Chromedome didn't want to be here, standing in some crummy market stall. A thick, unpleasant wetness hung in the air, threatening to clog his vents, and the damp smacking sounds the native lifeforms made when they spoke reminded Chromedome of exactly why the Autobot army looked down on organics.
At least most of them did. Chromedome had deleted all non-Cybertronian language files to free up more memory space, but Brainstorm's vocalizer produced squelches and splurts with sickening accuracy as he bartered with a blue-skinned alien with a long snout and too much tongue.
Eventually Brainstorm shook his head and swiveled away, striding out into the crowd with such speed that it took Chromedome a minute to process and follow, dodging aliens.
"Over here!" Brainstorm called, waving a hand above the crowd. As though Chromedome could miss him—a bright, almost neon orange flyer with an equally lurid blue faceplate and that ridiculous briefcase dangling from his wrist. Chromedome's paint job was more subtle, pastel hues of orange, green, and pink, but mecha-sapients were rare enough on this planet that he received his share of interested or cautious looks.
Not that he cared what some squishy aliens thought. Mostly he was peeved with himself for letting Brainstorm talk him into this excursion. 'It will be fun!' Brainstorm had said. 'A chance to get off the ship!' Brainstorm had said. Had he mentioned anything about Chromedome trailing after Brainstorm, carrying the hyperactive scientist's many, varied purchases? No. Yet here he was.
Ignoring the aliens who scrambled out of his path, Chromedome stomped over to Brainstorm. He hoped the MTO, who also wore a facemask, could read the tension in his shoulders, the hostility in his optics as he stared accusingly past the gadgets and gizmos stacked in his arms.
"Finally," Brainstorm said cheerfully, examining a large red crystal before dumping it in Chromedome's arms, followed by a purple one. They were heavier than they looked.
Brainstorm threw a handful of shanix on the table and was on the move again before the alien had even finished scooping up the money.
Following his zigzagging path, Chromedome staggered into a faded red tent. An alien the shopkeep stood to the side, her three-fingered hands gripped together in an attitude that suggested both servitude and anxiety as Brainstorm shook something that looked a little like an old fashioned clock—if a clock had three faces—next to his audial. He dumped it on the table when he noticed Chromedome had caught up with him.
"I think we're going to find it here!" he announced, gesturing to the assortment of gears, wires, and (mostly broken) components scattered over the thick purple rugs covering the tables.
"Find what?" Chromedome asked. He wished this alien specialized in chairs instead of tech. "What's your big idea this time?"
"But you've invented five of those already."
"Seven actually. But this one's going to be special. Because this one's going to be . . ." He drew himself up dramatically, flinging an arm skyward. "The nuclear empirical rifle!"
He held the pose, waiting.
Chromedome, hating himself, finally gave in. "What's the nuclear empirical rifle?"
"Ah ha ha, wouldn't you like to know!"
As Brainstorm ducked down to rummage in a bin beneath the cloth-covered table, Chromedome stared balefully at the back of his head. He was glad he knew the name of the stupid invention, it would make it that much easier to trace and delete every thought of it from Brainstorm's mind later.
The scientist must have finally sensed his ire because he popped his head up. "What's the matter, you'd rather be back on the ship with your lover boy?"
"Prowl's not my . . . that."
"Oh yeah? 'Cause I think he thinks he is."
"Just finish buying your fragging junk so I can get back to—" Get back to what? "Just hurry up."
"Yeah, yeah, hold your hydrolium-horses . . . Now what have we here?" Brainstorm pulled up a box that rattled in his grip. "Dataslugs!"
Sure enough, a variety of colorful datasticks were sliding around in the box, along with a thin silver disc.
"So what?" Chromedome said. "We've got plenty of data storage on the ship. Those are probably loaded with viruses."
"Au contraire, we don't have anything like these." Brainstorm waggled a red datastick in front of Chromedome's face. A thin sliver of its casing had cracked off, revealing impossibly tiny circuitry and what might have been a tiny, tightly folded leg.
"All right, so they're Disposables. That's even worse. They're still loaded with viruses, probably, plus you have to feed them."
Brainstorm wasn't listening. He hugged the box to his chest with one hand, as he fished five shanix out of subspace and dropped it on the table.
"C'mon," Brainstorm said to Chromedome over his shoulder, starting for the door flap. "I want to see if—hey?"
The vendor, having snagged his arm in her long damp fingers, was pulling him back towards the table. Brainstorm jerked his arm free, frowning.
She stabbed her finger forcefully between the box and the shanix, squelching angrily. Brainstorm gooshed heatedly back. She grabbed the box, trying to pull it away from him.
Brainstorm pulled out a gun and shot her.
Chromedome shifted his armful of junk. "Brainstorm—"
Brainstorm threw down the gun, pulled out a second gun, and brandished it as flame spewed out its barrel.
"Never mind," said Chromedome as the tent caught fire.
Mnemosurgery didn't work on organics. So instead of modifying a few memories and strolling away, Chromedome was forced to flee from the ever-growing inferno and the eyewitnesses it was attracting. Gidgets and coils of wire bounced out of his arms as he sprinted after Brainstorm, who was bounding over tables and shoving past aliens.
"I think we did it," Brainstorm panted, slowing to a trot as they approached the ship.
"If by 'did it' you mean burned down the bazaar, then yeah."
"That could have been anyone."
Chromedome didn't deign to refute this. He was tired. "Here." He shoved the crystals and other junk into Brainstorm's arms.
Brainstorm sandwiched the items between his arms, the dataslug box on top. "Hey, where are you going?"
"But it's the middle of the day."
"We're in space, it's always the middle of the day somewhere." He turned down the corridor towards his hab-suite.
"But I can't complete my experiment without you!" Brainstorm called.
Chromedome was motivated to walk faster.
He palmed open the door to his quarters . . . and froze. There was Prowl, lounging on his berth with fingers cupping the stem of an elegantly tapered glass. His black and gold plating gleamed under the shimmer of the high grade in his hand.
Chromedome considered returning to the bazaar and throwing himself into the fire but it was too late. Prowl's red optics brightened at the sight of him and a smirk curled his lips.
"Well, hello, Chromey," Prowl cooed. Even his romantic overtures sounded threatening, like it was a precursor to snapping off a few fingers. Maybe he was into that.
"Hi . . . Prowlie," Chromedome said. Had he ever called him that? "So . . . so I haven't seen you in, wow, a vorn and a half? What brings you here?"
"Oh, you know. Business . . ." Prowl sat up and leaned forward as the gauzy sheet . . . had he brought it with him? . . . that he'd draped over himself slid away to bunch at his hips. "And pleasure. I've been waiting for you."
"Yeah, I can see that . . . How long are you gonna be on the ship?"
"A while." Prowl scooted to the side and patted the place beside him on the berth. "I might transfer here permanently."
Oh my god. "I can't wait." Chromedome sat beside him. One arm gingerly encircled the interrogation expert while he hid the other behind his thigh, letting the long, tapering needles spiral from his fingertips. "Hey babe, could you pour me some of that fancy energon?"
As soon as Prowl leaned over, Chromedome lunged.
"I'm here to help with your stupid experiment."
"It's not stupid," Brainstorm said, looking up from the microscope he'd been peering through. "But also, yessss."
"Please stop rubbing your hands together like that," Chromedome said. "It's creepy."
"Creepy like your lover boy."
"Don't. Even. Start." Chromedome had just carried Prowl back to his own room and no less than three bots had caught him in the act. He'd wiped the incident from their minds, but it had only worsened the throbbing in his helm and the general disarray of his emotional subsystems. After the third one, he'd actually fragging cried, like some soppy Decepticon. The Prowl memories, spilling from their unlocked partition, resisted his attempts to shove the tangle back in their box. "So what do you need help with?"
"The nuclear empirical rifle!"
"Let me rephrase. What specifically do you need help with?"
"Two things!" Brainstorm scuttled to the end of the lab, returning with blueprints which he unfurled across the table. "First, I need you to make bullets that can read people's minds."
"That's physically impossible."
"Second," Brainstorm brandished a little blue dataslug, "I need you to determine if these are good or evil."
"Good or evil," Brainstorm repeated, like that explained anything.
Chromedome didn't want to delve into anyone's mind right now. Not with the taste of his and Prowl's first kiss on his lips . . . the ghost of his fingers on his helm fins . . . the freshened memory of cold nights spent curled away from each other, separated by a distance far beyond limits of the bed where they seethed, not together, but concurrently . . .
"Let's do the bullet thing first."