his name,” he said. “I deserve to know why.”

“Deserve?”

“Yeah. Is he why you know all about rotaries?”

Blast Off rolled, his energy field flaring, prickling at Vortex’s rotor array. “You do want me to stay at the hotel tonight,” he commented.

Vortex wriggled against the seat, the prickling catching the sweet spot at the base of his rotor hub. “Not just tonight,” he said. “We’ve got the suite for a couple of days.” He folded his arms on his chest. “I thought you might want some recovery time.”

“How thoughtful,” Blast Off said in that deadpan way of his.

“I’m always thoughtful,” Vortex said, making his energy field ripple again. “And let’s face it, I give the best gifts.”

Blast Off didn’t answer, but his energy field took on a promising note.

“The absolute best,” Vortex repeated lazily. He watched the lights of Iacon grow steadily closer. “It’s another good reason to stick around in Kaon…” He grinned. “Hey, have you ever interfaced on atmospheric re-entry?”

Blast Off laughed and his energy field blazed, flooding Vortex’s sensor net. “Don’t be so impatient.”

* * *

Back at the hotel, Blast Off assented to the promised oil bath, and demonstrated exactly what he knew about rotaries. It had the desired effect, reducing Vortex to a moaning puddle of pleasure squirming in his lap.

It was worth it: partly for the sense of smug satisfaction, and partly to shut the other up.

It worked - aside from Vortex’s occasional utterances on the theme of “frag”, but Blast Off could live with that. Could enjoy it indeed. Very much. Just like the sharp surge of sensations through the interface.

Their frames heated the oil around them, and Vortex’s writhing was muted. Their scraping frames sounded like well-oiled bearings, with every part working perfectly. Blast Off’s fingers trailed easily along receptive sensors on the edge of Vortex’s rotors, his other hand playing with the hinges on the rotary’s hip while Vortex wrapped one arm around Blast Off’s neck. Vortex’s free hand teased the winglet on Blast Off’s upper arm, stroking along it, along the abrasive surface of its heat shield, coating it with oil.

“Frag, you’re hot,” Vortex said, his exposed vents working loudly, the others shut off beneath the surface of the bath.

Blast Off’s engine rumbled, and as a result Vortex’s stream picked up. He revved again on purpose, their feedback loop increasing and dragging them closer to overload.

“I like it when you do that,” Vortex muttered, stating the obvious considering Blast Off had access to everything.

He didn’t leave Vortex the chance to talk any more, and silenced him with a kiss. It was just in time; a stream of gasped curses left the other’s vocaliser against Blast Off’s lips.

Holding back some of the charge, Blast Off enjoyed being on the edge and stringing Vortex along, with the heliformer knowing very well what he was doing.

Vortex growled, frustrated and aroused, and Blast Off drank it in. He gave them another few astroseconds before he let loose, pushing all his charge into Vortex’s rotors, making it feel as though they were melting. Vortex overloaded, charge running back through the connection into Blast Off. Hot and heady and wonderfully intense, it swept Blast Off away with it.

He slid down the wall of the pool, his fingers digging hard into Vortex’s hip, bending the metal.

The smell of hot oil and warm metal was pleasing, and their mingled energy fields made the surface wrinkle as pleasure left them on their peak. It was over too soon, morphing into a post-overload rippling on their sensor nets. Blast Off sighed.

Vortex slumped, his chin on Blast Off’s shoulder, his rotor blades shuffling down so all four were dipped in oil.

“You don’t regret coming back with me to the hotel,” Vortex said. It was stated as a fact, and made Blast Off huff.

“You don’t either,” he retorted, responding as much to his words as to the nudge of smugness through the interface.

Vortex only giggled.

It was relaxing, the oil was warm and fluid enough so as not to stick too long to their frames, or to damage circuits. If only Vortex wasn’t starting to squirm again. The ‘copter shifted, and while his helm remained where it was, he shuffled his rotors, and his hands started groping.

Without thinking, Blast Off wrapped his hand around the rotor hub, his index finger stroking along the underside of one of the clamps that held the blades.

A shiver ran through Vortex, and he stilled. Satisfaction and mellowness were palpable through the connection, and Blast Off grinned when Vortex’s engine purred.

He considered flaring his field against the brackets; if Vortex responded the way past experience told him a rotary would respond, he’d get a completely different reaction that wasn’t any less exciting. Blast Off huffed to himself. He hadn’t been completely honest before. He hadn’t shown Vortex all he knew about rotaries. He would save some of this for later…

The thought made him frown. Later.

Then a hint of a smirk built on his lips as he traced down the full length of a rotor. The thin metal quivered under his touch, so responsive and so easily heated. Blast Off flared his field from his fingertips, and felt a shudder running down Vortex’s back. The ‘copter’s engine rumbled, and the squirming began anew.

Blast Off vented a huff to himself. It looked as though he’d made a decision. So what if he’d been here before with Windcut, all those vorns ago? Vortex wasn’t Windcut.The situation was different. Blast Off was a different person now. Neither he nor Vortex had a reason to get attached. There was just fulfilment. Fulfilment and pleasure, and the satisfaction of returning to a familiar frame.

All he had to do was keep a base in Kaon.

“It’s a yes,” he said.

Vortex looked up; he was drowsy, but his visor glowed brightly. He sent a query through the interface, and Blast Off let his smirk grow.

Tilting his head, Vortex stared. As the realisation hit, his visor lit with understanding, and he grinned back. “Good.”