Dust gritted over Skywarp's plating as he handed his flight log to the overseer, keeping his optics wide and innocent. He was the last one in. The other freight-bots had already hung up their harnesses and now sat under the meager shade of the lean-to, nursing their rations or sprawling with wings fanned wide to expel heat.
The lean-to, corrugated tin propped on simple struts, could fit everybody if they squeezed together. In the winter they huddled tightly, warmed by the collective heat of their engines. But it was summer now.
Despite the lengthening shadows the evening refused to cool. A thick mugginess hung in the air, clogging vents and fouling tempers. Mecha were already snapping and shoving at each other to make space. No one would tolerate close contact tonight.
The canteen was set next to the cargo field and behind the lean-to, a long low building with nothing inside but an automatic energon dispenser in the back and long tables with benches bolted to the floor, offset a little too far from the tables to be comfortable. As though anyone wanted to steal their stupid benches.
(Because they went through the trouble of bolting them down, Skywarp had, in fact, once stolen one of their stupid benches. It had taken most of the night. He smirked every time he thought of it, buried in secret out in the sand.)
The canteen was locked at night, and that did make some sense since energon was about the only thing worth stealing out here. Was it still open? It was pretty late . . .
Skywarp craned his neck, then remembered his pay and shifted his optics back to the overseer. He was met a flat stare which he guessed had been aimed at him for some time. Oh well.
"So, can I have my credits now?" Skywarp asked, putting his spindly arms behind his back and twisting back and forth on his pedes, the picture of innocence. This sometimes (rarely) worked.
It did not work today.
"You were late at three checkpoints."
"Yeah, well, it was windy," Skywarp said. Actually the air had been dead-still all the way from Kabron to Pyra . . . which did make flying harder, but the overseer was a forklift. Best to keep things simple for grounders. "Everyone was slow, so what?"
"They weren't three hours late! Only you, you lazy pile of scrap!" His voice lowered to a growl, which would have been plenty unpleasant minus the fact that he was twice Skywarp's height and three times his mass. "You did that thing again, didn't you?"
"Thing?" Skywarp scratched his helm in a show of confusion. He wished the overseer would finish shouting so he could refuel. "What thing?"
"Your trick." The disgust in his voice was evident as he pushed over a handful of credits which even Skywarp, who was no whiz at numbers, deemed pitiful. "You'd better not have broken any of the goods."
Skywarp swept the credits up, his wings bristling indignantly. "I didn't!"
"Good. 'Cause if you did, it's coming out of your next payment."
Skywarp couldn't think of a retort so he just spun on his skinny little heel and stomped away to stow his flight harness.
His steps had slowed by the time he reached the lockers by the cargo field. He maybe had heard some clattering when he'd gone back for the cargo the second time. And maybe the box had leaned unevenly in the harness after that, like a bunch of shards had slid over to one side . . . But was that his fault? Okay, kind of, but also no! He'd just been trying to speed things up. He'd have made so many credits if it'd worked . . .
Oh well. One thing at a time. A warning was flashing on his HUD. Fuel level low: 25%. Numbers were just numbers, but in this case they were backed up by an ache in his fuel tank.
He trotted around the lean-to and regarded the canteen. The metal shutter was down over the door. Closed.
Skywarp nibbled on the edge of his finger, his sand-blasted wings waggling in indecision. His other hand clenched his meager pay tightly to his chest.
The smart thing to do would be to ignore his hunger and wait till morning.
He snuck a quick glance over his shoulder, then disappeared with a soft vwop. A sparkle of purple light accompanied him as he teleported into the canteen.
Fuel level low: 15%, his HUD complained. He dismissed it, likewise ignoring the exhaustion that washed through his system. The coins were still in his fist, thank Primus. He should've put them in his subspace beforehand. Dumb. But also, dumb luck.
He approached the energon dispenser. It took up the entire wall and its bulk extended far back, leaving just a narrow gap between its top and the ceiling, where clickroaches scuttled unmolested. Once a month a shuttle landed to refill it. In cities they had tiny dispensers that could sit on a countertop; that's what the shuttles said. Sounded weird.
Overhead the last stain of sunset was visible through the crosshatching of wire lining the top of the walls, the only ventilation the building had to offer. The dying light gave the energon dispenser a subtle glow. Skywarp's vents whirred tiredly, cycling stuffy air.
"I don't get why we can't have windows," Skywarp said aloud, plucking an empty cube from the stack beside the dispenser.
He set the flimsy metal cube under the spigot. The coin slot in the center of the machine was perfectly sized for a credit, which clunked out of view as he twisted the handle. A thin stream of energon splattered into the cube. Skywarp fed the mechanism every coin he had.
As he waited for the last drop of energon to shake loose from the spout, he assessed his meal. Half a cube. Not great, but what could he do? He slapped a lid on and crimped it into place.
There was nothing else for him here, but somehow he couldn't move. Too tired, he guessed. His optics were fixed on the dispenser. Its sloshing guts held enough fuel to fill him. Enough to drown him. Frag, that would be the best way to go. Sinking in energon as it poured over his face, into his mouth. Laughing as he drank and drank and drank and sank.
He wiped his drool away with the back of his hand and turned away. The canteen was locked up and the overseer knew about his 'trick'. Skywarp was dumb, but he wasn't that dumb.
He squeezed his optics shut and prepared to teleport, then remembered the cube still in his hands. He'd been lucky with his credits, he wasn't about to repeat that gamble. Not with energon. He stuffed the cube into his subspace and, proud of having avoided a potential frag-up, warped out.
His self-congratulations lasted until he landed outside. His vision flickered to blackness as his legs folded out from under him.
Red letters flashed in the void. EMERGENCY! Fuel level critical: 5% Stasis lockdown imminent.
Aw no. Why didn't he ever think this slag through?
Fumbling the energon cube out of subspace, he pierced the lid with his thumb and brought it to his mouth, chugging the liquid in two gulps. His systems lit up, his sight flickered back on, and the feeling came back to his legs, which were splayed awkwardly. Fortunately no one was around to see; he'd warped to the far side of the canteen.
Skywarp sat up slowly, still hugging the cube to his chest. He tilted it at a diagonal angle as he watched the last stain of sunset fade away. After a few minutes he shifted the cube to the crook of his arm, his claws dipping to scrape out the congealed dregs. When there was nothing more in the cube he kicked it away. And when he'd licked the last of the flavor off his fingers he leaned back on his arms, not caring how the sand clung to his digits.
Another notification flashed into his field of vision. He let the HUD's message linger a while, overlaid on the stars lifting into the darkening sky and the crescent moons rising thin and sharp as a saber-serpent's teeth.
Fuel level low: 24%.